By Design: 2017 Volvo S90
Plain but pretty
I've always liked Volvos despite their clunky appearance, and I have owned several including, half a century ago, what was the fastest Volvo in the world. True, it required a Ford 289 V-8 heart transplant, but the basic car was more than strong enough to allow doubling its power safely. Solidity and safety have long been Volvo touchstones, though quality seemed to decline somewhat during the last Ford ownership years. Now backed by Chinese capital, Volvo's engineers and designers have begun a rational consolidation program in which models will be based on simplified platforms with similar mechanical packages. Given that Volvo once had four-, five-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines sourced from Ford, Renault, Yamaha, and even diesels from VW at the same time as well as multiple in-house designs, this makes great sense. Adding turbos, superchargers, and electric motors to the basic 2.0-liter four allows impressive performance over a wide range, and the overall simplification makes real sense.
In 2013, Volvo's then-new design team, led by German ex-Audi and Škoda designer Thomas Ingenlath, with interior design headed up by Briton Robin Page, formerly at Rolls-Royce and Bentley, evolved a single design that fits all vehicle categories. We've all seen families in which all the children are recognizably the same, even if one's a strapping young man and another is a tiny 5-year-old girl. And this is really a single new design, not a collection of agreed design cues as used by some other manufacturers to link disparate products in the public mind. All these new Volvos—the Concept Coupe, Concept Estate, Concept XC Coupe, XC90 crossover, and S90 sedan—are identical in almost all points of detail but have been morphed subtly into different sizes and configurations. It's interesting that two foreigners have so perfectly internalized Swedish design sensibility, eschewing the external surface complexity so beloved by Japanese carmakers and hewing to traditional Swedish concepts of simplicity and understatement.
This one design is certainly agreeable, if a bit restrained, presumably exactly what Volvo desired. It will be a few years before we know for sure if it is dynamic enough to sustain an ongoing, profitable future operation. Nice as this design is, it will have to transmute into something else in no more than seven years, which is about the maximum practical life for a given set of production tools. Or car shapes. Can Volvo revise and update its entire lineup with proceeds from selling this version? It's a critical question, the answer to which will determine the continued existence or total extinction of what on the face of it was an improbable situation in the '60s: a small country with about the population of New York City making inroads into the American car market with not one but two (Saab) distinct and different brands. But remember, both went broke doing so.
1. This is by far the nicest grille any Volvo has ever sported. Its multiple concave vertical bars are spaced nicely, the perimeter is clean and not overly simple, and the diagonal slash through the badge goes right back to the beginning in 1927.
2. The vertical placement of the grille allows a long hood, made more apparent by the sharply chamfered corners in plan view.
3. This crisp line emerges from a rounded surface then continues to a sharp intersection with an equally hard transverse line at the peak of the rear fascia that acts as a spoiler.
4. The windshield slope is the most extreme Volvo has used on a mainstream car, and it flows into a very long and graceful roof.
5. The 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.
6. The diagonal line up from the window sill to a short vertical element leading to the perimeter loop around the side glass recall the similar bend at the bottom of the grille.
7. This depressed area on the sides gives extra prominence to a slightly rising chrome strip along the body's bottom.
8. The eight-spoke wheels seem a little too much like the wooden ones of a Conestoga wagon.
9. A great deal of subtle modeling is involved in these lower corner scoops, crisp at their outer edges, flowing softly into the horizontal brightwork above the very low-mounted lamps.
10. The bottom-feeder catfish mouth is emphasized by the horizontal blade running the full width of the front end.
11. Here you see how sharply the front end is cut back in plan view and how far around the corner the transverse blade extends.
12. The headlamp assembly wraps well around into the body side, good for safety as the turn signals can be seen from the side as well as the front.
13. The fender swells out gently to embrace the vertical plane of the wheel opening, defined by an indent around the perimeter top.
14. 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.
15. Substantial B-pillars are blacked out to be quietly self-effacing, as is the case for the C-pillars. Very nice.
16. The swelling of the body sides into the wheel opening starts well forward in the rear door skin and continues well aft, almost into the taillight assembly.
17. The hard intersection of this transverse line with the side line is a little surprising, but the line it creates traverses the taillight lens and sweeps across the back, making a clear break between side and rear.
18. Beneath that sweeping line, the rear flows quite softly into the sides.
19. The exhaust outlets are framed in chrome, and their substantial size alludes to the great amount of power in the full-on supercharged/turbocharged/plug-in-hybrid version.
20. These surface breaks—the upper one aligned with the side chrome trim and much crisper than the lower—connect the sides and the rear fascia with visual emphasis on overall length.
21. The lower sill seems to be a very straightforward constant section, but it is carefully sculpted for the transitions into the wheel openings.
22. Light-colored wood has long been an important part of Scandinavian interior decorating, and its application here with generous radii at the top edges evokes that tradition.
23. Notice the round Volvo emblem is well below the steering wheel rim's geometric center, allowing good instrument visibility.
24. This is definitely not a quarter-million-dollar clock from Bentley.
25. The nav screen is usefully large, and the vertical orientation easier to read than a horizontal one.
26. The theme of vertical chrome-flashes with central button is carried across the width of the instrument panel.
27. The handsome blond Nappa leather upholstery carries out the home-interior theme perfectly.
28. Door storage bins are practically capacious but probably won't accommodate a bottle of water, as do many in other cars.