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Our Volvo V90's secret ingredient? A little bit of Saab...

Published: 23 March 2018

► CAR runs a Volvo V90 estate
► Ours is a D5 AWD R-Design
► Grown-up, but not boring

Month 8 living with a Volvo V90 estate: the verdict is in

Back when I still needed my dad to reach up to the newsagent’s shelves to get a copy of CAR for me, Sweden had two car makers with very different images. Volvo was the choice of both the market-town, antique-dealing middle classes and the beard-and-sandal brigade, who liked its rejection of throwaway consumer culture. Those huge boots would have a Chippendale dresser inside, or a ‘Nuclear Power – No Thanks!’ sticker on the tailgate. Saab, by contrast, was much cooler: a rejection of German orthodoxy and the choice of architects and designers. In adverts, a pilot’s braided sleeve reached for a button on an ergonomic dash while his car slipped through the air as cleanly as his 727.

Volvo is still the darling of Tunbridge Wells, and its plan to electrify every new model launched from 2019 plays well with environmentalists. But since Saab’s sad demise Volvo has occupied its former rival’s territory too. The V90 I have just relinquished is, to my eyes, a spectacularly good-looking, desirable, cool car. You’re still rejecting the predictable German Big Three by choosing one, but doing so with the justification that beneath the image there’s a car that merits comparison with a 5-series or E-Class. That wasn’t always the case with a Saab.

People would come up to me in car parks to ask about my Bursting Blue Volvo. Its image attracts us. Plainly, lots of people still want a BMW or an Audi, but plenty more are either slightly repelled by them or left cold by their new ubiquity.

But building two million cars each year has advantages, such as the ability to make crushing investments in engineering, manufacturing and tech and amortise it over huge volumes. Volvo, though nearing 600,000 cars each year, can’t get close – and it shows. Some of the body engineering and cabin materials aren’t as obviously expensive as you’d expect in a German car. 

Volvo V90 interior: author Ben Oliver drives the CAR magazine long-term test V90 estate

The nine-inch portrait touchscreen is a bold design move and would have delighted that Saab-driving pilot. But it was the only thing to go wrong in nine months with the Volvo, crashing and rebooting on a few occasions. The software and user interface which control it aren’t as refined as you’d find in a German, and while the options it controls are impressive, there are more on offer at Mercedes or BMW. 

None of this is a reason to reject the Volvo. Looks and image aside, it has a bunch of virtues which might make you pick it over its rivals. We reported on its exceptional ride comfort, seat comfort, mechanical refinement and low cabin noise when we first drove it, but their cumulative long-term effect is even more compelling. Despite my initial concern that the old shipping container of a boot has been sacrificed to ‘design’ and a faster rear screen angle (it has), I never once ran out of room, despite some long trips, two small kids and their gear, a house move and a bad bike habit.

Browse used Volvo V90 cars for sale

And despite my point about the options, to my embarrassment I never actually tried the self-parking function, part of the £2000 Xenium option pack, mainly because the 360-degree camera which is also part of the pack is so good that I could always swing this 4.9-metre leviathan into spaces just a few inches longer. You can have the camera alone for £700, and that would be my recommendation. Of the nearly nine grand’s worth of options fitted to my car, I’d keep the self-levelling rear air suspension at £950, the Keyless Drive at £575, and Apple CarPlay at £300.

Fuel consumption was slightly disappointing. I’d expect to get about two-thirds of the official combined figure of 57.6mpg, but I averaged 33.9mpg, with a best of 41.6mpg on a long motorway run to Belfast, and lower thirties more typical in stop-start use. YMMV, as the internet says: your mileage may vary.

