Road Test Review – 2020 Volvo S90 R-Design – By Carl Malek

In the world of high end luxury cars, marques such as BMW, Mercedes Benz, Audi and more can usually be found flooding the parking lots of shopping malls, bustling downtowns, and those elegant high end restaurants. This is due to how well built they are, as well as the love affair that many loyalists have with their elegant charms, state of the art technology, and luxury trappings. As a result, they present a formidable bar for others to surpass. One such contender looking to do this is Volvo, which has recently mounted a renewed effort at adding ample amounts of luxury to go along with its impressive track record in vehicle safety tech. But can the S90 be the alternative flagship that can draw buyers away from Germany’s best? Or is it not quite ready for prime time viewing?


Swedish Simplicity:

When one takes a look at the elegant styling of the S90, simplicity will arguably be the first thing that they will notice. Unlike many German offerings that have sacrificed design for their attempts at conforming with ever changing safety regulations, the S90 still retains a very clean design language that is refreshingly simple yet elegant. Volvo designers lengthened the dash to axle ratio of the car to help provide rear wheel drive proportions in a package that is distinctively front wheel drive. The flanks are just as clean, and the perky rear end lends a degree of athleticism though the massive taillights are a matter of taste depending on who is viewing the Volvo from this particular angle. Our tester arrived with the R-Design package which brings a number of sporty cues to the big four door.

These include stylish five spoke 20-inch wheels, unique mirror caps, as well as a unique grille with all of these elements being slathered in sleek black accents. They all managed to mesh nicely with the blue paint that adorned our tester, and the “Thor’s Hammer” style headlights manage to make a very distinctive impression when the Volvo was driven at night, and our tester even featured directional cornering lights. When viewed against rivals, the Volvo does have an edge over the Audi A6 and the BMW 5-Series, but the Mercedes E-Class is a very formidable challenge, and in this regard, the S90 ultimately does come up a bit short, but its effort at toppling it is impressive. We suspect that this fact will not stop Volvo loyalists from checking it out for themselves, and when paired side by side with its more utility focused cousin the V90 wagon, we think that they make a very potent pair.


Elegant Interior Needs Better Infusion Of Technology:

The emphasis on sleekness and clean design traits continues on into the cabin which will be very familiar to those that have spent time behind the wheel of the XC90 SUV as well as the V90. This is no accident, since the trio share the same basic platform, and that translates into a wide and spacious cabin that offers plenty of head and leg room. R-Design touches bleed their way into the interior with a special R-Design honed steering wheel greeting the hands. Make your way into the cabin and you will also be greeted by the slightly revised seats that offer more support and even a special fabric insert in the middle to help keep occupants in place during spirited driving. Metallic mesh style trim is scattered about, and several other tweaks are splashed here and there for a more distinct look. Build quality here is very good, with creamy smooth leather being accented by upscale speaker grilles and a high degree of precision and quality that is baked into the finer details.

Our tester arrived with the optional Bowers & Wilkins premium audio system which boasts 19 speakers, as well as a trick subwoofer that can pulsate huge amounts of air but without intruding too much on storage space. The trademark item here however is the center dash mounted tweeter which is supposed to reduce sound reflection from the windshield. Naturally, with a sound system as potent as this on hand, we had to do our thing, and unleash our resident audiophile (and part time music nerd) Emily to see just how good the system really was. She came away impressed after her exposure, but was quick to point out that the built in Gothenburg mode works best with certain kinds of music. Rock and roll for example sounded out of place to her when the stereo was placed in this particular mode. Play the right track, and you are instantly transported into a world of perfect sound and immersion. Rear occupants are not left out of the fun either, but taller occupants will have to live with tight headroom due to the sloping rear roofline.

Other goodies include laminated glass, quad-zone climate control, rear sunshades, and even cushion extensions for the front seats that provides extra thigh support. As one can imagine, the list of standard equipment is longer than the menu at your local Golden Corral and Volvo has taken great strides to make sure that even the base Momentum trim is well stocked with standard goodies. As a bonus, Volvo designers even paid subtle homage to a key moment in its history, with the plates for the three point seatbelts featuring a stamped “Since 1959” logo. That is the year when Volvo engineer Niles Bohlin invented the modern three point safety harness which changed the game in terms of occupant safety, and has saved an untold amount of lives in vehicle accidents.

A price is to be paid though, and it emerges in the usability of some of the technology features in the big Volvo. For example, some of the buttons on the steering wheel use odd symbols, while the 12.3 inch Sensus infotainment system balances out its crisp screen quality with cluttered menus and laggy responses when accessing each one. That said, the latter item actually appears to be improved here, with our tester appearing to have slightly quicker responses than the V90 we tested some time ago.


Twin-charging Your Daily Commute:

The addition of four cylinder engine offerings has become an inevitability in the luxury car segment, but unlike other entries, the Volvo S90 is an all four cylinder affair. But in this instance, that is not a bad thing, with Volvo engineers bringing a number of unusual solutions to the model lineup. The 250 horsepower T5 model was dropped, and the base engine is now a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0 liter four cylinder. Also known as twin-charging, the technique is supposed to infuse the benefits of both supercharging and turbocharging into one cohesive package. We have seen twin-charging used before mostly in the aftermarket, with the modification being a popular choice for owners of older GM W-bodies with the 3.8 liter V6. Volvo’s use of the combination is the first we have seen in the U.S. market, and is also one of only a handful of companies to produce a twin-charged model globally.

Our tester arrived with this potent engine which makes an impressive 316 horsepower and a commendable 295 lb-ft of torque. This impressive showing allows the S90 to make the sprint to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, but buyers thinking that the R-Design package automatically transforms the S90 into a sport sedan will be in for a bit of disappointment. The car is quiet and comfortable, but that also translates into handling that is unremarkable for the segment, with the steering in our car delivering very little feedback and road feel even when placed into sport mode. We also experienced some occasional delay when the supercharger transitioned into the turbocharger in acceleration runs, with a moment of lag present before the turbocharger spools up.

An eight speed automatic is the sole transmission available, and plays a key role in enhancing the Volvo’s performance, with the unit delivering smooth and crisp shifts. We rarely caught it sleeping on the job, and even when placed into sport mode, the transmission was a very good dance partner. But while the S90 is not the most sport oriented offering out there, it does redeem itself in everyday commuting, with the adjustable air suspension doing a good job soaking up many of the bumps and divots that dotted our commute.


Value Quotient:


A key part of the Volvo’s appeal is its innate ability to undercut many of its benchmark rivals when it comes to pricing. Base Momentum models have a sticker of $51,195, with the R-Design and the range topping Inscription models sharing the slightly higher $54,295 entry fee. Our R-Design tester commanded a bit of a premium, and when some of its optional extras were factored into the equation, our tester came out to a final sticker of $64,290 which might seem only slightly more affordable when compared to similarly equipped BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class models. However, the devil is in the details, and when you take out a lot of the optional frills, you could get an R-Design for a couple grand less than the fore-mentioned German competition. Another contender is the Lincoln Continental. While that model has also seen a drop in sales due to the SUV craze, it does have the same mission in life as the Volvo, and it even comes with a nifty limited production model that uses the same suicide doors seen in the 1960’s era model. But the Reserve model has a higher $59,870 base price, and that figure can easily swell past $65,000 with options equipped.


In short, the Volvo is an example of how to make a statement without broadcasting un-needed attention to yourself. It is subtle, yet it manages to check many of the boxes that are required for a proper luxury car offering. If you like to blend in with a small pinch of Swedish flair to your luxury car flavored cup of tea, then the 2020 Volvo S90 R-Design might be just the car for you.