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 S90 Inscription.
Here's the thing about good taste: So often, it's ruined by others. Take the sharp, meticulous, and all-around great cars produced by the headlining European luxury marques, and consider the driver stereotypes that untold millions in marketing dollars have failed to eliminate. Forget to signal in a BMW? Ah, you're one of those. Run a little close in an Audi? Well, that makes sense, a**hole. Cheat on your spouse in a Jag? Too obvious.
Now, picture yourself in a 2018 Volvo S90 Inscription. What's the worst anyone can say now? I bet that guy has a fiscally-sound retirement plan. Or maybe, Hey, that's a sensible choice. And if they're really digging, I wonder if he smells like patchouli?
Really though, Volvo's svelte new models are so far removed from the boxy hippie-tanks rooting the company's family tree that they might as well be a different species. The S90 is hands-down beautiful, graceful, and elegant. It has the best interior you can buy for the money, full stop. It's a car that reaches the next level of luxury without even trying too hard, and it's unequivocal proof that Volvo can measure up to the legacy brands.
But the wacky cross-pollination that somehow merged Volvo's safety-first DNA with a stunning new design is only part of the story. Everyone loves beauty; not everyone loves the way a turbocharged four-cylinder engine sounds, or the way a front-wheel-drive-based sedan drives, or the way a buttonless infotainment system works. To see whether this is one Swedish model you can actually live with, I borrowed a 2018 Volvo S90 Inscription for a week of banal errands, chauffeur duties, and everyday driving around The Drive's west coast bureau in Los Angeles.
- Not to be superficial, but there's no way to talk about the Volvo S90 without first stating the obvious: This is a beautiful car, and it will probably make you look less beautiful by comparison. The Thor's Hammer headlights and concave front grille have been around for a few years now, and it's aging in a way that would make most of Hollywood jealous. Its generous dash-to-axle ratio gives it a long hood, while there's just enough of a vestigial trunk stub in the rear to keep the S90 from sliding into that nebulous (and growing) fastback/hatchback sedan category.
- Fortunately, beauty isn't skin deep here. The S90 interior is a Scandinavian dreamscape of clean lines, warm tones, raw wood, and supple leather. It's like driving around inside a page from an IKEA catalog—one of the pricey pages, of course—where everything is perfectly assembled and arranged and lit just so. The seats are infinitely-adjustable heated, ventilated, and massaging thrones that show once again we should just outsource all our ergonomic decisions to the Swedes. And minimalists rejoice: The nine-inch portrait touchscreen that anchors the dash and replaces traditional HVAC and radio controls is a bold, modern statement. (Not the most functional, but more on that later.)
- There are a ton of little touches that help vault this car above a lot of the competition. Some things you notice all the time, like how the windshield washer fluid comes out of the wiper arms to avoid that unsightly spray. Some things you might not ever use but will appreciate as a luxuriant quirk, like the front passenger seat controls located in the rear passenger armrest. And some things are just plain nifty, like the cooled glovebox that can double as a refrigerator.
- The $3,200 Bowers & Wilkins premium stereo might seem like a pointless extravagance, but trust me, this is one of the best sound systems south of something bespoke in a Bentley or a Rolls-Royce. It's crystal-clear with excellent bass, and the "Gothenburg Concert Hall" live effect is the rare gimmick that actually works, elevating any Spotify session into a transcendent experience.
- Mechanically, it's impressive that Volvo has figured out how to make a supercharger and a turbocharger work in harmony in the S90's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It's a bummer that the car can't be had with more cylinders, but at least you can tell your neighbors you have one of the only production twin-charged vehicles on sale in America today. It's a tricky, finicky concept, but the result is a four-banger with 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque that pulls hard at all speeds and never once felt overmatched by the freeways of Los Angeles. The eight-speed automatic is mostly invisible, which counts as a win in my book.
