2018 Volvo V90 Inscription Review: The Station Wagon Goes Supernova
A burst of beauty and grace, here at the end of days.
Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Volvo V90 Inscription.
Ed. note: The following review is best read in the voice of Neil deGrasse Tyson.
When a massive star dies, it undergoes a series of cosmic chain reactions that culminate in a violent explosion so titanic it can be seen light-years away. To an untrained observer on a distant planet, a supernova may appear as a sudden bright spot in the night sky where there was previously just an empty void, especially if the star was too dim to shine through to Earth on its own. For an event powerful enough to reorder the cosmos, it can be ethereally beautiful...and incredibly brief.
It’s easy to view the historical arc of the automotive industry through a combination of a jaundiced lens and rose-colored nostalgia. And right at that nexus lies the station wagon, a form that dominated American roads for more than 50 years before all but disappearing in the face of the modern crossover-and-SUV boom. Suddenly, our sky is filled with constellations of all-purpose people carriers, and the boxy, boat-like wagons of our past have faded away into the darkness, crowded out by bigger and brighter stars.
But if it’s true that some only achieve greatness in death, then consider the 2018 Volvo V90 Inscription a masterstroke for the ages. Like a beam of light shot clear across the galaxy, it’s both otherworldly gorgeous and impossible to miss. Almost everything about it is a joy to behold and experience—whether it’s the supremely comfortable seats, the banging Bowers & Wilkins sound system, or the iconoclastic twin-charged engine that punches far above its weight. It’s a swan song for station wagons, an elegy for estates, a love letter to every long-roof that’s come before.
Of course, all that brilliance shines a harsh spotlight on its flaws. Some are small in the grand scheme of things, like a laggy, unintuitive infotainment system and slightly dull steering; others speak to why buyers abandoned wagons (and to a lesser degree, Volvo itself) over the last 20 years. After all, no matter how beautiful it is, a supernova is inherently a destructive event, the end of something significant. A week with the Volvo V90 is somehow plenty of time to behold it...and altogether not enough.
- I mean, look at it. The V90 is a gleaming slab of pure Scandinavian id, mixing the classic two-box wagon shape with the company’s updated design language for an absolutely jaw-dropping result. As much as I dislike it when anything other than a human being is described as sexy, the combination of the company’s iconic Thor’s Hammer headlights, the graceful, arcing lines of the elongated roof, and the artfully-sculpted rear end add up to centerfold material. Subtract the 2.6-inch lift and plastic-cladded wheel arches found on the Cross Country model, and you get what I consider to be the best-looking wagon of the last decade—especially in the sublime Maple Brown Metallic.
- The lavish interior is a minimalist dreamscape, with a sweeping, nearly-buttonless dash anchored by a 9-inch portrait touch screen and dramatic vertical air vents that Volvo calls “Air Blades.” Real wood inserts, ridiculously comfortable leather seats (available with heating, cooling, and massage functionalities), and a full-length panoramic roof that still filtered out the harsh Southern California sunlight all combine to create a bright and airy cabin. And considering the second row offers an expansive 35.9 inches of leg room—a smidge more than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon—there’s really not a bad seat in the house. The whole thing feels every bit a high-end luxury product. It’s a Swedish massage for your soul, and a superb road trip vehicle.
- Rounding out that interior is a comprehensive set of options, the highlight of which has to be the $3,200 Bowers and Wilkins sound system. Even if you’re not an audiophile, you’ll be able to hear the surprising difference between the various modes—including a “Gothenburg Concert Hall” setting that brings music to life and makes every installment of your favorite podcast sound like a special live episode. It’s every bit as good as Mercedes-Benz's lauded Burmester system. A $1,900 Convenience Package adds a handy 360-degree surround view camera and semi-autonomous parallel parking abilities.
- Speaking of semi-autonomy, the standard Volvo Pilot Assist II brings the V90 near the top of the pack in terms of nascent self-driving tech. It won’t drive itself down a twisty canyon road, but combining lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control results in a system that can handle a rush-hour commute on the highway with aplomb. Simply pick a lane, activate the system, and touch the steering wheel every so often to remind the car you’re still alive. Other reviews have noted that Pilot Assist performance suffers in inclement weather and poor road conditions, but the smooth, dry freeways of Southern California proved an ideal use case for it.
- The 2.0-liter inline-four engine may be small compared to the size of the vehicle, the length of its hood, and the rest of the competition, but it punches far above its weight thanks to the innovative twin-charging concept. (It’s worth noting that Volvo’s vehicles are the only ones with a production twin-charging setup on sale in America today.) Twin-charging uses both a supercharger and a turbocharger in tandem to boost power all the way from idle to the redline and a total output of 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. There’s still a bit of lag at the low end, but the power curve is far more linear than you’d expect. On the highway, it pulls with abandon well past the speed limit, and the eight-speed automatic does a fine job being invisible, with smooth and sensible shift points.
- Like any wagon worth its salt, the V90 excels at swallowing large objects. With the rear seats folded, it offers an impressive 54 cubic feet of interior space, enough for the most ambitious of IKEA trips. That drops to 19.9 with back seat passengers, but the lower load height makes it more convenient than its high-riding Cross Country counterpart. It’s almost as capable as any crossover out there.
