First Test: 2021 Volvo V90 R-Design
As unabashed station wagon fans, we were pleased to learn that the Volvo V90 has proved to be more popular than Volvo anticipated. When Volvo introduced the V90 for the 2018 model year, it intended it as a special-order item, anticipating that North American buyers would prefer the plastic-clad Cross Country version or the big XC90 SUV instead. But demand for the S90 variant was higher than expected, and V90s are now regularly built for dealer stock. When Volvo announced an updated version for 2021, it seemed like a perfectly plausible excuse to get this old favorite in for testing.
The Volvo V90 wagon is not an entirely unfamiliar face at MotorTrend. Our sister publication Automobile had a 2019 V90 Inscription in its long-term fleet, and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t jealous. Funnily enough, the 2021 V90 R-Design that Volvo delivered for this test was nearly a dead ringer for Automobile‘s long-termer, a long black family-hauling missile that—now as then—attracted a surprising number of compliments from neighbors and passers-by.
You Sure Look Familiar, V90
Frankly, we had trouble spotting the changes to the 2021 version. Volvo assures us that the 2021 V90’s front and rear fascias have been massaged and the upholsteries and interior trim are new, but the folks from the Automobile crew (your author included) couldn’t spot many of the differences, aside from a new wireless phone charger.
If that sounds like an insult, we mean it as anything but. One of the greatest things about Volvo is the timeless nature of its designs. Consider the first-gen Volvo XC90: Does it really look like an almost-20-year-old design? Not to us, it doesn’t. The V90 is aging as gracefully as any Volvo ever has, and its four-year-old design still looks fresh and new, inside and out.
We’ve always been amazed (and amused) that Volvo can draw 316 hp and 295 lb-ft from a little 2.0-liter superturbocharged I-4, and the example we tested went even further with a Polestar Performance option, a $1,200 ECU upgrade that increases output to 330 hp and 325 lb-ft. (Interestingly enough, you don’t necessarily need to purchase this feature when the car is new; it’s possible to have the Polestar performance update added anytime.)
Polestar Makes the V90 Quicker, R-Design Makes It More Agile
Volvo credits the Polestar upgrade with a 0.1-second improvement in 0-62-mph times, but we saw much better results: At the testing ground, the 2021 all-wheel-drive V90 jetted to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, half a second quicker than the last non-Polestarred V90 T6 we tested. We rather liked the way the eight-speed automatic went about its business: Road test editor Chris Walton noted that it was smart enough to refrain from shifting on the skidpad, and out on the open road the gearbox always seemed to know which ratio to pick in order to get us gone.
Handling was never the Automobile V90’s strong suit; it was sharp but a bit clumsy and felt unwieldy on narrow, winding roads. This 2021 model felt much sharper and more accurate, and the reason is another Volvo quirk: This was the lower-spec R-Design model, which has a sportier suspension tune than A-Mag’s pricier Inscription model. (Guess those guys should have read the spec sheet a little more carefully.)
Walton said the all-wheel drive V90 was “a much more sporty experience than I had imagined. I could even coax a little bit of drift off the corner. But steering is rather springy, and I was quite busy maintaining a smooth arc around the skidpad, and boy, do the tires go away rather abruptly.” Out on the open road, we were all smiles as we hustled the V90 through our favorite curves. One of the key advantages of a wagon over an SUV is a sportier drive, which makes good handling an all-that-much-more-important element of this review. Our eyes could barely tell the difference between the R-Design and Inscription models, but our butts sure could, and the R-Design is the model we’d buy.
Hey, Where’d the Wiper Switch Go?
Most other aspects of life with the V90 were unfailingly pleasant. Despite the alleged updates to interior materials, the cabin remains as agreeable as ever, richly appointed and carefully finished. You start the V90 by twisting a knob on the center console, and everything about that knob, from the feel of its metal finish to the smooth way it travels through its arc and hits its mechanical stop, transmits a tactile telegram of implied quality.
Whether that’s a true representation is up for debate. Automobile‘s 2019 V90 had its share of odd glitches, and our 2021 had a very peculiar one: When we went to turn on the rear wiper, we couldn’t find the switch. A consultation with the Volvo PR team revealed that it was in fact missing, the result of a botched dealership repair (apparently they installed the stalk from an S90). We wanted to question why an almost-new car would need something as elementary as a column stalk replaced so quickly, but we got the sense we’d asked enough questions for one day. Still, it was an amusing glitch: Usually if you want a car with missing parts, you have to buy British (or a Tesla).
Good Interface, Great Driving Assistance, but Just One Problem …
Everything else on the V90 worked pretty well. We’re glad Volvo uses a conventional sliding P-R-N-D-L shifter rather than the odd electronic gizmo found in some other Volvo vehicles. We’ve made our peace with Volvo’s center screen, which, you’ll remember, was one of the first to use a portrait orientation and a tablet-like user interface. Some of it still baffles us, though, like the fact that switching between audio sources requires you to swipe away from the music screen.
We’ve also come to really appreciate Pilot Assist, Volvo’s driver assistance system. Comprising adaptive cruise control and a lane centering system, Pilot Assist is more help than hindrance: It’s good at finding lane lines, rarely tells you to put your hands on the wheel when they’re already there, and it really eases fatigue on long trips. It’s an impressive bit of engineering.
We’re really piling on the arguments for the big wagon, and perhaps that’s because we’re compensating for the car’s one major drawback: As wagons go, it’s not terribly practical. The V90 is not the box-on-wheels Volvo of yore—that swoopy roofline eats cargo space, to the point that, with all seats in place, the V90 actually has less cargo than the smaller V60—19.8 cubic feet (versus 23.2 for the V60), about the same as a compact hatchback. A small price to pay for the good looks, we say (though too be fair, the last V60 we tested drew compliments, as well).
So it’s not the most practical, and it may or may not be the best built, but the V90 R-Design is a wonderful car in every other respect: quick, posh, beautiful, good fun to drive, and every inch the anti-SUV. Volvo may have been surprised by the V90’s sales success, but we sure aren’t.
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