Why the New Volvo S90 Is a Worthy Rival to Audi and BMW

March 11, 2016, 4:30 PM UTC

In northern Sweden, hidden among the snowy forests of the Arctic Circle, Volvo’s dogged engineers tests every model to the outer limits of speed, braking and handling at a top-secret winter testing facility the size of Manhattan. This is where a few journalists, including myself, recently got to drive the pre-production version of the company’s all-new flagship sedan, the S90 on a high-speed, seven-mile track.

Volvo originally unveiled the svelte, well proportioned four-door at the Detroit auto show in January, a top-of-the-line attack on the likes of BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and Mercedes E-Class. The S90 is an extremely important vehicle for Volvo (VOLVY) to get right. Volvo’s Chinese owners have invested more than $11 billion since acquiring the Swedish marque from Ford six years ago.

Best known for wagons and sport utilities, the Swedish brand, owned since 2010 by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding, needs to create a credible entrant in the crowded high-end sedan segment. It has to go head-to-head with not only the luxury titans, but also all the near-luxury contenders fighting for buyers, including Infiniti, Lincoln and Cadillac. Considering the number of options available, Volvo’s going to have to commit considerable marketing dollars to get consumers into its showrooms.

The S90 is based on Volvo’s new flexible SPA platform, the same used in the award-winning XC90 SUV, which went on sale last fall and is already a success. The platform’s multiple segments allow for a wide range of vehicle types and sizes to be built on the same structure—with big engineering and manufacturing cost savings. The S90 shares 70% of its components with the XC90, so part of Volvo’s mission is to ensure that the sedan distinguishes itself dynamically as a driver’s car vs. a large family mover.

After a briefing by the S90’s chief engineers in a well-heated Quanzit hut-style conference room, the other journalists and I donned coats, hats and gloves and headed out to the track, a light snow beginning to fall.

A pre-production S90 awaited, its camouflaged lower bodywork failing to hide the car’s chiseled good looks. I jumped in and took my first laps with Volvo’s R&D boss Peter Mertens in the passenger seat. The track was carpeted with rutted ice and packed snow, but immediately I could feel how assured the S90 was on such an inhospitable surface.

When I threw the steering wheel to the left or right, the immediate response was a confident course change—and a rooster tail of snow kicked up by the spinning tires. Even when I coaxed the car to the left side of the track where the deeper drifts had accumulated, I felt no heavy-handed electronic interventions, only predictable and assured counter-balancing by the car’s many stability systems. It was fun and yet not one bit out of control.

The S90 has crisp lines, striking arrow-like LED headlights and a surprisingly diminutive back-end, thanks to the car’s inventive architecture, which allows for some ingenious placement of otherwise cumbersome parts. Inside, the clean-lined motif continues, with high-quality materials (matte wood, supple leather) and a Bauhaus-esque instrument panel containing only the tall color touchscreen and a simple gauge cluster that displays information on a need-to-know basis.

When the S90 goes on sale in August, it will be available in two models–the 316-hp four-cylinder, supercharged and turbocharged T6 (pricing, although not yet announced, is likely to start around $55,000) and the 400-hp T8 plug-in hybrid (from around $70,000). Time will tell how well the complex system holds up, especially when electrified as in the plug-in hybrid—something Volvo says it is committed to building into every car line over time.

Volvo remains at the forefront of active safety, autonomous and other innovations, such as being the first manufacturer to forego keys for a smartphone app. The S90 sports the latest Pilot Assist system, for example—a semi-autonomous mode that keeps the car inside the lines of a lane up to 60 mph without the need of a car ahead to follow.

And just to make sure that none of us missed the company’s hyper-focus on attaining true luxury status, Volvo also had on hand an executive limo version of the XC90—complete with rear flat screens, work trays and a two-bottle Champagne cooler. The four-seater, originally built for the Chinese market, will eventually come to the U.S. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for someone to load in two chilled Veuve Clicquots—that’s a gesture still best pulled off by Bentley and Rolls.