By Dan Neil
NETRALNEWS.COM - I STEPPED OUT the revolving door of my hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, tipped the man with my bag and opened the car door, only to find the steering wheel had been moved. The Volvo V90 wagon the Swedish car maker had delivered was a right-hand-drive (RHD) model, made for the U.K. market, with the steering wheel on the right.
I looked out at Lake Geneva, where an approaching squall was drawing a veil across the water. I knew my drive to London would involve the rather low comedy of my leaping out at toll plazas like a game-show contestant, sprinting to the other side of the Volvo, fiddling with cards and finicky billeterie under the appraising eye of French motorists. And now il pleut. I grabbed my coat to ward off the chill.
It had taken until early March for me to lay hands on Volvo’s big wagon (what Europeans call an estate), one of four full-size vehicles built on the SPA platform and the most rarefied.
Actually, U.S. customers will have to special-order the estate, whereas I feel sure dealer lots will have acres of 90-series sedans, SUVs and crossovers to choose from. Sales of the wagon will likely number only a few thousand annually, depending on the available parking at Bennington College.
As your selfless advocate, dear reader, I admit there was no pressing need to review the estate version, except...
Except that Volvos are never more charismatic than when they have four doors, long roofs and hatches: the P220 Amazon Estate, the 145, the 245, the V70, the 850 GLT. This is the part where you see yourself in slow motion, raising the hatchback of your classic Volvo, Afghan hounds jumping out as you light a cigarette with your driving gloves on. Man, the ’70s were cool.
- Base price: $50,000 (U.S. estimate)
- Price, as tested: $63,000
- Powertrain: Twin-turbocharged 2.0-liter direct-injection diesel engine; eight-speed automatic transmission; front-biased all-wheel drive.
- Power/torque: 235 hp at 4,000 rpm/480 Nm at 1,750-2,250 rpm
- Length/weight: 194.3 inches/4,253 pounds
- Wheelbase: 115.8 inches
- 0-60 mph:
- Cargo capacity: 22/56 cubic feet, second-row seat backs up/folded
Except that the few Americans who do order the wagon—wherever they are and whatever they are smoking—are as deserving of my best efforts as any reader shopping for a made-by-the-million crossover. I think you’ll agree the antiquing public has been underserved.
Except for the chance to ride a unicorn: My test vehicle—a V90 Inscription ($63,000, est.) with all-wheel drive, painted the most virtue-signaling shade of brown—would be the star of any Volvo Owners Club back home. And it was a D5 model, powered by a sturdy 2.0-liter turbo-diesel engine not even remotely available in the States. Now that’s rare.
Volvo will offer U.S. customers a turbocharged 2.0-liter (250 hp) with front-wheel drive in T5 models; and in the T6, a supercharged /turbocharged version of the same engine (316 hp) with standard all-wheel drive. Also note that Volvo has a pretty nice European delivery program, which will fly you and your companion to Gothenburg, Sweden, to receive your car fresh off the assembly line. Then everybody turns in early.
Except that the V90 is the most comely, most efficient and most effective of the body-styles built on the SPA architecture, whether Americans know or care.
When it comes to vehicle attributes, most crossover and SUV designs are but failed station wagons, offering comparable space for passengers and cargo in a heavier package (less efficiency and performance) with compromised vehicle dynamics driven by a higher center of gravity.
Even where you would expect an SUV to have an easy advantage over a wagon—like cargo-carrying—it’s not so simple. The XC90’s ready luggage space—the storage space available without resorting to folding seat backs—is 15.8 cubic feet. The wagon’s measures a whopping 22 cubic feet. Fold down the wagon’s rear seat backs and the capacity jumps to 56 cubic feet, almost 15 cubic feet more than you get from folding a row in the XC90.
Meanwhile, the cargo-floor width between the wheel arches—a critical dimension for transporting gilt-edged mirrors with Colonial provenance from auction—is the same for both vehicles: 3.6 feet.
High center-of-gravity is also a visual phenomenon. Unlike the pachydermic XC90, the V90 hovers, not raised but slung low, its wheels pushed deep into the body, a fast slab, wide and fully planted. The wagon roof curves like a katana to a spoiler, a fly line that connects thought and deed, road and air. None of this gets better with more altitude.
Americans with long moto-cultural memories will recall that Volvo’s diesel wagons were once the slowest cars in Christendom. Compared with them, our V90 D5 was an oil-burning space ship.
The quietly snickering four-cylinder produces satisfying torque in the lower registers (480 Nm at 1,750 to 2,250 rpm), enough to kick the can down the road in less than 8 seconds, 0-60 mph. But after this quick succession of upshifts, the acceleration gets decidedly more deliberate as the turbodiesel tops out (235 hp at 4,000 rpm).
The D5 is nice, but Americans shouldn’t covet it. The company’s gas engines are stronger and more drivable. But as for efficiency: I left Geneva with 15 gallons (60 liters) of diesel onboard and didn’t fill up until I got to Dover, with about 558 miles on the clock. That’s an observed average of 37.2 mpg. Considering the way I beat on this oil drum, that’s pretty great.
While Europe has not been immune to the crossover craze, the 5-meter estate is still an aspirational presence on the road, even glamorous, rich in nuance and coding. That much was clear from my first 100 kilometers on the AutoRoute, where on three occasions drivers in hatchbacks swooped up from behind to give the car a look.
The magic is concealed in plain sight, in the word “estate,” denoting a large car designed to carry all and sundry to the weekend house—thus the associations with old money, quiet wealth and equestrianism.
No surprise, the wagon drives very much like the sedan, with composed over-the-road manners and easy athleticism on long highway sweepers, and a cool cabin ambience well tempered against wind and tire noise.
The electric-assist steering has a fairly pronounced joystick feel, and wants to wander on center, lacking in-lane discipline. Also, on this longer trip, I wished for a bit more padding in the sporty, bolstered driver’s seat.
But by far the greater pain in the ass was the car’s central touch-screen controller, the Sensus system, commanding entertainment, navigation, connectivity, services and vehicle controls. What a bear. The interface relies on infrared sensing to read the operator’s pinches, presses and swipes.
But the error rate of the system in my car was huge, the lag epic, with many functional impasses caused by too-close icons. Even after I mastered the page layouts, it took too much time with eyes off the road to make simple adjustments.
The Sensus interface needs a firm kick in the software, or soft kick in the firmware, and fast. It can’t go on like this. The V90’s long-roof pulchritude notwithstanding, my Afghans were not amused.