2018 Volvo S90 T8 'Twin Engine' Inscription RHD/SWB Review - Thai Delight
I want to love you, CKD.
But who, or what, is CKD? It stands for Completely Knocked Down, and it’s a term used for a rather strange way to build a car. It works like so: A “mother plant” builds a new car. But not all the way. Just into sub-assemblies that can be put together in another plant devoted specifically to final assembly. Think of Ikea furniture; that’s CKD. That Tamiya Hornet you built back in 1985? Miniature CKD, my friend. I think you get the idea.
Now, it so happens that there are some countries out there that like to stimulate local employment by placing heavy tariffs on cars built elsewhere. Malaysia is one of those countries. So in March of 1967, Volvo opened a plant there to assemble CKD Volvos sent over from Sweden. This wasn’t “manufacturing” in its purest sense, but CKD assembly is often how “transplant” factories are jump-started; the first Accords made in Ohio were CKDs and now Marysville is itself a Global Mother Plant that is capable of making CKDs to be assembled elsewhere. Sure enough, after a while the Malaysian plant came up to speed and started building Volvos from soup to nuts.
In 2016, Volvo introduced the T8 “Twin Engine” version of its razor-edged S90 sedan. Compared to the S90 T5 I reviewed last year, the T8 has another 63 horses from increased boost pressure, plus an 87-horsepower electric motor driving the rear wheels. That S90 T5 was made in China to be sold in America. China is a long way from the United States. It is not a long way from Thailand. So when the owners of EVOLTN Magazine asked me to drive a Malaysian-assembled Volvo S90 T8 across Thailand, it seemed reasonable to assume that the CKD “kit” from whence it sprang would be Chinese. But as we all know, when you “assume”…
That’s right. The S90 that you buy in the USA is Chinese. The S90 you buy in Malaysia or Thailand comes from Sweden. Now here’s the even weirder part. Swedish S90s sent to Southeast Asia have the company’s highest grade of interior materials — not for luxury appeal, although there is some of that, but for sun resistance. They also have the steering wheel on the right side of the car. Needless to say, the whole thing took some getting used to.
If you remember my previous S90 review, you know that I disliked three things about the vehicle:
- It was pretty wimpy when push came to shove;
- The interior was unforgivably cheap;
- I don’t want to pay Lincoln Continental money for a Chinese car.
Presto! The Malaysian S90 T8 addresses all three of these complaints in perfectly satisfactory fashion. Let’s start with the power, which is both easily summoned and usefully substantial. If you’re feeling enthusiastic, you can put the car into “Power” mode, which always runs the gas engine and which shows a tachometer on the full-screen LCD dash. I preferred “Hybrid” mode, which operated more or less like a Prius would if a Prius had three times the power. The S90 T8 is a plug-in with a 20-mile range, but if there’s one thing you will not find in Thailand it is a charging station. So the engine is going to run most of the time, always leaving a little juice in the battery.
The 313-horsepower overpressurized four-banger is more than sufficient to cruise at 100-120 mph on Thailand’s surprisingly well-maintained highways but, if you need a bit of punch to overtake a line of trucks, pressing the throttle to the kickdown point summons the rear-mounted electric motor and the S90 leaps ahead like a German mega-sedan. I’m fond of quoting LJK Setright’s dictum that “the automatic transmission and the turbocharged engine are ideal partners, because one will be at work when the other is not.” Well, the old man didn’t live long enough to see that an electric motor could make an ideal triumvirate of the previously perfect partners. When you floor it, three things happen in succession. First, the electric motor kicks in. Meanwhile, the transmission is grabbing a gear as the gas engine builds boost. Mechanically, it’s quite complicated, but in practice it means that the “clean and jerk” hesitation-followed-by-rocket-boost process familiar to the driver of, say, a BMW M550i is replaced by an immediate shove that swells discernibly after about one second.
Alternately, you can drive the thing for economy. I did that for one full day, setting the car to “Hybrid” mode and maximizing my efficiency up to about 30.5 reported MPG on Thai E10 gasohol. I didn’t slow down — the average speeds were still hilariously close to triple digits — but I didn’t make the car perform its afterburner trick nearly as often. I also selected “B” mode on the transparent crystal-and-aluminum shifter from time to time; that’s supposed to increase regeneration.
This T8 Volvo is no dancing elephant like the big Germans; it’s what your grandparents called a luxury car. Real-world handling is more than good enough and the S90 soaks up bumps with preternatural ease. All five of the seats are comfortable for five-foot-nothing Chinese girls, six-two American authors, and the five-eight blonde who kept preventing any inappropriate yet potentially delightful connection between the former entities. (Yes, I brought my wife to Thailand, I’m not what the locals call a farang.) At speed, it’s quiet and peaceful. The stereo is very close to first-rate; before the arrival of the Lincoln Continental with its Revel Ultima system, it would have easily earned that particular designation.
The made-in-China version of this car that we get in the USA costs about eighty grand, which is in the same neighborhood as a Continental Black Label. So let’s say you’re in the market for a left-field take on the transverse-engine luxury car. Very few people ever are, but we can put that aside for a moment. Which should you pick, assuming you don’t do the easiest thing and buy a year-old Cadillac XTS for a third of the price?
The Volvo brings quite a bit to the table: impeccable styling both inside and out, a powertrain that is both clever and efficient, adult dynamics on the road. There are parts of it that make the Continental and the XTS look like the half-ancient lash-ups that they often are. Yet there are cracks in this particular bit of Orrefors crystal. The all-LCD interface is handsome in repose but sluggish in action. The complexity of the powertrain feels like a nightmare waiting to happen. Worst of all, however, is the underlying sense of fragility that dominates this big Volvo. The controls are tiny, wobbly, worrisome. The body is prone to resonances that are more reminiscent of an “Erica” platform Mercury Topaz than of an S-Class. And you will never, ever, ever shake the Honda-CRX-like sense that all the weight is concentrated up front and that you are riding on a roller skate connected to a squirrel by a papier-mache trailer hitch.
That sense of fragility ruined my enjoyment of the Chinese S90 T5. And though it is not nearly as pronounced in the Swedish/Malaysian T8 as it was in that other car, it’s present enough to make me think that conception, not construction, is the problem here. So in the end I’d take a Continental Black Label, even if it’s a bit Gomer Bolstrood in a world of Ikea flatpack. Maybe because of that. I’ll take the weight and the sluggishness and the backwards-looking powertrain so I can have the solidity and the Sturm und the Drang. Give me that not-big-enough blob of a Lincoln and all will be well.
Yet even after that, I should note that I much preferred the S90 to the other car I drove in Thailand. More about that in the near future. For the rest, check out my pal Kon, who accompanied us on our trip, talking about one of the first CKD T8 cars to arrive in Malaysia:
[Images: Jack Baruth]
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