- I say almost, because the steeply raked rear hatch eats into the cargo area with a voracious appetite. The flat profiles of Volvo’s older wagons were less stylish but far more functional, and the new look results in less cargo space than both midsize crossovers like the Honda CR-V and larger SUVs like its XC90 sibling. It also offers less than the outgoing XC70 wagon and the current Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which is really its only stateside competition in the midsize luxury wagon segment. Buyers have been trained to look for more of everything, and as impressive as this V90's cargo capabilities are in isolation, they don’t stack up quite as well when compared to the competition.
- The minimalist interior, beautiful as it may be, comes at the expense of tactile buttons. I’m all for a touch-based interface for certain functions, but burying the climate controls in the infotainment screen is a questionable move to say the least. It’s a good thing the car comes with Pilot Assist, because adjusting the temperature while driving feels like a dangerous distraction. For a company so laser-focused on safety, it’s definitely a strange contradiction. And that Sensus touchscreen...oof. It’s laggy to the point of frustration, it’s got a totally unintuitive layout with key settings buried on secondary pages, and it smudges up far too easily for something you have to interact with every single time you get behind the wheel.
- It’s a solid engine, but a four-cylinder powerplant doesn’t exactly scream “premium” when compared with the rest of the luxury segment. That long hood looks the business, but when it’s hiding a 2.0-liter engine, it becomes the automotive equivalent of a sock in your pants or tissues in your bra. And despite what those T5, T6, and T8 badges suggest, there are no extra cylinders to be had—the four-cylinder is your only option, and it makes me miss Volvo’s old quirky inline-five engines something fierce. It also doesn’t sound great, with a muted, flat exhaust note that verges on droning when you really step on it. The “Dynamic” driving mode just seems to make it louder and shift harder while doing little to affect handling. The start stop functionality is also rough, begging for a bit of fine-tuning. And the whole thing delivers around 20 miles per gallon combined, which falls well below the official EPA ratings.
- This isn’t supposed to be a hard hitting AMG-beater, even in its flashiest R-Design trim, but there’s a weird balance between performance and comfort that seems to sacrifice a bit of both. The steering is direct but numb, the ride is oddly stiff (even with the $1,000 rear air suspension option) while maintaining body roll in the corners, and the brakes faded badly on The Drive’s top-secret mountain handling course. The all-wheel-drive system helps it stay more planted and mitigates torque steer, but overall the ride is more reassuring than exciting.
- There’s no rear-facing third row like the 1994 Volvo 850 Turbo I spent a fair amount of my youth in. And again, even if the jump seats in competitors like Mercedes (or even Tesla) are barely usable, at least they exist and give buyers another reason to ditch their ungainly three-row crossover.
The Volvo V90 Inscription, Ranked
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 4/5
Curb appeal: 5/5
“Wow” factor: 5/5
The Bottom Line:
The quiet tragedy of a supernova is that by the time the light reaches us, the star is already dead. The slow demise of wagons in this country appears to have reversed itself for now—Buick will also be re-entering the segment for the first time in 20 years with the Regal TourX next year, and Jaguar is bringing their beautiful XF Sportbrake to our shores as well—but product decisions in the automotive industry are made years in advance. It’s entirely possible that planners working five or 10 years out have already killed off the traditional station wagon, especially in the American market.
If you’re one to worry about maintenance, it’s also hard to know how the V90’s complexities will hold up over time. Twin-charging is notoriously tricky, which is why it’s so rare in a production car, and the all-digital interior (including the instrument panel) could be another possible trouble spot as the years go on. I also noticed a not-insignificant amount of denim dye transfer on the white leather driver’s seat in my tester—a disconcerting sight, considering the car had less than 1,000 miles on it.
But I have no trouble predicting the rest of the car, especially its stunning exterior design, will age better than almost anything else on sale today, regardless of segment, class, or price point. Volvo’s former design boss (and current Polestar CEO) Thomas Ingenlath really knocked it out of the park with the V90. It’s smartly engineered, beautifully sculpted, and does just about everything possible to justify its nearly-$70,000 sticker price. Of course, the company will also throw in a round-trip European vacation to come pick up your new wagon (or any Volvo), which is not a bad deal at all.
Still, whether the res publica will view it that way remains to be seen. Volvo has sold a whopping 160 regular (i.e. non-Cross Country) V90 wagons in the United States so far in 2017—not bad, considering they had to be custom ordered from the factory for most of the year. But those are supercar-level boutique numbers—and while the Cross Country variant is on pace to crack 2,000 units for the year, there’s no telling how long this particular celestial sight will last. But for now, let’s all enjoy the view.
The Volvo V90 Inscription, By the Numbers
Price (as tested): $57,950 ($69,340)
Powertrain: 2.0-liter twin-charged four-cylinder engine, 316 horsepower, 295 lb-ft of torque; eight-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 22 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, 25 combined
Cargo Room: 54 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, 19.9 cubes raised
0-60 MPH: 6.5 seconds (Car & Driver test)
Top Speed: 132 mph (governor limited)
Number of Swedish flags hidden in the interior: 1