Sweden’s two great carmakers, Saab and Volvo, have met very different fates. The former was declared bankrupt and production ended in 2014. The latter, on the other hand, is experiencing a glorious renaissance, funded by Chinese money and spearheaded by the brilliant XC90 SUV. Swede dreams, indeed.
While the XC90 is Volvo’s halo model, its traditional strength lies in spacious, safe and stoutly sensible estates – cars like the V90, in fact. However, ‘sensible’ doesn’t necessarily mean utilitarian. This luxurious family holdall moves Volvo upmarket, out of the hinterland between mainstream and premium, and into direct battle with Audi, BMW, Jaguar and MercedesBenz.
Prices for the V90 start from £34,555, with a choice of two fourcylinder diesel engines, plus front or four wheel drive. “What, no sixcylinder?” cry BMW drivers in affronted unison, but they can wait for the 407hp T8 ‘Twin engine’ hybrid due early 2017. Besides, the Volvo is more about relaxed progress than clipping apexes – as I’m about to discover.
My test route wends along Spain’s Costa del Sol, past Malaga, Torremolinos, Benidorm and other noted haunts of the expat retiree and East End ne’er-do-well. The sun is scorching, but the V90 is an oasis of air conditioned calm. Its interior is genuinely premium, with open-pore wood, knurled metal trim and plenty of sumptuous leather. And Volvo seats really are the best in the business. I’ve sat in less comfortable armchairs.
The V90 inherits its large, portraitoriented touchscreen from big brother XC90. Its swipe-and-scroll operation will feel instantly familiar to anyone used to a smartphone – so everyone – or you can simply replicate your iPhone screen via Apple CarPlay (the rival Android Auto system follows soon).
My only complaint with the controls is the lack of a separate click-wheel controller – as favoured by the German car brands – which makes it harder to stay focused on the road.
While I’m grumbling, I should also mention the boot. Volvo estates have oft been the transport of choice for middle-class labradors, but the V90’s sleek, sloping tailgate eats into its rear luggage space. Volvo quotes 723 litres with the rear seats up, or 1,526 litres with them folded flat. Compare that to 560/1,670 litres in the BMW 5 Series Touring, or 660/1,950 litres in the cheaper Skoda Superb Estate. Unlike Volvos of old, you can’t have two pop-up rear seats in the boot either. If you want to seat seven passengers, you’ll need an XC90.
Volvo says it expects the entry level 190hp D4 diesel to take around 70 per cent of sales, but the 235hp D5 version was the only one available for me to test out. However, a compressed air system called Powerpulse keeps the turbo spinning to deliver punchy performance even from low revs. The engine lacks the smoothness of the best six cylinder diesels, but it’s commendably quiet. Your passengers won’t even notice the difference.
Said passengers may not appreciate the amount of bodyroll when cornering, though, nor how the automatic gearbox gets indecisive if rushed. Switching to Dynamic mode sharpens up the chassis, but makes the steering feel inconsistent.
For a laid-back cruise along the Costa del Sol, there’s the Pilot Assist, a semi-autonomous driving system that keeps you a set distance from the car in front, nudging the steering to stay within the white lines.
The V90 is a convincing alternative to the default German models, even if it hardly rewrites the rulebook on estate cars. It may not have the ‘lifestyle’ kudos of an SUV, but if you have a stressful commute, 2.4 children to ferry around at weekends and a labrador, it marries its practicality with enough style to slot seamlessly into a hectic urban life.