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2016 Volvo S90 D5 AWD prototype review

The all-new Volvo S90 promises to take on established rivals with a distinctly different design quality, outstanding refinement and class-leading safety. We drive an early prototype

Words ByVicky Parrott

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When the covers came off the bluffly sculpted Volvo S90 at the Detroit show earlier this year, you already knew it was going to ooze that uniquely Scandinavian, fresh design appeal. Bored of the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class and Jaguar XF? The Swedes had arrived to delight you.

The all-new Volvo S90 arrives in UK showrooms in July this year. The range starts with the 188bhp 2.0-litre diesel front-wheel drive D4, steps up to the 232bhp four-wheel drive D5 tested here, and tops out with the 402bhp petrol-electric plug-in hybrid T8. All versions come with an eight-speed automatic gearbox as standard, and prices will start at around Β£32,000.

What’s the 2016 Volvo S90 D5 AWD like to drive?

Hateful as it is to start with a caveat, that’s what we need to do, as this drive happened on a test track north of the Arctic circle, and in a prototype car, so it's hardly representative of UK conditions. That said, we could tell a lot from our time in the S90 D5, not least that it is remarkably refined.

Fire the engine to life via the quirky, low-set twist-and-go start button and it quietly murmurs away, staying hushed and smooth even if you rev it quite hard. While it’s tricky to judge tyre noise given the winter tyres and snowy track, certainly the wind slips over the front pillars with very little flutter. On this evidence, at least, we’d say this is the most refined four-cylinder diesel in the class, even beating the already supremely quiet Audi A6 Ultra.

On top of that, the eight-speed automatic gearbox shifts nearly imperceptibly and just when you want it to, so you can pretty much forget all about that unless you go for vigorous driving, when there’s noticeable shunt on the downshifts.

The engine is peachy in terms of its performance as well as its refinement. On the D5 only, Volvo has introduced a technology called PowerPulse, which uses a compressed air system to spool up the turbo before the exhaust gases can take over, meaning that the engine picks up really quickly and consistently from very low revs.

There are no uneven surges of power as you carry on through the rev range, either, making this a really responsive, strong engine that’s as flexible as you could want it to be.

Ride comfort is our main concern. Our test car came with optional air suspension (standard steel springs are available in either Touring or Sports specs), which did a good job over small ruts and cracks at high speeds, and promises good things for motorway cruising ability in the UK.

The problem comes when you hit a sharp-edged bump or substantial compression, which sends a surprisingly harsh thump through the cabin, accompanied by a fair amount of pitch and dive from the body. It’s not uncomfortable, but on this evidence, it seems unlikely that it’ll deliver the serene experience you might want on our patchwork roads.

Handling courtesy of the active four-wheel drive system is unflappable, remaining stoic even through fast direction changes on snow, promising good things for muddy and wet British country roads. Body lean is quite well contained through bends; you’re more likely to notice nose-dive under braking, or a bit of head-toss over awkward undulations.

What’s the 2016 Volvo S90 D5 AWD like inside?

It has that expensive aura that comes with very simple but very well thought-out design. The materials on our (granted, quite high-spec) car, feel top-notch and complement each other. Gloss plastics meet wood and metal, leaving a distinct aura that sets it apart from the obvious rivals in an appealing way.

The seats are the same as those in the XC90, meaning they’re wide, cushy and adjustable, and will make for ache-free and relaxing long journeys.

Most of your interaction with the car’s systems will happen through the 9.0in touchscreen, which responds promptly and is easy to see even in quite bright conditions. Granted, it isn’t as intuitive to use as BMW’s iDrive and will take a bit of time to to get used to, but it’s a huge improvement on Volvos of old and will be something to enjoy rather than get frustrated with.

A standard colour digital menu readout between the dials in the driver’s binnacle is another nice touch; the S90 can also be had with an even bigger digital readout complete with digital dials, as an option.

Slide into the back and you’ll find just about the roomiest accommodation in the class. There’s masses of head and leg room, with a deep seat squab and laid-back backrest that make it feel really luxurious and encourage lounging and relaxing, even for very lanky occupants.

The 500-litre boot isn't quite as big as that of some rivals, but it's still a good size and should do the job; a couple of sets of golf clubs or big suitcases will fit in easily once you’ve loaded them through the inevitably narrow saloon boot opening.

Should I buy one?

We’d wait until the final deliberation has happened in the UK, but this early experience suggests the S90 is going to be a seriously strong contender; one that many will have decided is right for them simply because it offers a refreshingly different character to the more mainstream rivals.

Pricing is yet to be confirmed but looks competitive based on estimates, particularly taking into account the generous standard equipment that includes the most advanced suite of active safety aids in the class on every model. Automatic emergency braking that can sense pedestrians, cyclists, large animals and oncoming traffic at junctions, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, distance alert, driver fatigue warning and traffic sign recognition is an impressive haul of standard kit for a car in any class.

Efficiency doesn’t look to be best in class, even on the lower-powered D4, which must beat the company car champions in the form of the BMW 520d and Audi A6 Ultra – and that’s before considering the forthcoming Mercedes E-Class. That said, they do look low enough to keep tax costs very similar, and there’s always the range-topping, super low-CO2 T8 hybrid model for those who can persuade the company to foot the higher lease or purchase costs.

What Car? says...


Rivals:

Audi A6

BMW 5 Series

Volvo S90 D5 AWD Engine size 2.0-litre diesel Price from Β£36,000 Power 232bhp Torque 354lb ft 0-62mph 7.0 seconds Top speed 149mph Fuel economy 58.9mpg CO2 127g/km