Volvo invites you to just say no to crossovers.
If you want a spacious station wagon and your definition of the body type excludes lifted, cladded, not-quite-crossovers, then you’ve pretty much got one choice: the Volvo V90. Reintroduced after a 20-year absence for the 2017 model year, the V90 is undeniably one of the prettiest cars on the market today, with a long, low stance that avoids any pretensions of rough-road ability, recalling its boxy predecessor’s country-club cachet.
Fresh off a very minor mid-cycle update (revised front spoiler and fog lamps), the 2021 Volvo V90 could easily be considered the company’s spiritual flagship, recalling those 740, 960, and V90 wagons that made the Iron Mark logo a staple of upscale households in the 1990s. Keen to live out my best cool-dad fantasy, I recently spent a week behind the wheel of a T6 AWD R-Design with Polestar optimization, the sportiest version of the V90 available. And while it has a few flaws, the large station wagon still makes a strong case for itself – not the least being its not-a-crossover rarity.
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The biggest Volvo wagon relies on its clean design and handsome proportions – a long hood, impressive dash-to-axle ratio, flat roof, steeply raked rear window, and graceful rear quarter panels – to attract onlookers. Thor’s Hammer headlight accents tie this wagon in with the rest of the Volvo lineup, and for 2021, designers modernized the vertical taillights with a little sequential ballet upon lock or unlock. Even in sporty R-Design form, the V90 is short on aggression, limited primarily to a gloss black finish on the window surrounds, mirror caps, grille surround, and unique grille mesh. This tester also wore slick, optional 20-inch wheels.
The R-Design’s unique interior gets black Nappa leather upholstery (Nappa leather with Nubuck suede inserts are a no-cost option), gray contrast stitching, gorgeous aluminum mesh dash and console trim, and more aggressive front seat bolsters. Soft-touch surfaces abound inside the Volvo, with leather appearing on the steering wheel and door armrests, as well as excellent plastics even low on the center console and door panels. The V90’s spare interior design still looks fresh even after a few years on the market, thanks in part to a vertical 9.0-inch center touchscreen and 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster.
Stylistically, there’s little to complain about, but I’ll give it my best shot. For starters, I don’t love any Volvo in R-Design form. On this particular vehicle, it has a stuffed-shirt affect – the T6’s thrust is adequate, but no one’s racing for pinks behind the wheel of a V90, no matter how dark the grille is. I much prefer the identically priced Inscription, which gets satin silver exterior accents, matte wood interior trim, and a wider choice of upholstery colors (Blond leather for me, please).
Ticking the R-Design box also seems to have a detrimental effect on the big Volvo’s freeway ride, too. A sharper suspension and those aforementioned 20-inch wheels transmit far too much grit from the road to your ears, even on relatively smooth surfaces. And on grooved concrete, the V90 was downright boomy, with unpleasant reverberations echoing around the trunk – loading it down with luggage or deploying the cargo cover helped somewhat. The R-Design (and more softly sprung Inscription) comes standard with 19-inch wheels; get those if you insist on sporty styling but want a Volvo-spec smooth ride.
Luckily, just about everything else about the V90 impressed your author and his passengers. The front seats fit a variety of body types, with lumbar that can seemingly adjust to the micrometer for both large and small frames. The long Volvo also invites its passengers to stretch out a bit more, with 42.2 and 35.9 inches of front and rear legroom, respectively. Though it technically is in a class of one, the V90’s nearest competitors, the crossover-ized Audi A6 Allroad and Mercedes-Benz E450 All-Terrain, offer less front legroom, more rear legroom, and more headroom in both rows.
However, the Volvo benefits from upright windows and thin roof pillars, giving it an airier, less claustrophobic rear cabin than its German rivals, and it packs in more cargo with the rear seats folded than the Mercedes – 69.0 cubic feet instead of 64.0 (Audi doesn’t publish such measurements for the Allroad). Also working in the V90’s favor are a long list of comfort and convenience features, including front seat massage, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, clever integrated rear booster seats, and rear door sunshades, all at an as-tested price of $68,435 – barely more than the Germans’ starting prices.
All trims of the V90 come standard with a 9.0-inch center infotainment display and 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. Unlike the Allroad’s Audi Virtual Cockpit or the E450’s MBUX instrument displays, the Volvo setup is somewhat limited in customization, with two analog-style gauges bookending a reconfigurable center section, which displays a map, driver-assist icons, audio, or a blank page. A full-screen navigation option, as found on the Benz and Audi, would be most welcome, but so would relatively simple enhancements like different display styles corresponding to drive mode.
