Something is stirring over in Gothenburg. The Swedish city is home to Volvo, the motor firm that used to be known for its brick-shaped estate cars and obsession with safety. Way back in 1956, Volvo was the first manufacturer to fit seat belts to its cars.
Now owned by Chinese manufacturing giant Geely, Volvo is plotting to accelerate its image further up-market by clawing a share of the German-dominated executive car scene. It is a big ambition. To succeed, it means stealing sales away from the mighty triumvirate of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi. As well as from Britain’s home-bred Jaguar.
So how does Volvo plan to do it? With a new model due to make its international debut at the Detroit Motor Show in early January. The Volvo S90 is a big, sleek, high-tech saloon that aims to rival the latest Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and Jaguar XF.
Volvo is making a big deal of the S90’s arrival. Unusually, the company held a preview event in its normally secret new model viewing area at the Gothenburg headquarters, where I was among invited journalists given an early look.
First impressions are good. The S90 has style, presence and a beautiful cabin. It has the clean, uncluttered elegance that is typical of Swedish design, with a sleeker silhouette than most recent Volvos. It also has some high-class detailing, like the jewel-cut crystal insert in the gear selector.
Under the skin, the S90 shares much in common with the XC90, the big SUV that is Volvo’s current range-topper, and that has collected awards including overall winner of this year’s Women’s World Car of the Year. The S90, though, targets different customers, and will try to woo sharp-suited business types out of their Mercs and BMWs.
4×4 and hybrid coming
The S90’s power comes from two-litre, four and five-cylinder diesel engines, teamed with either six-speed manual or eight-speed auto gearboxes. Initially the car will be front-wheel-drive, but a 4×4 version is also planned, and a ‘Twin Engine’ petrol-electric plug-in hybrid is also coming.
Here in the UK, the price of the S90 will start from around £32,000 when it goes on sale next summer. Volvo’s reputation for being strong on safety will be very evident in this new flagship car. It has the City Safety system already seen in the company’s other models, but with an added feature: large animal detection.
Elk and reindeer on the road are a serious hazard in Sweden, where around one in five road accidents involves collision with one of those animals. Here in the UK there is a risk of colliding with deer on country roads. The S90 is equipped to detect their presence and automatically prime the brakes to help avoid the risk of crashing into one of them.
This car is also equipped, like its chunky XC90 sister model, with Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving functionality. This will keep it aligned between motorway or dual carriageway road markings at up speeds to 80 mph, to let you drive feeling relaxed with the cruise control set and the steering automatically guarding against straying out of lane.