From the day it arrived I dreaded the day the Volvo would go back, and despite some reservations that moment was as bad as expected. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so long-term test cars I’ve run for this magazine over 10 years: partly for its inherent qualities but also – entirely subjectively – for the way it happens to fit into my life. What do I replace it with? Ideally another one, but the long-term test car rules don’t permit that. So instead I’m replacing it with a rival, and with a twist. The comparison will be interesting. And the new car will need to be good.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design

Price £43,955 > As tested £52,675 
Engine 1969cc 16v 4-cyl turbodiesel, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750rpm
Transmission 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Performance 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km CO2
Miles this month 792
Total 7016
Our mpg 33.9
Official mpg 57.6
Fuel cost £128.52
Extra costs None

Count the cost: Volvo V90 depreciation

Cost new £52,675 (including £8720 of options)
Dealer sale price £36,949
Private sale price £35,834
Part-ex price £34,084
Cost per mile £15.7p
Cost per mile including depreciation £2.81


Month 7 of our Volvo V90 long-term test review: a quiet haven

I only noticed the Volvo V90’s exceptionally quiet cabin when I put my kids in another family car recently and could no longer hear my soft-voiced three-year-old daughter talking to me from the back seat.

Volvo V90 refinement: so quiet, young children will snooze away while you drive

Low ambient noise is almost as important to long-distance comfort as the seats.

Combined with the exceptional steady-state ride quality, it means there’s soon silence from the kids’ seats too, and Radio 6 Music can gently be reintroduced on the excellent stereo.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design

Engine 1969cc 16v turbodiesel 4-cyl, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750rpm  
Transmission 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive  
Stats 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km CO2 
Price £43,955 
As tested £52,675 
Miles this month 751 
Total 6223 
Our mpg 34.4
Official mpg 57.6 
Fuel cost £129.91 
Extra costs None


Month 6 living with a Volvo V90: like being a chimp in a lab

A laboratory chimpanzee does not write his own reports. He doesn't know why the cosmetics make him cry: he just knows that they do. This is the best analogy I can come up with for my inability to explain why I don't entirely get along with Volvo's Sensus 'connectivity and entertainment technology': basically the huge nine-inch portrait-format touchscreen in the middle of the dash.

I can make a few specific allegations: it has crashed and rebooted a few times while driving, the pinch-to-zoom function can be frustratingly slow and the map can lack detail, with street or place names too often absent and minor roads disappearing too soon.

Volvo V90 interior

But there's also something about the nature or timing of the sat-nav instructions which I can't explain but which I know often leaves me confused and occasionally on the wrong road. Doubtless some human-machine interface expert could identify the fault, and it probably lies with the human.

My occasional struggles with Sensus shouldn't deter you from buying a V90, which remains one of the best long-term test cars I've run. But take a proper test drive and be sure you can get along with it. The nature of modern daily driving means these systems have at least as much influence as the oily bits on how we view our cars.

Logbook: Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design auto

Engine 1969cc 16v 4cyl turbodiesel, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750-2250rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Stats 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km
Price £43,995 
As tested £52,675
Miles this month 833
Total 5406
Our mpg 34.4mpg
Official mpg 57.6mpg
Fuel this month £133.39
Extra costs £0


Month 5 living with a Volvo V90: prodding dynamic mode

My advance into middle age has moved from crisis (red 911) to acceptance (Volvo). A friend of similar vintage recently rode down to see me for lunch on his Triumph Street Scrambler: wildly different but equally stereotypically middle-aged. Engaging Dynamic mode gives the Volvo’s chassis an athleticism my own will now forever lack. For a mile or two I’m a twenty-something once again: until one of the kids in the back threatens to puke.

Logbook: Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design auto

Engine 1969cc 16v 4cyl turbodiesel, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750-2250rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Stats 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km
Price £43,995 
As tested £52,675
Miles this month 793
Total 4572
Our mpg 32.8mpg
Official mpg 57.6mpg
Fuel this month £133.08
Extra costs £0


Month 4 living with a Volvo V90: big trip? Big deal...

Of course Volvo is to be lauded for its announcement that every new model launched from 2019 will be electrified to some extent. But perhaps like a few other Volvo owners, I walked out to my V90 on the morning I read the news and felt like my clean, sophisticated but conventional diesel had been subtly disowned by its maker.