The Sensus infotainment system isn’t as intuitive as Sync, Uconnect 4, Audi MMI, or Mercedes MBUX, requiring a trip to the display to make even minor changes to the climate controls or audio source. Apart from that, the V90’s vertical center touchscreen is still reasonably easy to use once accustomed to its four-tile home screen or swipe-right app library, with detailed graphics and crisp responses to touch inputs. The $3,200 Bowers & Wilkins audio system didn’t sound worth the cash to my ears, though it does bring attractive metal speaker grilles (and adequate-but-not-amazing sound) to the table.
As I alluded earlier, anyone buying a Volvo that isn’t a Polestar-branded plug-in hybrid should understand that performance isn’t the V90’s milieu. The super- and turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four makes a respectable 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet in normal form, bumping up to 330 ponies and 315 torques when selecting the optional Polestar Engineered tune. That’s enough grunt for everyday driving, dispatching pass and merge maneuvers with some power left in reserve. The engine doesn’t make particularly pretty sounds, however, and the mid-range handoff between supercharger and turbo could be smoother.
I can’t levy the same complaint at the excellent eight-speed automatic gearbox. It executes quick shifts with every twitch of the accelerator, behavior that’s only slightly blunted when driving around in Eco mode. Improving responses further is a set of strong, linear brakes, a huge win for Volvo given all 2021 90-Series cars get regenerative braking as part of a new, standard mild-hybrid electrical system.
save over $3,400 on average off MSRP* on a new Volvo V90
Handling is likewise pleasant – here, the R-Design’s sharper suspension pays off with good turn-in and limited body roll on sweeping corners and freeway flyovers, and it handles bumps and expansion joints with no loss of composure. The front-drive–biased V90 will relent to understeer when pushed, in spite of the Polestar Engineered tuning that supposedly sends more power to the rear axle in dynamic situations. But it’s not terribly inoffensive, particularly for a large station wagon.
That said, the V90 R-Design T6 AWD isn’t an overtly sporty machine, such that I’d maybe be tempted to take a less powerful, turbo-only, front-drive T5 Inscription if I were writing the check. That vehicle’s less complex powertrain, better efficiency, and avowed devotion to slightly slushy luxury seem more in line with the V90’s stylish, comfortable personality.
I don’t even feel the need to justify a perfect safety score here, but because my boss will eventually read this, I’ll just remind the reader that every safety feature under the sun comes standard on the V90, including some that were invented by Volvo. For example, the seat belt buckles are embossed with “Since 1959,” reminding the informed that the Swedish automaker has been using three-point harnesses longer than anyone else. The V90 also comes standard with run-off road protection, which Volvo invented in 2015 to prevent spine damage by allowing the seat bottom to compress more than usual in the event the car leaves the roadway.
Aside from that, the wagon comes with standard automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane centering, lane departure mitigation, and more. Pilot Assist is also standard, and it’s one of the most advanced hands-on driver-assist suites in the industry, handling freeway curves, lane shifts, and stop-and-go traffic with equal talent.
Another area where Volvo consistently excels is fuel economy. The 2021 V90 T6 AWD is rated at 21 city, 32 highway, and 25 combined miles per gallon, and I saw an easy 26 mpg over a week that included plenty of traffic-clogged city driving. The Audi A6 Allroad gets 22 mpg combined, while the E450 All-Terrain gets 24 mpg.
With a base price of $57,800, the Volvo V90 T6 undercuts the Audi by $8,100 and the Mercedes by $9,800 before options and destination. This well-equipped R-Design boasted a $750 Climate pack (heated wiper blades, heated steering wheel, and integrated booster cushion), $1,500 for a head-up display and surround-view camera system, $1,295 for the Polestar tuning and a further $1,200 for an air suspension, $800 for 20-inch wheels, a $3,200 upgraded audio system, metallic paint, and a few other little add-ons. With a $995 destination charge, Volvo wants $68,435 for this wagon. So it’s not exactly cheap.
And yet, in spite of my own pro-Inscription bias, that’s a price I’d pay all day long if I had the coin. It’s better-equipped than similarly priced competitors, and it’s the last example of a nearly extinct breed: non-crossover longroof luxury. The V90’s styling is purer and less adorned – no body cladding here – and its airy, passenger-friendly interior is a rear-facing third row away from nostalgic perfection. The biggest Volvo wagon might not last much longer as consumers opt for the XC90 and its ilk in greater numbers, but the V90 will always be the understatedly cool choice.
Sure, you could have gotten a crossover, but instead, you picked something different. And for that, the 2021 Volvo V90 rewards you with lovely styling, a safe and spacious cabin, and a permanent spot in the upscale Swedish station wagon hall of fame.
V90 Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Volvo V90 T6 AWD Review
2021 Volvo V90 R-Design T6 AWD