My inner middle-aged man has of late been beaming from the comfortable confines of his wingback armchair. Last week he delighted in the Volkswagen Passat TDI, then this week he had the new Volvo S90 T6 at his disposal: a middle-sized luxury sedan designed to poach sales from the Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class and Lexus GS.
“Oh, how lovely,” he mused, slowly turning his whisky glass. “I do appreciate a good avant garde alternative.” I have to agree with him. For as long as I’ve been writing this column Volvo has been a purveyor of alternative conveyances for those who prefer Heinz to All Gold or Fisherman’s Friends to Tic Tacs.
The new S90 visually distinguishes itself from everything else in the segment — particularly in the form of the range-topping T6 AWD Inscription model. The middle-aged man thrilled at its quiet confidence: the clean and uncluttered sheet metal that reminded him of the minimalist Scandinavian sofa in his corner office.
The interior had a similar effect. Space was plentiful, the design elegant. The plastic covering the base of the steering column seemed questionably low-rent, but on the whole he found the Volvo S90 most agreeable.
Well, until he started to use the infotainment system: a vertically orientated touchscreen-tablet kind of thing that controls pretty much every aspect of this technological showboat. From a functionality point of view the middle-aged man found it absolutely exasperating and, quite frankly, so did I.
Now being a child of the 1980s I like to think of myself as being fairly “with it” so far as electronics are concerned. On a good day I can remove an appliance from its box and set it up without looking at the manual. I’ve also been known to solve my mother’s numerous IT crises via the telephone. Yet the Volvo Sensus infotainment system I find completely baffling. It took an entire day of swiping and tapping and shouting just to work out how to adjust my treble and bass settings — an operation that takes 30 seconds in any other car.
Not only was it illogical but distracting too. Want to adjust the temperature of the climate control, the speed of the fan? Well then you have to take your eyes off the road, finger the screen and swipe because there are no manual switches besides a volume knob and two defrost buttons. Sensus? Maybe I’m in the minority here but I think Volvo should rebrand it Senseless.
To me it kind of blights the rest of the cabin and all the accompanying features. And there are features galore. Like pilot assist that, shipping standard and utilising all the car’s sensors and cameras, gives you semi-autonomous driving at speeds of up to 130km/h. Not my shot of espresso, I’ll admit, but many of you out there might enjoy putting your faith in the machine as you shuffle down the N14 on a weekday morning.
My car also had the R65000 Premium Pack that bolts in electronic heated seats, a powered boot lid, 360° parking camera plus a thunderous 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system. There were other options too: a lengthy list of enhancements that added nearly another R100 000 to the list price. So after all was said and done the car I had in my possession was worth just north of a million bucks.
And yet the drive didn’t seem to reflect this sum. The middle-aged man and I agreed that despite having air suspension, the S90 didn’t ride very well. It felt brittle and was easily flustered by irregular surfaces. Although I’m pretty sure this was partly down to the optional 20-inch wheels that amplified all asphalt irregularities right through the chassis and up into the seats.
Talking of the chassis. The quivering S90 never feels as structurally rigid as any of its rivals. You can feel this at speed down a bumpy road, a sense of looseness that discourages you from pushing the envelope. The more I drove it the more I came to the conclusion that this is a car with an identity crisis. It wants to be sporty but doesn’t really have the DNA or talent.
There’s a similar dichotomy in the engine. There’s no denying its complicated twin-charging setup offers plenty of poke in a straight line. Yet being endowed with four cylinders means that it’ll always lack the refinement of a six- or eight-cylinder motor.
So what we have is a car that isn’t particularly nice to drive or intuitive to use. It is comfortable, but not as comfortable as many of its rivals — even the less sophisticated ones that make do without those trick pneumatics.
Where it does stand out, however, is in the field of aesthetics. For in a segment defined by cookie-cutter design cues this Volvo grinds against the grain. People will take notice and ask questions, because the S90 is so different. And even though my middle-aged man and I are not sold, many out there will be. Sometimes style trumps substance. Especially when it’s flying in hard from the left field. – Thomas Falkiner
FAST FACTS: Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription Geartronic
Engine: 1969cc four-cylinder twin-charged
Power: 235kW at 5700rpm
Torque: 400Nm from 2200 to 5 400rpm
Transmission: eight-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 5.9 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 250km/h (claimed)
Fuel: 10.6l/100km (achieved)
CO2: 165g/km (claimed)
Price: From R871900