► Big estate (and we mean BIG) replaces V70
► Supremely comfortable estate packs XC90 tech
► Priced from £34,555 for the 187bhp D4 auto
Last time I played car brand bingo, associations with the word Volvo came back as safety, estate, Ikea flat packs and ‘as cool as Abba’. But Volvo is repositioning itself with an $11bn investment in new cars, and its reputedly game-changing latest model is... an estate with big safety claims.
Actually, that sells the extremely long V90 short, as the big wagon is packed with technology. The Swedes also claim that its four-cylinder engine range is environmentally friendly, and that the new estate is truly premium and special to drive.
Hi-tech? That sounds like new ground for a Volvo...
It is – so long as you're not familiar with the first car in Volvo's product offensive, the 2015 XC90. As you might guess from the digits, the V90 shares its SUV sister's architecture, engines, electronic platform and semi-autonomous technologies.
Volvo, like its German rivals, is positioning itself at the forefront of the self-driving revolution. The unkind might suggest that's because Volvos are so boring to drive that you might as well outsource control. Actually, as with BMW's 7-series, your hands have to make contact with the wheel on a regular basis.
This second-generation pilot assist can adaptively cruise at up to 80mph, and doesn't need a car in front to follow. I never felt at ease letting the V90 steer itself at such speeds – it didn't always react quickly enough, or with sufficient lock, and it downed tools and asked me to drive when the guiding lane markings disappeared. Where the autopilot does excel, however, is in stop/start motorway congestion.
Other automated scenarios include countersteering Run-Off Road protection, and City Safety, which warns you before potentially self-braking for hazards including cars, pedestrians, cyclists and large animals. The warning was triggered twice, once by a stationary car on a corner's verge, the other time by motorway Armco. Nice to know it's there, but the AI's interpretation of what's going on is still sub-optimal. But Volvo is committed to making such technology work, with the aim being to prevent anyone being killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020. That's some target.
Okay, so what's it like when you're driving the V90?
Volvo describes the chassis set-up as 'relaxed confidence,' and that's not PR BS. The first thing you notice about the V90 (on adaptive air springs) is how soft the suspension is, gently pitching, bobbing and swaying to absorb road imperfections. Naturally there's a bit of body roll but it's not too ungainly, while the steering feels light and measured.
Personally, I found the body control a little floaty, but cars with the £950 air springs can engage Dynamic mode. Instantly the steering feels more resistant off centre, and the body better tied down. But the emphasis is still on the comfort and well-being of occupants, and rightly so.
The V90 is big (nearly 5m long) and weighs almost two tonnes, so it's never going to feel spritely across country. But a lower centre of gravity makes the estate more planted than the XC90; it resists understeer pretty well, and feels stable and composed in corners.
But that's not the point. This car is born to cruise motorways, with its comfy, enveloping, stylish seats and pillowy ride. And to that you can add decent highway refinement: tyre noise is well suppressed, although there is a whisper of wind along the sides.
Tell us about the engine line-up
In the UK, Volvo will offer three powertrains: two 2.0-litre diesels, in 187bhp and 232bhp flavours, and the flagship T8 petrol-electric hybrid. This combines 177lb ft of electric urge with the turbo and supercharged petrol's 295lb ft, resulting in a car capable of 0-62mph in 5.2sec – and 148.7mpg on the farcical European drive cycle. Disregard that vapourware, but its 47g/km of CO2 will score owners tax breaks.
We drove the 232bhp D5 twin-turbo diesel, however, which also has a special PowerPulse system to aid rapid response when you stamp the throttle. A small chamber of compressed air is released into the exhaust manifold, which rapidly spools up a small turbocharger when engine revs are too low for exhaust gases to work their magic.
It's noticeable the first time you accelerate from standstill. The D5 piles on speed briskly, with its maximum torque of 354lb ft rolling in at 1750rpm. For the record, 0-62mph disappears in 7.2secs, fuel consumption is 58.9mpg and it emits 129g/km of CO2.
Most impressive is the engine's responsiveness and its refinement: it's nicely hushed when cruising. The D5 is all-wheel drive on demand, with drive transmitted by a smooth, eight-speed automatic transmission (sans paddleshifts) and a Haldex clutch – which shifts torque to the rear wheels when slip is detected.
What's it like inside?
Incredibly spacious. Rear legroom is epic and headroom decent, but the load bay is not the class-leading cavern of old. With 560 litres seats up, it's about the same size as the current 5-series and A6 boots, and its 1526 maximum is smaller than both when you fold the rear seats flat. It's a price you pay for that sloping rear screen, chopped roof and handsome design.
Up front, the V90's pale woods, stylish seats and control layout feel very familiar from the XC90, though you can drop the driver's seat to adopt a nice sporty position. Standard equipment includes the Apple-inspired touchscreen with tap, swipe and pinch and zoom map controls, plus the digital driver's binnacle that can relay nav directions and other info. All cars are also equipped with key safety kit and the pilot assist system, as well as a powered tailgate, heated front seats and leather-faced upholstery.
The V90 does feel special to drive, or certainly different to its BMW and Audi rivals, with an utterly unwavering focus on comfort and refinement. It's a splendid, relaxing way to travel, and the design, materials and build quality deliver on Volvo's premium aspirations. Packed with technology and handsome too, the V90 is a genuinely desirable estate car. In the world of car brand bingo, Volvo has delivered a full house.
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