2021 Volvo S90 Recharge T8 PHEV Review

Volvo’s big sedan still looks like the money they’re asking for it, and is lovely to waft around in, but its powertrain and chassis now have clear limitations.

The big, elegant luxury sedan may be one of the oldest vehicle concepts of them all, but it’s alive and well in the enduringly handsome shape of the Volvo S90. Contrary to what you might have heard, it’s also been doing some decent business.

From the outside looking in, the decision to keep the cheaper engines on in the equivalent V90 (in which you can’t have the T8 PHEV powertrain, incidentally) but to remove everything but the T8 in the S90 does seem a strange call – turning this into more of a de facto halo model of a kind than a body derivative. So what is there to make sedan connoisseurs content to pay a premium for this car?

Well, the S90’s had a few styling tweaks for the latest model year, and they do seem to have been executed with a laudable lightness of touch (new bumpers, new wheel designs, new ‘dynamic’ indicators). Like so many current Volvos, this remains a really good-looking car. So there’s that.

The cabin’s got that relaxing, lounge-like ambience as well, now with some fresh seat upholsteries and some useful new ‘connected’ functionality added to the infotainment system. It’s predictably roomy and retains a really impressive aura of quality. The substantial ‘clack’ of the central locking and the ‘whump’ of the glovebox lid as it closes are particular highlights. Meanwhile, that ‘headrest fold’ function that Volvos have offered for years is such a clever feature when it comes to boosting rearview-mirror visibility that you wonder why other brands don’t copy it. It’d also come in very handy for the remote parental disciplining of insolent second-row teenagers, I dare say.

As regards the driving experience, the pairing of a near-225kW petrol engine with a usefully torquey electric rear axle in this car dangles the prospect of more stirring performance than most PHEV saloons can offer, of course. The irony here, though, is that the S90 needs a near-300kW powertrain about as much as it needs a depth gauge and periscope. This is not a sports saloon. It wasn’t five years ago, and even with this T8 hybrid powertrain and Volvo’s sportiest passive suspension option (adaptive suspension is another technical feature that V90 owners can choose, but S90 buyers can’t), it’s pretty emphatically not one now.

The S90 is good at being comfortable and mild mannered; never better, in fact, than when wafting around so quietly in electric mode, in which a fully charged battery is worth around 50km of real-world range. There’s just a little bit of road noise on rougher surfaces from the standard-fit 19in wheels, and the occasional out-of-town fidget from the secondary ride, although the longer-travel ‘dynamic’ suspension of Volvo’s extra-luxurious Inscription spec might help to dial those out.

But the harder you drive the S90, the clunkier, less refined and generally less assured the combustive half of its powertrain seems; and the more starkly its handling composure disintegrates. Compared with the latest plug-in hybrid set-ups, the unresponsiveness and noise level of the S90’s highly strung four-cylinder petrol engine can come as a bit of a rude awakening when you suddenly need to give it plenty of power. It feels fast once it has sorted itself out for gear selection and so on – but not very ‘together’.

Meanwhile, the body control drops away quite suddenly on country roads as you approach the national speed limit, with plenty of float and heave interfering with the car’s composure at times. It’s still comfy at 50mph, pretty much wherever you happen to be driving it, but long-wave, excess body movement can make 60mph feel like a lot more than a 10mph difference.

The S90 is very easy, pleasant and relaxing to simply stroke around, then. It’s also really comfy on long-distance motorway hauls thanks to some excellent seats, but it isn’t well suited to, or comfortable at, a cross-country canter. It is, in short, a luxurious big saloon with a gentle, laid-back character about it; a pretty convincing and substantial old-school take on material quality; and some intelligent, intuitive onboard technology that really would come in handy when simply going about your everyday routine.

And the good news for Volvo? That in a car like this, you don’t feel much inclined to hurry around anyway – whether you’ve got nearly 400 horsepower under your foot or not.

Matt Saunders

Final Verdict:
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