A $92,000 bargain
THE GOOD
  • Quick and efficient
  • Gorgeous interior
  • Great seats
THE BAD
  • Hybrid powertrain can be uneven
  • Big touchscreen looks better than it functions
  • Ride not as refined as rivals from Germany

As an alternative to the default German luxury sedans, Volvo’s S90 offers sleek styling, a chic Nordic interior, and less sticker shock than its continental contemporaries.

Offered in a single trim, the 2021 Volvo S90 Recharge is a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) that gets down the road courtesy of a four-cylinder engine brandishing supercharging and turbocharging to go with the added electrical components.

Styling: 9/10

For 2021, the S90 gets some subtle styling changes: new-look fog lights, a reshaped front bumper, new taillights, and a tweaked spoiler. There are fresh wheel designs as well.

The S90 cuts a sleek, rakish profile when compared to its main competitors, and here, sitting on optional eight-spoke 20-inch alloy wheels ($1,000) and dipped in deep Platinum Grey metallic paint ($900), Volvo’s elegant flagship looks every inch the premium executive sedan it is. [Sombre fact: the colour palette consists of black, a different black, two greys, brown, and white. – Ed.]

Safety: 9/10

While Volvo doesn’t have the lock on vehicle safety like in years past, this big sedan bristles with all the tech the brand has in its safety arsenal. Vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and large animal detection is built into the forward collision warning system that also features automatic emergency braking, while lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, and road sign information are also included. Also standard are parking sensors, rear collision warning, semi-autonomous adaptive cruise control, and a four-year subscription to Volvo’s connected services that can contact authorities in the event of a collision.

While blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert previously required an optional package, these essential features are now included. Good call. It seemed a bit off-message (and chintzy) to be charging for these basic safety features in a pricey Volvo. Steering-responsive LED headlights with automatic high-beams are also now standard.

The Advanced package ($1,850), meanwhile, adds a surround-view monitoring system and a comprehensive head-up display (along with power trunk). The auto-dimming LED headlights get high-pressure washers – a clever feature Volvo has been championing for years.

Practicality: 8/10

We only get the long wheelbase version of the S90 in Canada, and even those with the longest of legs will enjoy plenty of room to stretch as a result. In fact, Volvo claims best-in-class rear-seat legroom. Despite having a 11.6-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, the S90 Recharge keeps the 500-L trunk capacity of its non-electrified stablemate since it’s stashed under the seat.

Charging the battery from empty on a 220-volt charger takes about four hours, so having a fully charged S90 PHEV in your driveway every morning won’t be an issue. How practical 30 km of all-electric diving range is depends wholly on your lifestyle, however. Those with a short daily commute (and available charging at work) will benefit most from a PHEV like this.

User Friendliness: 6.5/10

There’s been a conflict simmering within the automotive cabin of late: ergonomics versus digital real estate and a clean aesthetics. Volvo switched to the latter camp a few years ago, and while its large portrait-oriented touchscreen allows for a clean cabin with minimal knobs and buttons, it is we humans with our tactile fingers who pay the price. Simple HVAC functions such as temperature control, fan speed, and seat heat/ventilation require altogether too much eyes-off-the-road screen peering and finger prodding. Similarly, accessing radio functions is a frustrating endeavour. Volvo’s voice activation system gets a C grade for comprehension and obedience.

Another ergonomic oddity is the shift selector, fashioned here of crystal, that requires a double push for reverse and a double pull for drive. A safety thing, Volvo tells us. Yes, it soon becomes second nature; but a real safety thing would be eyes-on-the road rotary controllers for cabin temperature and radio tuning.

Features: 9/10

The Volvo S90, Recharge or otherwise, comes only in top Inscription trim in Canada, and comes generously equipped. Standard kit includes a panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, auto-dimming interior and exterior mirrors, 19-inch alloy wheels, power-folding door mirrors, drive mode settings, a subscription-based Wi-Fi hotspot, built-in navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, power rear sunshade, manual rear side sunshades, tailored instrument panel, and more. New for 2021 are a wireless phone charger and USB-C ports in the back.

Getting a heated steering wheel requires the $1,000 Climate pack that also includes heated rear seats and heated windshield washer nozzles. Unlike most rivals, the Volvo does not have powered steering column adjustment.

This tester’s bottom line swelled to $91,565 before tax but including freight with the addition of 20-inch alloys, massage, ventilated rear seats, air suspension, self parking, and a spectacular audio system.

Ergonomic niggles aside, the S90’s cabin is exquisitely designed and rendered, and presents itself as an intriguing Nordic alternative to everything else on the market. Wonderful detailing like the crystal shift controller and knurled drive mode roller on the console meld with fine metal detailing and grey ash trim. To see this interior at its best, spec anything but black.