It seems diesel's days are done, despite the case that can be made to the contrary. Government ministers caution us not to buy them, knowing that punitive taxes and an eventual ban are on the way. I recently bought a nearly-new car of another make from a main dealer, and the salesman's desperation to convince me that one of his in-stock diesels would be best for the use the car will be put to (it really wouldn't) gave him away. Sales of new cars are down, but sales of diesels more so.

So I thought I'd make a road trip ideally suited to a diesel, and which you'd still think twice about in a fully electric car: from the Sussex coast to Belfast, diagonally across much of the UK. It's a round trip of 1010 miles, almost all of it on motorway with the Volvo ticking over in eighth and returning a best-ever 508 miles and 41.8mpg from a single tank.

Volvo V90 front quarter

I made a similar trip in harsher circumstances across Sweden in a petrol V90 for a story in the April issue, and my diesel was even less stressed. A Volvo's ability to compress long journeys is extraordinary. I filled up near Brighton, listened to five or six albums, ate on the boat and filled up again in Belfast. The petrol would have needed an extra stop.

The purpose of the trip was to compete in the Gran Fondo Northern Ireland, a 110-mile bike race – or meander, in my case – starting in Belfast and heading south over the Mourne mountains to the border with the Republic, and back again. I am aware of the absurdity of driving 1100 miles to cycle 10 per cent of that.

The Volvo's boot wasn't troubled by the presence of a 7kg racing bike – which it of course swallows whole – nor the associated tools and lycra. Instead the car proved its worth afterwards. The ride itself was fast, gloriously scenic, mostly dry and I surprised myself with a top-third finish. But celebrations at the finish line were curtailed by torrential rain, high wind and plummeting temperatures. My five-mile ride back to the hotel with tired and stone-cold muscles was probably the most miserable I've had. By the time I reached the car in the hotel car park my hands had ceased to function.

Volvo V90 boot equipment

So I threw the bike in the back, sat in the front passenger seat and let the fierce seat heaters reanimate me while I consumed every calorie in the cabin. It's a nice hotel but the Volvo was a better place to recover.

And more impressively, despite driving home two days later, just when the aching is always at its worst, it delivered me feeling like I could do it all again.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design auto

Engine 1969cc 16v 4cyl turbodiesel, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750-2250rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Stats 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km
Price £43,995 
As tested £52,675
Miles this month 1529
Total 3799
Our mpg 34.2mpg
Official mpg 57.6mpg
Fuel this month £242.42
Extra costs £0


Month 3 living with a Volvo V90: all the small things

Well thought-out touches define life with a V90. Such as:

Volvo V90

That empty feeling

You know that feeling you get when you’re stuck in an Arctic snow drift, the engine running to keep you warm, and you’ve no idea if help will arrive before the diesel runs out? Me neither. But the Swedes do: hence this handy ‘gallons per hour’ indicator when the V90 is running but parked.

Volvo V90

Touch me

The big, Apple-style touchscreen beats the menu-driven systems in other cars for finding little-used functions. When I lock my kids in any other car (don’t judge me) the interior motion-sensor deactivation is almost always hidden deep in sub-menus, or on a randomly placed switch. In the V90 I swipe straight to it.

Volvo V90

Eye in the sky

‘Proper’ drivers like us may decry parking aids but they are now spectacularly good and useful, especially in a car this long. I haven’t tried the self-parking function yet, but my guess is that a human using the surround cameras could squeeze the V90 into a space the car’s brain would reject.

Volvo V90

You boot-ay

Despite a total volume slightly reduced by the faster rear screen angle, the Volvo’s boot has not yet been defeated. I opened it recently wondering how I was going to keep a 10-litre keg of AdBlue (not for the V90) upright, and discovered that somebody Swedish had already thought of that.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design auto

Engine 1969cc 16v 4cyl turbodiesel, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750-2250rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Stats 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km
Price £43,995 
As tested £52,675
Miles this month 1099
Total 2270
Our mpg 34.6mpg
Official mpg 57.6mpg
Fuel this month £163.53
Extra costs £0


Volvo V90

Month 2 living with a Volvo V90 D5 R-Design: about as good as painkillers

I’m already dreading the end of our affair.

