2018 Volvo S90 T5 AWD Review - Luxury With An 'L' VIN

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Many years ago, a friend of mine married the daughter of a local real estate kingpin. She was loud and large and her taste, as they say, was all in her mouth. She had her father’s friends build her a massive McMansion encased in beige stucco and filled to the brim with the latest furniture from Pottery Barn and gold-plated bathroom fixtures. She was a big believer in retail therapy.

I would go to their house and see dozens of freshly stuffed shopping bags from the local semi-upscale stores. Prada, Coach, Ann Taylor, the kind of stuff you find in the mall. It was all “Designed In California” or “Designed In Italy” or plastered with the name of a city: Donna Karan New York. But there was always a tag somewhere out of sight that said, “Made In China.” Almost without exception, it was ephemeral garbage, meant to be worn a few times then thrown away. The pleasure was 90 percent in the purchasing and 10 percent in the ownership.

So now we have this 2018 Volvo S90. Designed In Sweden, with a svelte, tasteful, proportional shape that makes the big barges from Benz and BMW look like ’99 Navigators by contrast. It’s a study in minimalist luxury, powered by a tiny engine and self-consciously focused on a low-consumption aesthetic yet possessed of enough backseat space to carry the King of Siam. As you will see below, it’s often delightful, frequently gratifying, and always respectable.

There’s just one little problem. The website might talk about “Scandinavian Design,” but just like everything you see at the outlet stores, the 2018 Volvo S90 T5 AWD is Made In China.

Shame, really, because there is so much to admire about this extremely sleek sedan. To begin with, it contains a lot of genuinely original, if not actively heretical, thinking. Like every other sedan in the market nowadays, it has a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Choose the T5, and you get 250 early-arriving and relatively breathless horsepower. Choose the T6, and the engine adds a supercharger to the turbo for a boosted total of 316 hp. The T8 stacks a hybrid system on top of that for a combined 400 horses.

There’s no six-cylinder option, no V-8 waiting in the wings. Which leaves Volvo free to design a very machine-minimum chassis. Just enough space for the transverse four up front. The rest of the length goes to the cabin.

No doubt that is why this E-Class competitor feels S-Class-sized inside, perfectly up to livery or limo duty. Which was precisely what I needed it for. Danger Girl and I had taken a weekend trip to Florida so we could visit my grandmother and have dinner with the fellow who served as my mentor and advisor during my misspent days at university. He and his wife were absolutely thrilled with the Volvo’s back-seat space, pronouncing it to be better and more comfortable than the Jaguars and Benzes that surrounded their quaint little home back in the UK.

For 2018, every S90 sold in this country is a long-wheelbase version, which is why they all come from China now. Prior to this year, you could get a Swedish-built SWB car.

The front seat is scarcely any less accommodating than the back, and it’s surrounded by stitched leather, tidy chrome, and generous portions of stained wood. Compared to the budget-style trim in the lower grades of 5 Series Bimmers, it might as well be a Rolls-Royce Wraith. Yet there are some flies in the proverbial ointment. The wood on the doors is nicely inlaid among brushed metal, but on the dash it’s obviously just glued to the plastic. This is luxury from the Lincoln Versailles School of Interior Trim and it rankles a bit.

The car is started and stopped by twisting a cheap plastichrome knob, which always feels like it will pop off the next time you use it. There’s very little center stack in the traditional sense; as with a Tesla Model S, the vast majority of interaction with the car is performed via a vertically-aligned, iPad-sized LCD touchscreen. It’s possible to get ahead of the thing if you poke at it too quickly, and it fades to nothing in the Florida sun.

On the move, the S90 T5 is sprightly but not rapid. Compared to the 2.0T Honda Accord Touring I drove both before and after this test, the Volvo seems just a touch down on power but far better integrated with its transmission, which usually supplies the correct gear with a middling-length kickdown pause and a minimum of fuss afterwards. Fuel economy over the course of 475 combined city/highway miles was a solid but not compelling 22.9 miles per gallon. In the same circumstances, my 6.2-liter, 5,500-pound Chevrolet Silverado would return 19.5. But the shortcomings of a 2.0-liter turbo four have been well documented in this and many other outlets and at least you’re not carrying around a bunch of empty space under the hood.

The digital dashboard, which arrives as part of either the high-end trim levels or a popular-equipment package (as was the case here), is relatively effective and legible. The heads-up display is pretty good, as well. It’s easy to be cynical and speculate on Volvo’s cost savings from having three cheap-as-chips Chinese flatscreens replace the instrumentation and controls in the car, but in daily use you will rarely wish for anything else unless you’re exceptionally picky.

