The S80 was almost a nonentity in this segment. It's a decade old by now, and this year the Swedish automaker hasn't sold one-tenth the number of S80s that Audi has of the A6. And prior to the launch of the XC90 last year, the company hadn't brought out an all-new model in North America (excluding the Euro-market V40) since it stepped out from under Ford's umbrella and was absorbed by Chinese automaker Geely in 2010. That's one very long dry spell, but it's making up for lost time by endeavoring to replace every one of its models before the decade's out. The new XC90 was the first of those new products, and the S90 sedan is the next.
The new flagship sedan was supposed to come first, but when the company's senior vice president Lex Kerssemakers (now in charge of the Americas) returned to the factory to head up product development in 2011, he switched priorities. And little wonder: the XC90 is one of Volvo's top sellers, and the S80 was one of its slowest. But while a luxury automaker can arguably get away (as Acura, Infiniti, Cadillac, and Lincoln do) without a rival for the S-Class or 7 Series, giving up on the E-Class and 5 Series is another matter altogether. So with the stage set by the sport-ute, the arrival of the new sedan couldn't come a moment too soon.
The so-called "Thor's Hammer" headlight design migrates from the crossover, but they flank a concave instead of convex grille.
The new S90 is based on the company's new Scalable Modular Architecture that debuted in the XC90 and will underpin the next-generation V90, S60, V60, and XC60. It also shares its powertrain options with the XC90. But what sets it apart from its taller sibling, of course, is its three-box form factor. While the crossover dictated a more conservative approach, the sedan's form factor allowed the design team, lead by Thomas Ingenlath, to pen a more elegant, avant-garde form. It takes its cues more directly from the succession of Coupe, Estate, and XC Coupe concepts that trickled out over the past few years. Tellingly, we're told that the design resonated equally with focus groups in the US, Europe, and China.
The so-called "Thor's Hammer" headlight design migrates from the crossover, but they flank a concave instead of convex grille. Around back, the taillights adopt a more novel (if potentially more divisive) shape but promise to set the S90 apart from the competition in a crowded market segment. In between, those extremities are joined by uninterrupted clean lines. Despite the compact engines around which the nose section was designed, Ingenlath and company gave the hood an elegant proportion between the front axle and the dashboard to give it the impression of power. The lines of the S90 take a subtle and quietly confident approach.
The interior, meanwhile, adopts a decidedly Scandinavian look compared to its chiefly Teutonic rivals. The matte-finish, open-pore wood trim leaves its edges exposed instead of hidden, the air vents are bisected by metallic blades instead of being framed in chrome, the organic seats appear as slenderly sculptural as they are supportive, and the usual proliferation of switchgear is all centralized on the oversized touchscreen display. The Sensus Connect infotainment system carries over from the SUV, and can even be operated while wearing winter gloves. What could be more Scandinavian than that?
With the front wheels pushed forward by half a foot, the exterior dimensions of the new S90 edge it closer in length and wheelbase to the longer S80L than the standard version. That's before the arrival of the long-wheelbase S90L, dictated largely by the demands of the Chinese market, but also likely to reach US showrooms as well. The S90 is also incrementally wider and lower than the S80, but the real difference can be seen in the greenhouse that now extends 10 inches further rearwards than its predecessor's.
Motivation will be provided on American roads by one gasoline engine in three states of tune, as that market prefers gas (and gasoline hybrids) to diesel. The 2.0-liter inline-four carries over from the XC90, producing 240 horsepower in turbocharged T5 spec (to arrive later), 316 hp with an added supercharger in the T6, and 400 hp with the electric assist in T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid form. Buyers will be able to choose between front- or all-wheel drive (except in the T8 with its through-the-road AWD), and between two trim levels, dubbed Momentum and Inscription. Customers in other markets will also have diesel options and a base Kinetic trim level. The biggest difference under the skin is that, while the XC90 uses an air suspension at all four corners, the S90 won't make air suspension available on the front axle, but it will be an option in back (where it replaces a transverse leaf spring arrangement).
Having made its reputation on safety, it should come as no surprise that the new S90 packs all the latest electronic systems, and even pioneers some new ones. All the advancements rolled out in the SUV are present in the sedan as well, including lane keeping, driver alertness, road sign, and road departure systems. The latest version of the City Safe suite now helps avoid or mitigate collisions with pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles on the road and at intersections. To that growing list, Volvo has also added a new large-animal detection system that ought to help the S90 beat the dreaded Moose Test like no other vehicle on the road.
Beyond safety systems, Volvo's new flagship sedan also incorporates the company's second generation semi-autonomous driving technologies. The adaptive cruise control already commands the throttle and brakes, but can now control the steering as well. The new system also eliminates the current need to follow another specific vehicle, and can operate at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour, serving as a stepping stone to the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles in the not-too-distant future.
The impressive list of features and the refreshing design are intended to help Volvo take a larger slice of the pie from the worldwide list of rivals in this increasingly competitive segment. Volvo aims to sell over 5,000 examples of the 2017 S90 in its first year before ramping up beyond 15,000 per year in subsequent years. Add to that a new V90 wagon (to replace the old V70) and V90 Cross Country (replacing the XC70) and Volvo's new flagship series could become a true competitor in the segment.
We'll get another look at it when it makes its auto show debut in Detroit next month before reaching dealers in the summer. By that time, Volvo will likely have already have sold out of its launch editions, as it did with the XC90 First Edition. And we should have pricing information, which we're told will increase over the current sticker on its outdated predecessor, but still undercut the XC90. It's unlikely we'll have any details about any potential sportier R-Design or Polestar versions by then, unfortunately. From what we've seen so far, the new Volvo S90 represents a radical transformation.