Getting to swap cars every few months is a great privilege, until you find one so perfectly suited to your needs that its replacement will almost certainly be a little worse. The answer would be just to buy one, of course.

Early impressions are dominated by sensational seat comfort. As my L5 spinal disc disintegrates, the Volvo’s seats and a prescription-painkiller haze are the only two places I can get comfortable.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design auto

Engine 1969cc 16v 4cyl turbodiesel, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750-2250rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Stats 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km
Price £43,995 
As tested £52,675
Miles this month 820
Total 1171
Our mpg 34.1mpg
Official mpg 57.6mpg
Fuel this month £131
Extra costs £0


Volvo V90

Month 1 living with a Volvo V90 D5 R-Design: it's not so bad being a grown-up

At last year’s Geneva motor show I stood on the Volvo stand with friend and US YouTube presenter Jonny Lieberman. We both like fast, powerful cars. But we’re also both in our early forties with kids, and we agreed that the new Volvo V90 was our car of the show. We also both have beards, but it seems that’s no longer necessary to desire a Volvo estate.

A year and a month later, a V90 appeared on my drive. Volvo offered me one in the same Maple Brown paint and ‘blond’ leather interior with walnut trim as that Geneva car. It had been specified by design chief Thomas Ingenlath to be displayed at an awards ceremony.

It looked sensational, but I worried about the effect my kids and bikes might have on that cabin. It wouldn’t feel as elegant and luxurious filled with child seats and smelling of grease. Something darker and sportier might be better, I reasoned. 

I would also have had to wait another six weeks for Thomas’s car, when I knew a V90 would start making my life easier immediately. And so it has. I now think mine looks just as good in Bursting Blue with black trim, and so do the legions of people who have already circumnavigated it in the car park, had their heads turned by it as I’ve driven past, taken a photograph of it or stopped to confirm that it really is a Volvo.

Mine is a D5 R-Design with 232bhp and all-wheel drive. The entry level, front-drive 187bhp D4 starts from £34,995: adding my car’s extra power and traction and kit brings the price to £43,955 and only adds 10 to the basic car’s 119g/km. The major options are highlighted below.

Of the others, Apple CarPlay at £300 is already in heavy use, as is the £575 Keyless Drive, which includes hands-free boot opening and closing and is a constant godsend when both hands are occupied with toddlers whose mobility far exceeds their road sense. Total price is £52,675, but that includes three grand’s worth of further options I wouldn’t have picked myself: I’ll examine and report on those later.

Volvo V90 long-term interior

The car arrived with 72 miles on the clock and appears to be perfectly assembled – not something you can take for granted, even when they know it’s going to be written about in a magazine. So far I’ve done only a few hundred miles: too little for any meaningful judgement on real-world fuel economy. But early acquaintance indicates it might be all I hoped for when I first saw it in Geneva: beautiful, comfortable, and entirely fit for my purposes. 

Lest this sound like some Swedish free-love-in, it’s not perfect. Some of the cabin material quality is short of German standards, and if you know where to look you can see where cost has been saved in the body engineering.

Non-OCD punters won’t notice. They might, however, struggle occasionally with the iPad-style central screen. Despite its size, its user interface and sat-nav directions sometimes lack Apple clarity.

But more on this in future reports. I’ve wanted this car for a year and a month. Excuse me while I go and drive it.

By Ben Oliver

Logbook: Volvo V90 D5 PowerPulse AWD R-Design auto

Engine 1969cc 16v 4cyl turbodiesel, 232bhp @ 4000rpm, 354lb ft @ 1750-2250rpm
Gearbox 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Stats 7.2sec 0-62mph, 145mph, 129g/km
Price £43,995 
As tested £52,675
Miles this month 351
Total 423
Our mpg 34.0mpg
Official mpg 57.6mpg
Fuel this month £57.15
Extra costs £0

Check out the rest of our long-term fleet here

By Ben Oliver

Contributing editor, watch connoisseur, purveyor of fine features

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