Road test: 2017 Volvo S90

We check out Volvo’s latest range-topping premium saloon.

Volvo’s S90 T6 AWD Inscription Plus, which has a twin-charged, 2.0L flat-four engine. Last year was the first time in 50 years that Volvo didn’t have Sweden’s best-selling car. Christopher Pike / The National
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Back in 1982, I bawled my 2-year-old eyes out when my parents sold the beloved family car – a beautiful old green 1974 Triumph 2500TC. I probably would have cried even harder had I known what was to follow. It was being part-exchanged for a maroon Volvo 340. Their intentions were pure: to jettison style in favour of buying the safest car they could afford to keep myself (and a year later, my younger brother) from automotive harm. A crash in the 2500 might well have been comparable to being a fly crushed in a Coca-Cola can. It must have been a tough choice aesthetically for a couple who had previously owned two-seater sports cars (also Triumphs: a TR4 and a GT6).

A lot has changed since then – chiefly that Volvo no longer designs cars with set squares in the sole pursuit of safety over any semblance of eye-arresting styling. But one thing has not: my father, three decades and numerous car changes later (including a second maroon 340), has never stopped buying Volvos. What inspires that kind of brand loyalty?

The S90 arrives in the UAE against a backdrop of changing times for the Gothenburg-born, Chinese-owned manufacturer – its name perhaps a nod to the fact that Volvo Cars hit 90 years old last month. For the first time in half a century, it wasn’t behind the annual top-selling model in Sweden. That honour was stolen by the Volkswagen Golf.

Volvo has always stood alone in its visual impact, but here there’s more than a hint of BMW 7 Series about the bulging front grille, while the back, once a nod to a boxy design past in its predecessor, the S80, could at half-glance be from a Genesis or similar upstart premium-saloon competitor. Despite the mini blue-and-yellow flags stitched into my test model’s seats, there’s a nagging notion that Volvo’s Far Eastern paymasters and a styling shift to take things to the German and Japanese big boys may have erased some of the brand’s maverick charm.

The nomenclature of Volvo’s range has long needed Alan Turing-level skills to fully decipher, so don’t think that, for example, my test car, an S90 T6 AWD Inscription Plus, has six cylinders or, indeed, gears. It’s a twin-charged, 2.0L flat-four, which helps explain why despite kicking out a healthy 320hp, it doesn’t make much of an impressive noise while doing so, even in dynamic mode. When you do give it a bit of oomph, you almost feel guilty, like one of your parents is about to tell you off for treating a Volvo in such a manner, even though it will do 0 to 100kph in a perfectly passable 5.9 seconds.

Volvo is rather proud of its Pilot Assist technology, but I find it rather disconcerting to be wrestling the wheel against its lane-keeping tech, which is a little too easy to engage while fiddling with the cruise control. That it exists isn’t the problem, per se, more that the brutish effect is halfway towards the sensation of turning off your power steering, which could be a worrisome intrusion should you be required to make a fast, unexpected evasive manoeuvre out of your lane.

One fact that should help avoid such situations in the first place, however, is that the visibility is good all around. And naturally, this being a Volvo, it has sufficient safety features to fill a novella, including but not limited to: side airbags, blind-spot and all manner of other driver alerts, whiplash and side-impact protection, tyre-pressure monitoring and that aforementioned anti-falling-asleep-and-totalling-everything Pilot Assist.

The interior isn’t short on Nappa leather or walnut trim, while the infotainment system is excellently intuitive, and you have to admire Volvo’s chutzpah in naming one of the audio settings “Gothenburg concert hall”. The only thing inside that looks remotely cheap is the odd little silver drive-mode selector near the gearstick – at some point in the future, it might well find out its father was a disco ball. Everything else, though, is put together with a reassuring resilient feel that inspires both confidence and pride in the big Volvo.

So after a week of basically being my dad, would I buy an S90? For me, a mid-30-something sans children, it’s probably not a fair question. But were I in the market for an outwardly sensible large premium saloon with a little bit of a kick to keep me entertained when the children aren’t in the back, it would sure tick a lot of boxes.

Volvo Red Key

If handing over your four-wheeled pride and joy to hotel valets or anybody other than yourself evokes vivid nightmares of scratched paintwork, nasty dings or unscheduled joyrides, Volvo has an innovative answer. Its Red Key system, which is available for the S90, V90 and XC90, revolves around a brightly coloured second key that can be given to other drivers. Using it will automatically reduce the car’s top speed to 120kph, as well permanently turn on a stack of safety features, including the maximum distance on the adaptive cruise control. Red Key is available for Dh700 from the UAE Volvo dealer Trading Enterprises.

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