- In politics, it's Florida, Florida, Florida. In a Volvo, it's safety, safety, safety. It's already pretty hard to get killed in a Volvo these days, but the S90 takes it even further with its semi-autonomous Pilot Assist feature and a whole suite of other capabilities—active park assist, automatic emergency braking, "large animal detection," a 360-degree camera, and more—to keep your insurance premium from going up.
- You can tow 4,300 pounds with one of these. Surprising, I know. So go ahead, hitch up your hygge trailers and hit the road.
- When the S90 first launched a few years ago, Volvo initially advertised it with the phrase "relaxed confidence." Not the most thrilling of descriptions, and mercifully it seems to have disappeared into the black hole of spent marketing terms. But the car does drive with a, well, relaxed confidence that makes casual trips a delight but doesn't offer much in terms of excitement or performance. The driving experience is ... fine. It's fine. The steering a little numb and heavy, and it pushes through the turns like the 4,100-pound car that it is. And at the same time, it doesn't feel as settled out back as the V90, especially over choppy pavement.
- For as stunning as the rest of the car is, the rear end is pretty uninspired. Several of my passengers over the week of the loan mentioned that the back of the S90 looked like it was missing something—and they're not wrong. The excess of empty space is highlighted by the way the taillights frame the edges of the car. I'm all for a conservative tack on the design, but this is a missed opportunity.
- The engine is competent, well-engineered, and nowhere near as elegant as the rest of the car. It sounds every bit a four-cylinder engine when you step on it, and while it's plenty smooth, it lacks the interesting character of the V6s and V8s of the competition. And even if you don't worship at the altar of displacement, you have to admit that the resulting fuel economy here—22 city, 31 highway, 25 combined in ideal conditions—isn't terribly impressive.
- I'll give the Sensus touchscreen this: The "front page," which contains four context-dependent tiles for your most-used features, is a fine system that covers your needs maybe 70 percent of the time. But if you need to venture beyond that, there's no saving you from the unintuitive mess of features and settings found on the secondary pages. And the whole thing is painfully slow to respond to inputs, especially when you first turn on the car. I found if I shifted into reverse within a few seconds of starting it up, the backup camera would often fail to display. And seriously, no physical HVAC controls?
- There are still some aspects to the whole package that belie the luxurious image. The ride is a little harsh but the chassis still feels slightly loose—a weird juxtaposition. The S90 is also designed to be experienced from the back seat, but there's not enough room under the front seats for big feet, and the pop-out cupholders are shallow and flimsy. And as with the V90, the beautiful off-white leather seats are highly susceptible to staining.
The 2018 Volvo S90 Inscription, Ranked
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 3.5/5
Curb appeal: 5/5
“Wow” factor: 4/5
The Bottom Line
All things considered, the Volvo S90 Inscription gets it done. This is not a car that's trying to slay the Nürburgring, and it's not trying to out-Maybach a Maybach on a $60,000 budget. It's not going to appeal to everyone who might cross-shop it with a BMW or an Audi or a Jaguar, and it makes no extraneous efforts to convert anyone. It knows what it is: midsize luxury for the intelligentsia—buyers who want to know they've made the correct decision in terms of quality, comfort, and value. On those fronts, it delivers in spades.
On others, particularly when it comes to aggressive driving, it falls somewhat short, especially considering you can snag a BMW 5 Series for the same money. But taking a wider view, everything comes into balance on the S90. It's not so soft you can't throw it into a corner, or too hard to enjoy around town. It's not ostentatious, but it is striking in its own way. And it's not "second mortgage" expensive, but it still radiates luxury and class. The term "balance" is admittedly tricky, because we've come to expect cars to do it all, to be everything to everyone. But when you strip away the sillier expectations, the Volvo S90 is about as pure and on-point as it gets.
The 2018 Volvo S90 Inscription, By the Numbers
Price (as tested): $58,600 ($69,140)
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 highway/25 combined
Curb Weight: 4,135 pounds
Cargo Capacity: 13.5 cubic feet
Rear Seat Legroom: 40.4 inches
0-60 MPH: 5.6 seconds (Car & Driver testing)
Top Speed: 133 mph