As you’d expect from a car that is used as VIP transportation in Asia, the S90 also has respectable trunk room, more than enough for a quartet of airline roller bags and a carry-on besides. It’s worth noting how little the optional AWD hardware intrudes on either the passenger floor or the trunk space; until I checked the badge I thought it was a front-wheel-drive model.

How’s it drive? In the words of a famous presidential candidate, what difference does it make? Surely anyone who is seeking a dynamic experience will skip a nearly 2-ton, 200-plus-inch FWD sedan with a four-cylinder engine. As a highway cruiser, however, the S90 acquits itself pretty well. The suite of assistive tech — lane-keeping, radar cruise control, blind-spot warnings — is effective and not overly intrusive. You can cover a few hundred miles with just a finger or two on the wheel, secure in the knowledge that the S90 can and will panic-brake you out of most problems. Road noise and wind noise are both remarkably low, the latter more than the former thanks to the needless foppery of 19-inch wheels.

One semi-serious complaint: Like most Mercedes-Benzes, this Volvo will send you directly to full-power automatic braking if you are too close to a slowing vehicle ahead and your brake pressure is (in the vehicle’s computerized estimation) insufficient to stop you. This is a nice feature because most untrained drivers are emotionally unwilling to use full brake force. As implemented in the S90, however, it has a bit of a side effect.

Let’s say you are running nose-to-tail with the lifted “bro-dozers” in traffic on Florida’s Interstate 75. The truck ahead of you lifts the throttle a bit. You don’t have as much aero drag as he does, so you brush the brakes. What happens then is simple: The car sees that you are doing 85 mph with a truck one car length ahead of you, so it engages full ABS. It doesn’t know that you’re doing it because leaving more than one Dodge Ram’s worth of space ahead of your nose on I-75 ensures that said space will be immediately filled by a Dodge Ram. And it especially doesn’t know that there is also a Dodge Ram behind you on a six-inch lift kit and load-rated tires. So, uh, that might get you killed some day. Your mileage may vary.

The as-tested price of $57,000 or thereabouts can be seen a few different ways. You can look at it as a screaming bargain compared to the equivalent German luxury car. Hell, it’s even cheaper than a Cadillac CT6 or Lincoln Continental equipped to similar levels. Or you can consider the fact that Volvo and Saab have traditionally been resale poison in the American market. Last but not least, you might want to think long and hard about spending the price of two well-equipped Honda Accords on a car that was built in China. What will the paint and leather look like in five years? How reliable will the boosted four-cylinder be? Is this really a half-million-mile car like all the Volvo 240s that still trundle around Boston and the Pacific Northwest?

As fate would have it, I happened to be right behind a Buick Envision when I returned the S90 to Hertz. There was something odd, and a little sad, about seeing two brands that used to mean so much to people used to sell Chinese cars to rental companies. Maybe that’s where the S90 is best experienced: as a rental car. You can enjoy the styling, luxuriate in the space, impress your friends with the back seat. Then you can take it back and drop it off. Then you can get on a plane and go home, where your American-built car (or Mexican truck, or Italian Lamborghini) is waiting for you.

That’s the Volvo S90 in a nutshell. Like southwest Florida, it’s a nice place to visit — but I wouldn’t want to live there.

[Images: Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • CincyDavid CincyDavid on Dec 04, 2017

    I've had MUCH better success with Alamo at TPA...had a terrible, beat up little Hyundai from Thrifty that was probably the worst rental I've ever had...started using Alamo and have had several really nice, clean cars. On my last go-around, I had reserved a "Nissan Altima or equivalent" and when I went out in the garage, I had a choice of a Maxima or 3 Impalas...I took a black on black Impala V6 LT and was duly impressed. Of course the condo we use in Siesta Key has a Cadillac SRX parked in the garage underneath so we drove that while we were on vacation, only took the Chevy to, and from the airport.

    • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Dec 04, 2017

      I rented from Enterprise, but I did drive down to Siesta Key for an afternoon!

  • PeterW PeterW on Feb 03, 2018

    I'm doubting 19.5 mpg in a 6.2-liter, 5,500-pound Chevrolet Silverado. 16.5 sounds closer to me.

  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh hmmm get rid of the garbage engine in my chevy, and the garbage under class action lawsuit transmission? sounds good to me
  • ToolGuy Personally I have no idea what anyone in this video is talking about, perhaps someone can explain it to me.
  • ToolGuy Friendly reminder of two indisputable facts: A) Winners buy new vehicles (only losers buy used), and B) New vehicle buyers are geniuses (their vehicle choices prove it):
  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is delaying an oil change for my Highlander by a couple of weeks, as it prevented me from getting an appointment before a business trip out of town. Oh well, much worse things have happened.I also just got a dealership oil change for my BMW (thanks, loss-leader prepaid plans!) and this didn't seem to affect them at all.