(Pocket-lint) - Unless you're a fully paid-up Volvo hater (and we've found a few), then it's hard not to admire what the Swedish company is doing at the moment. The "human-made" advertising campaign cuts to the heart of the brand's Scandinavian design appeal and marks a point of change in the brand's portfolio.
For years there's been a genuine lack of alternatives in the premium car space, with the "default" BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class and Audi A6 being the obvious go-to choices. But Volvo has recently and rather suddenly got its act together in a way which just might upset that German applecart. For the new V90 is a great car (as is its saloon sister, the S90).
The aforementioned Beemer and Merc have each just been refreshed and are truly astounding products — sophisticated and dripping with tech — so to see the Volvo D5 Powerpulse AWD Inscription model (as tested here) compete in a different way, shows that Volvo is on top form.
Volvo V90 review: The antithesis of the turbo brick
Of course, Volvo estates have always been different. Their unapologetically square aesthetic — complete with upright tailgate — always gave them a unique appeal throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s models. It made Volvo estates beloved of antique dealers and upper-middle class families. Because of the engine hanging out front, these cars were known as the "turbo brick".
Then Volvo stagnated, BMW and Audi took over the mantle of being the preferred transport of upwardly mobile European families. Their angled rear-screens meant the 5-Series Touring and A6 Avant were less commodious in the boot than a V70 or V90, but few cared — factors such as image, performance and technology made the German cars more appealing.
The V90 is Volvo's newest riposte. While it may ditch that upright screen and not even have the biggest boot in its class, objectively it represents a far more appealing proposition than Volvos of old.
The form is much easier to love, and by a turning of the tables, the V90 manages to be a far better resolved piece of estate car design than either the new 5-Series or E-class with their fussy detailing and occasionally afterthought estate attributes.
Simply put: the Volvo estate now isn't a square turbo brick. It's effortlessly modern, elegant, impeccably resolved.
Volvo V90 review: No apologies needed
Up front, the Thor's hammer headlamps which debuted on XC90 make a second appearance — presenting a face for which apologies are no longer needed. It's distinct and commanding, so the V90 will clear a fast lane as well as any Audi. But it doesn't resort to the naked aggression of the German cars.
Step inside the V90 and the difference becomes even more marked. Instead of the stark, black-plus-black business suit of a traditional executive car, you can go down the spec route of our test car — high quality blonde leather, fine crystal-cut aluminium bezel details and modern, open-grain wood.
One benefit of Volvo's touch-based Sensus in-car technology system is that it cleans up the cabin environment, presenting a space that isn't bewilderingly full of buttons.
Dropping down into the leather chairs, the V90's environment seems to have borrowed from the historic approach of ones of its core rivals. Mercedes-Benz used to say of its car interiors, that they should lower your heart rate by 10 beats per minute. The clam, warm, reassuring qualities of the new Volvo's interiors do just that too.
We can't think of a car interior the small side of £100k that has the ability to make you feel as good as when sat in the V90.
Volvo V90 review: Design front and centre
So Volvo has succeeded in generating a very appealing car, before you even turn the wheel.
But this is supposed to be the part where we tell you the Volvo is terrible to drive and actually you should just buy a German car anyway, right? Well, when you do drive the Volvo in anger, it remains consistent in its design approach, by prioritising calm, refined progress over dynamic excellence.
Many who are stepping out of the more powerful versions of 5-Series, E-Class and A6 are likely to feel that the Volvo is a step backwards in the driving experience it offers. With their adaptive suspension set-ups, the German cars certain ride and steer with greater panache. The V90 uses a very unusual rear spring set-up and is sometimes caught out by road conditions, yet most of the time comfort is the standout quality of the drive. So long as you don't start trying to drive it on its door handles it remains composed.
The greatest issue for those switching from German brands is likely to be the engine. The D5 Powerpulse (so named because the engine features a novel anti-turbo lag design), produces 235bhp — which is not unimpressive from its 4-cylinder, 2.0-litre capacity. In general, it's refined and fast enough — 0-60mph takes 6.9 seconds, which isn't too shabby. Compared to a BMW straight six-diesel however, the Volvo's diesel engine lacks culture, lacks firepower and isn't as economical (it returned 45mpg in our hands, but that included 300 miles of motorway). We await with keen interest the arrival of the T8 plug-in hybrid petrol version.
Nonetheless, four-wheel drive on this model makes for easy, unflappable progress in all-weather conditions and the Volvo has appealing big-car stability.
Volvo V90 review: An assault on the Sensus
Using the 9-inch centre portrait touchscreen and 12-inch TFT driver display in-car entertainment system, the V90's experience is little changed from the XC90 that we drove in 2015.