Power: 8/10

If you listen closely, you can almost hear this Volvo’s little 2.0L four-cylinder singing “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Its friends include a supercharger (for low-end torque), a turbocharger (provides boost at higher revs), and an electric motor that drives the rear wheels. Combined, this system emboldens the big Volvo with 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque from 2,200 to 5,400 rpm. Overall, the hybrid system works seamlessly and there’s never any lack of urge as the electric motor gives a dash of instant shove from any speed.

The only real fly in this luxury ointment is the four-cylinder engine that sounds gruff and a bit strained when pressing on. It’s not the ideal audio signature for a high-powered executive car, but this strategy pays dividends at the pump.

Comfort: 8/10

As you’d expect, the front seats are superb and infinitely adjustable, and both driver and passenger get massage and memory settings here. Equipped as this tester is, front and rear occupants also enjoy heat and ventilation for their backsides. The multi-function back massage is a good one, delivering just-right kneading.

It’s the S90’s ride quality that lets it down. Even with the optional rear air suspension ($2,400), just a bit too much road information and vibration disturb the serenity of this cabin. It doesn’t glide down the road with the imperious calm and solidity of the Mercedes-Benz S Class or BMW 7 Series. In light of this, we would avoid this tester’s optional 20-inch wheels. Sticking with the standard 19-inch footwear will help with compliance.

Driving Feel: 7.5/10

The S90 Recharge’s less-than-creamy ride might be justifiable if its chassis were more athletic, but: a) it’s not; and b) if you’re buying a large luxury sedan, you likely aren’t interested in canyon-carving anyway. Handling is sure-footed but uninspired, and the Volvo’s steering lacks a direct feel.

Drive modes include eco, hybrid (default), power, and individual. Power mode is aptly named, as throttle response sharpens markedly and that great wallop of 472 lb-ft of torque blasts this sedan ahead with a V8-like thrust. This PHEV weighs about 250 kg (551 lb) more than the gas-only S90, and you’re aware of the extra mass in day-to-day operation.

Still, on smooth roads the S90 Recharge makes for an excellent long-distance hauler; the cabin is serene, the seats are terrific, and it tracks true. Transmission duties are handled by a smooth shifting eight-speed automatic, and the hybrid system’s transitions are quiet and largely transparent, although with all those disparate power sources and assists at work, power delivery is not as seamless as six- and eight-cylinder rivals.

Fuel Economy: 9/10

With the Volvo S90 Recharge, well, recharged every morning, fuel economy will be even better than the impressive 7.8 L/100 km it returned during a week of mixed driving. Yes, this car employs a complex gas-electric all-wheel drive system; but it delivers on its promise of excellent fuel economy. Official fuel consumption figures are 8.3 L/100 km in the city, 7.5 on the highway, and 7.9 combined. Premium fuel is required.

Value: 8.5/10

As tested, this specimen comes in at a tick under $92,000 before taxes. A Mercedes S-Class starts at $123,500, the BMW 7 Series LWB at $127,400, and the Audi A8 L PHEV at $122,150. And that’s before those Germans are loaded up with the requisite upgrades. That makes this elegant Nordic longboat with the oddball drivetrain a bona-fide bargain in the rarefied world of Euro-exec cars. A genuine competitor with a comparable sticker would be the new 2021 Genesis G90 with an all-inclusive price of $89,900, although that sedan is not a PHEV.

The Verdict

Volvos have long catered to those who march to the beat of a slightly different drummer. The 2021 Volvo S90 Recharge continues that tradition, sidestepping the mainstream with its long, sleek profile, interior appointments worthy of a Scandinavian furniture magazine centrefold, and a complex-yet-efficient PHEV powertrain. It received plenty of appreciative stares during a week of testing. If exclusivity is something you seek in your luxury sedan, the S90 Recharge certainly delivers. Just be sure to order the air suspension and stick with the standard 19-inch wheels.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Volvo S90 Recharge Inscription
Engine Cylinders Hybrid I4   Base Price $76,050
Peak Horsepower 400 hp   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 472 lb-ft @ 2,000–5,400 rpm   Destination Fee $2,015
Fuel Economy 8.3 / 7.5 / 7.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb; 3.7 Le/100 km combined hybrid   Price as Tested $91,665
Cargo Space 500 L  
Optional Equipment
$13,500 – Premium Sound System, $3,750; Rear Air Suspension, $2,400; Lounge Package, $2,350; Advanced Package, $1,850; Climate Package, $1,000; 20-inch Alloy Wheels, $1,000; Platinum Grey Metallic Paint, $900; Park Assist, $250