Every car nowadays has to be some other dumb thing. “It’s not a car, it’s a lounge,” they say. “It’s not a car, it’s a fighter jet,” they bray, ignoring the fact that fighter jets primarily exist to kill people. Cars are active “urban utility lifestyle vehicles,” or “technology.” But what if—and I know this sounds crazy—what if a car was just really good at being a car? That’s the 2017 Volvo S90.
(Full Disclosure: Volvo wanted us to drive the S90 so bad that we asked for it, and they gave us one with a full tank of fuel.)
It’s deeply strange that we’ve even gotten to this point. It used to be that a car was a car and that was fine. You could use it to get places, you could use it to have fun, and if you were really lucky and had a bit of cash, it could do both of those things and also it would be comfortable and look really good all at the same time.
But now, everything is different. Our biggest luxury limousines need to set a Nurburgring track time. Our bright red muscle cars must also be disturbingly, disconcertingly good at going around a corner whilst being lit up on the inside like an Ibiza nightclub. It’s not a car, it’s a lounge. It’s not a car, it’s a “mobility solution,” whatever that means.
The automotive world is lost and despondent, for it has forgotten what it means to be a car. To simply get you where you need to go, occasionally have some fun in it, be quite comfortable, and look damn classy while doing it. A car that when everyone sees it, doesn’t make anyone think “Oh wow, they’ve got a lot of money,” or “Oh wow, they are having problems with their sex parts.” A car that everyone simply knows means you are a person who makes good decisions.
The new Volvo S90 is that one good decision.
It’s so hard to find a car nowadays that’s classy as hell. A Mercedes? Well, everyone will judge you as an alter-kocker who just wanted a Mercedes. A BMW? You just want to show everyone how well you’re doing at your dad’s fund. An Acura? A Lexus? You’ve firmly embraced the suburban lifestyle, and with a few exceptions you’re now just waiting for the sweet release of death.
But a Volvo? Now there’s something that just feels right.
The headlights evoke Thor’s hammer, elucidating quiet strength. The badge simply conveys an interest in safety and good design. The rest of it is well-proportioned and fine. The taillights are completely, revoltingly atrocious, demonstrating the sort of humility necessary to live a complete life as a human being and not some twat who can’t be bothered to stop when they’ve run over a peasant.
Inside, it’s similarly wonderful. Everything is bathed in the perfect combination of soft leather, unvarnished wood, or demure aluminum. There’s no mood lighting meant solely to convince your passengers how purple you are, no shiny, plastic wood that belongs in another era.
And those seats, while heavenly and divine, are no Volvo S60 seats, which are the best seats ever invented. But the cows that so selflessly gave their lives to swaddle your bottom must have clearly been pretty stress-free, considering how soft their skins are.
Even the key—which isn’t really a key anymore, more of just an electronic brick thing, but still, the key!—is covered in the loveliest little bit of wood.
Which is much better than making your key fob in the shape of your car, or whatever. That always reminded me of people who used to change their computer cursor to a picture of their dog. A car-shaped key fob is neat to show people for all of about three seconds, until you then realize how much of a dork you are and you’ve now got to carry this oddly-shaped lump in your pocket all day.
No, make it out of wood, and make it square. Your greasy fingers will thank you.
Oh, and the trunk is big enough to fit one full-sized Raph.
The Volvo S90 won’t set anyone’s hair on fire, at least until it arrives in Polestar form. It’s primarily set up for comfort and cruising from hither to yon, and that’s fine. I’m not going to begrudge a Volvo for being, well, a Volvo. That’s not the point.
But it’s still got enough oomph to keep you awake, with 316 horsepower coming from the twin-charged (that’s turbocharged and supercharged) 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
Volvo claims a zero to 60 mph time of 5.7 seconds, which I have no reason to doubt, and that’s a mighty fast hustle compared to the Volvo’s of yore. Even the Volvo V70R, one of the most spicy oddball Volvos to come out in the past 20 years, managed to comparatively plod along, taking about three quarters of a second longer to get to the same highway speed.
Which means this staid-looking Swede can actually give you a firm press into the seat when you truly demand it.
And while a four-cylinder twin-charged engine sounds like it’d be raucous and clattery and terrible, somehow it isn’t. It’s smooth as hell. There’s no lag whatsoever, owing to the supercharger, and the transition to the turbo is completely seamless. It even sounds alright.
The steering is a tad on the numb side, as this is more of a large person’s business car than a Porsche 911 GT3RS, but it’s so quiet and, well, nice, that I’m not exactly going to complain.
The Volvo’s real party piece, however, is all the technology inside. There’s a clear and bright heads-up display telling you everything you need to know, and not a thing more, which is good. Volvo is still, reassuringly, making cars that are safer than a Nissan Tsuru, and that’s a bit of technological wonderment as well.
And much like its stablemate, the Volvo XC90, the S90 features a big iPad-like thing in the center stack that’s as easy to use and navigate even while driving as, well, an iPad.
It’s also got the same Gothenburg Concert Hall sound setting, which is the best technical automotive gimmick since the steering wheel. Crank it up as far as you can bear it and it’s like having your eardrums repeatedly bashed it with a satin-covered mallet.
I highly recommend it.
The only thing truly disappointing about this car then, is Pilot Assist, Volvo’s semi-autonomous system. It first debuted last year in the Volvo XC90, and when it was working properly (which it had trouble doing), it only worked up to 30 miles per hour.
Color me excited when I heard about the second-generation of the system debuting in this year’s S90. Gone would be the sudden short stops. Gone would be the veering into other lanes and concrete highway dividers. Gone would be the sphincter-clenching fear every time I pressed the big button, and gone would be the constant reminders to glue my hands to the wheel, lest I think that a car meant to drive itself would actually drive itself.
Boy howdy was I wrong.
In fact, on highways like the Southern State Parkway on Long Island, it felt very much the same as the first iteration of the system in the XC90, except now I got to experience it all the way at highway speeds and somewhat beyond.
For the record, the last time I made noises about Pilot Assist’s shortcomings, Volvo took pains to remind me that Pilot Assist isn’t meant to replace highway driving just yet. It’s mostly meant to help you relax on big, straight highways like the ones in Nebraska, or in stop-and-go traffic.
Which is fine, as neither of those are truly “driving.” Though I’m still confused as to why I must keep my hands on the wheel, as that’s a bit like cruise control where you still need your foot on the accelerator pedal.
Is that enough to sink this car? Hell no. The Volvo S90 is well and truly great, and is a return to the big Volvo sedans we’ve always wanted. It’s good to drive, it’s a great place to be, and no one will think you’re a dork. Autonomous driving systems still have a ways to go, and no one besides Tesla has been able to come remotely close to mastering it yet.
The one we tested came in at $64,405, plus a few taxes and fees, and if I was spending that money I’d be thrilled. It’s the car you always dreamed of when you just wanted a car, and nothing else.
Engine: 2.0-liter inline twin-charged four
Power: 316 HP at 5,700 RPM/300 LB-FT at 2,200 RPM
Transmission: Eight-Speed automatic
0-60 Time: 5.7 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 133 MPH (claimed)
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 4,012 pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 22 City/31 Highway (Volvo Estimate)
MSRP: $46,950 base, $56,445 for the T6 Inscription