That means that the V90 is an interesting, but ultimately mixed-bag from an on-board technology point of view. Most things you might want, in spec-terms, you get as standard. The large touchscreen has multi-touch capabilities (pinch-to-zoom and so forth), but because it's actually an infra-red screen tech, you can use it with gloves on.
A head-up display (HUD) is an option (but wasn't fitted to this review car), as is Apple CarPlay (£300) and Volvo's Pilot Assist technology (featured as standard) will do the driving for you in certain circumstances.
Because the V90's hardware is relatively new and clearly backed by decent-spec processors and memory, it all works and responds quickly. The way things are set out means it's quite easy to use even for a first timer. The lack of physical buttons means you're relatively limited in the choice of things to adjust unless you want to go delving into sub-menus (which is a good thing), and you do still get some physical touchpoints such as a volume knob (again, a good thing).
On-screen buttons are big, the graphic aesthetic is clean and congruent with the rest of the interior. Spend some miles behind the wheel actually using it and you'll discover quirks that sometimes become irks. The UI design is very wireframe-like, which means it lacks much in the way of finesse or colour/grading to help you out when using it at a glance on the move. Notably, it looks like in the next update of this system will address this (which will debut on the XC60).
Layout and logic are other bug-bears: the screen layout hops about from menu-to-menu page, so it's hard to learn consistently where on-screen buttons are likely to be, particularly once you get past the initial pages.
Despite online connectivity, programming the satellite navigation system can be a frustratingly time-consuming faff — with the Volvo system insisting you enter things in a set order which it prescribes. Despite online connectivity and search options, it repeatedly failed to find some very obvious, well known landmarks. Happily, getting your phone running through the system is easy and the large, 9-inch screen means the V90 allows you to run Apple CarPlay in one segment of the window, while having other car-native apps visible in the other sections of the screen.
We'd like to see the option of a little more variation in the cluster arrangement (for instance, to reduce content to just display speed, much in the same way that Peugeot now offers). Also the sat nav map and turns integration in the cluster is graphically woefully compared to what Audi offers.
Volvo V90 review: A premium price tag
Volvo's ascension to the premium big league is confirmed by the V90's price. Rather than undercutting an Audi A6, BMW 5-Series or Mercedes E-Class, the V90 goes toe-to-toes with them.
Assuming you can get over any brand snobbery this seems entirely reasonable, and the standard equipment list is generous: that 9-inch Sensus system, sat nav, connected services, 8-speed auto box, LED lights, leather upholstery, pilot assist, adaptive cruise control, a powered boot, heated seats and of course Volvo's famed safety qualities are all standard.
But it's tricky not to review a premium car without referring to the all-important options list. Our test car came with nearly £10,000 of options, but we don't think they made a great difference to the core experience or verdict. Some £5000-worth were made up of the Xenium pack: £2k for panoramic roof, 360-degree park camera and park pilot; plus £3k for the Bowers and Wilkins sound system.
We'd stick to the Winter Plus pack, for adaptive lights, heated wheel, nozzle jets (£925), CarPlay (£300, a price that feels mean given it's standard on low-spec Seat and Skoda cars) and the 19-inch alloys (£700), which set the design off nicely.
Notably, this D5 Inscription V90 is above the new £40k threshold for an additional £310 per year. And it is unlikely to be the one which makes sense for company car drivers — the combination of the D5 engine and all-wheel drive system tip the CO2 to 129g/km, whereas the front-drive D4 is 119g/km.
For those with more generous budgets or un-encumbered by tax regimes, the D5 is the one to have though — we've briefly driven a D4 and the extra 45 horsepower and all-wheel drive (AWD) make the D5 experience preferable on the road.
Not only is the V90 a likeable car, it's a talented car — which is illustrative of Volvo's new found premium qualities.
Ok, so the Volvo doesn't outpoint a BMW 5-Series or Mercedes E-Class in many areas, but what makes it likeable is its confidence to tread a different path. While certain recent cars we could mention feel like they have been so closely benchmarked against German opposition that they almost lose their own character (cough, Jaguar and Alfa), the V90 says "here's a different way". We like that.
The V90 is spacious, supremely refined and comfortable, and in this D5 AWD guise it's possible to cover ground very quickly. The luxe interior, with its competitive tech, will make you feel better about life every time you step into it, too, and we happen to think this is the best looking large estate car out there.
By normal automotive journalism standards, the V90 isn't top of the class. But perhaps it's time to assess things in a different way. If you're looking for an antithesis of the go-faster, aggressive, hyper-competitive executive world, it's well worth trying the Scandanavian option.