The subtle simplicity and purity of Scandinavian design has been admired for decades, largely in terms of household items and furniture, useful objects made of wood, wool, leather, stone, and other natural materials. Scandinavian automobiles — Swedish ones, as far as nameplates go, though Valmet built more than 225,000 Porsches in Finland—have been admired for various qualities. Those include very early and very seriously applied safety consciousness on the part of both Volvo and Saab, first to offer shoulder belts in series production — as well as applied aerodynamics, in the latter’s case.
Volvo’s very conventional engineering design — the firm never went to independent rear suspension in its rear-drive models—has been admirable, but its cars have never really been known for style. Once very much the product of T-square and triangle orthographic shaping, Volvos got better with the arrival of Peter Horbury as chief designer in 1991, and for a long time his positive influence led to attractive, professional shapes that were sensible and practical but never quite beautiful.
To Automobile, Volvo’s latest designs — derived from a series of brilliant concept cars shown in recent years by the now Chinese-owned firm — are indeed beautiful in a reserved but admirable way. They are neither spectacular nor voluptuous, but they possess a distinguished elegance and restrained classical appeal. This comprehensible, easily appreciated, enduring beauty gives Volvo a promising new start.
On the 2017 Volvo S90, a long, crisp line running from the headlamps back to a sharp corner at the rear of the body provides emphasis on apparent length. This new look is part of a wholesale restructuring of Volvo’s product line, reducing a staggering variety of powerplants to just two — the 2.0-liter four-cylinder seen in the three 90-series models now, and a three-cylinder engine not yet in production but acknowledged as being in development. Volvo will offer each base engine in varying states of tune, thereby providing a range of power adequate for its full line of cars and SUVs.
Since 2012, Volvo’s new non-Scandinavian design leadership has come from Thomas Ingenlath, an ex-Volkswagen Group German with solid experience at Audi, Škoda, and VW. Likewise Robin Page, an ex-Bentley/Rolls-Royce Briton who heads up interior design, and Max Missoni, Volvo’s exterior design chief who led the S90 efforts. The new regime has somehow managed to absorb, integrate, and successfully marry traditional Scandinavian design sensibility, and then marry it to a fluid, international automotive style with just a deft touch of the surfacing restraint that characterized many past Volvo designs. Those tended to avoid deep-draw or complex stampings — to the point of excess in the early 1990s. There is fluidity to the S90 that is aerodynamically efficient and aesthetically convincing, making this excellent four-door sedan and its closely related V90 wagon handsome alternatives to more popular luxury cars.
Let’s look at some of the details. There’s the grille, about which we said in By Design in April 2016: “This is by far the nicest grille any Volvo has ever sported.” There are many reasons, but an overriding one is that the grille assembly gives the impression of being carefully wrought in solid metal. Most grilles today are actually plastic injection moldings with a bright finish, but some observers like to believe they’re really solid brass, highly polished, and then thickly chrome-plated. That might once have been the case, but with today’s concerns for lightweight parts to improve fuel economy, plastic is the proper answer. Many past Volvo grilles were light and cheap aluminum stampings that looked light and cheap. This one seems rather substantial, giving the whole car an air of seriousness. Apart from the impression of material quality, the slightly concave vertical grille bars provide a nice backing texture to the diagonal slash through the grille that was part of the appearance of the first Volvo car in 1927 and reappeared for the boxy 140-series models 50 years ago.
Or consider the headlamps, actually quite simple assemblies that wrap around the chamfered front corners of the car, their daytime running lights emphasizing the grille’s horizontal element and leading to the key body-side line mentioned earlier. The effect is to make the car look wider than it is, adding substance to the whole. Rectangular vents beneath the headlamps are set well below the grille, allowing a broad swath of painted skin to sweep across the front end under the grille, again giving a strong impression of more width than is actually present. With an unobtrusive opening just above a visual baseplate at the bottom of the nose, there is adequate area for air ingestion, without the ridiculously large grille taken up first by Audi, then in misshapen and grotesquely oversized form by both Lexus and Infiniti.
It is important, finally, that Volvo designers felt no need to exaggerate anything about this car to attract attention. No baleen-whale plankton strainer on the front, no rocket nozzles on the rear, no four-color paint jobs, no metal or plastic goiters stuck into the sides. This is an understated, wholly balanced form that was specifically created not to shock, startle, or stimulate. It is meant to navigate the streets, roads, and superhighways of the normal world without distressing anyone, above all the people who purchase and use the S90. They get solid, safe, sensible, and satisfying normal transportation, not a mechanical manifestation of someone’s fevered fantasy of what a car should be.
Volvo S90s are easy to look at, and easy to drive with plenty of electronic aides to keep them from running off the road, rear-ending a car ahead, or behaving badly in poor weather conditions. In a year where most manufacturers have directed their efforts to SUVs or extravagant performance models, Volvo has, without ignoring the vital SUV segment (see XC90), come up with a truly superior traditional sedan fully worthy of being our Design of the Year.
Front 3/4 View
1. This sharp longitudinal line separates an inverse curve above and a gently swelling convex surface below, which in turn flows into a concave area on the doors, making the body sides more complex to look at but not difficult to stamp and without presenting any additional drag.
2. This crisp line emerges from a rounded surface and continues to a sharp intersection with an equally hard transverse line at the peak of the rear fascia that acts as a spoiler. This gives a clear highlight along the entire length of the body, helping the car look longer than it really is. Long and low is always good.
3. This is indeed the best grille any Volvo has ever carried. Its multiple concave vertical bars are spaced perfectly, the perimeter is clean and not overly simple, and the diagonal slash through the badge goes back to Volvo’s beginning in 1927.
4. The bottom-feeder “catfish mouth” is emphasized by the horizontal blade running the full width of the front end at the very bottom of the front clip of fenders, hood, and grille. Sculpting of the various inlets on the fascia is carefully done and reminds one of the shape of wooden carving boards in the Scandinavian style.
5. There is a great deal of subtle modeling involved in these lower corner scoops, crisp at their outer edges, flowing softly into the horizontal brightwork above the low-mounted lamps.
Rear 3/4 View
6. Admirably slim, the A-pillars are much more in the mode of sports cars than family sedans, supplying unusual grace to the S90’s profile. They lean more sharply back than has ever before been Volvo practice, and they lead into a roof profile at the centerline that is quite sporty and, of course, aerodynamically desirable.
7. Volvo’s body-safety engineering is real but unobtrusive. Substantial B- and C-pillars are blacked out to be quietly self-effacing. The result is that one “reads” the side glass profile as a single graceful form, essentially not seeing the strong members that assure stiffness in a roll-over crash.
8. The hard intersection of this transverse line with the side line at a sharp point is a little surprising, but the intersection line moves down the taillight lens and then, in paint, sweeps across the back, making a clear break between side and rear and giving a good horizontal transverse line in the bumper strike face.
9. Exhaust outlets are framed in chrome, and their substantial size alludes to the great amount of power in the supercharged/turbocharged/electric version.
10. These surface breaks, the upper one aligned with the side chrome trim and much crisper than the lower, connect the sides and rear fascia with visual emphasis on overall length, which seems to have been an overriding concern in developing the shape.
11. The 9-inch nav screen is usefully large, and the vertical orientation quicker to read than a horizontal one, according to numerous studies done for airliners and military aircraft.
12. Light-colored wood has long been an important part of Scandinavian decorating in homes and offices, and its application here with generous radii at the top edges evokes that tradition in a positive and agreeable way.