I hope you all had a great Christmas. I did. It included all the usual overindulgences – turkey with all the trimmings, too much booze – and the good company of family and friends. All very hearty and heart-warming stuff, but what made it even more special this year were the presents. Not the ones from Santa’s sack – I already had plenty of socks and scarfs, thank you – I'm talking very large and very Volvo-shaped presents, in the form of not one but two Volvo V90 estates. Oh, yummy.
You see, the idea of spending a prolonged period with these two was genuinely interesting – in all, I had them for four weeks, which is an unusually long time for me to spend with one model. I am a big fan of the estate car generally, but there’s something particularly pleasing about Volvo estates. I wrote last summer about my time with a V60 T6, and I said then it was one of the best cars I’d driven all year. Roomy, effortless to drive over long distances, and, since it’s gained a bigger hybrid battery, even its half-and-half powertrain made sense. It was easily covering off my day-to-day toings and froings on electric power, with the petrol engine quashing any range anxiety over longer distances. It was brilliant.
Oddly, the V90 isn’t that much more practical. It offers a bit more rear legroom and a slightly larger boot, but in objective terms, that’s not enough to justify spending the extra cash over its younger sibling – the golden child. Still, the V90 is the ultimate; the pinnacle of the range. There’s something satisfying about that, even if it is more about ego-boosting than any real substance. And the reason why the V90 isn’t vastly more practical than the V60 is that it's even better looking.
The V60’s rump is more abruptly cut off – not quite at a 700 Series right angle, but noticeably more so than the V90’s. And the V90’s sloping rear gives it a really graceful finish, and, as I’ve said before, few mainstream cars these days match Volvos for good looks. Mercedes is all about bling, Audi all about aggression, and BMW…well, God only knows what BMW’s styling is about these days? Volvo, on the other hand, is apparently the only one left exploring elegance and classiness in the premium sector. I feel proud turning up in a V90; it implies a degree of good taste.
The two V90s were quite different, though. The car that arrived before Christmas was a regular V90 T6, with the same hybrid setup as the V60. The car that arrived after Christmas was a V90 Cross Country. Now, I thought I’d been told at the booking stage that it was going to be a diesel, which I thought would be a great contrast to the T6 – olden-day efficiency versus the new hybrid world order. Or to some, perhaps, a simple battle of good versus evil. But within 100 metres I knew something was amiss. Either it was the world’s smoothest oil burner, or it was running on something less viscous and rather more volatile. It turns out all my years of road testing have stood me in good stead, because I can almost immediately tell the difference between a petrol and a diesel. Yes, it was a B5 (P), and that's P for petrol.
Still, it was a good test to see whether the T6 is worth the extra £9,000 over the B5 (P), which has a much simpler, 250hp 2.0-litre engine. Obviously, the hybrid has the bonus of an electric motor that takes over when the battery’s charged. Officially it’ll do over 50 miles before firing up the engine, but I was getting about 35-40 miles depending on the type of journey. Still not a bad effort, and financially savvy if you can charge it up regularly on a low-rate tariff – if they still exist.
Once the battery was depleted, though, I was getting low to mid-thirties MPG. That’s about what I was getting from the B5 (P), although a non-Cross Country version might bolster that slightly, going by the WLTP figures. Either way, it does demonstrate to the unaware that there’s no point wasting money on a PHEV if you're not going to charge it up. Unless you’re a company car driver. Then, regardless of whether the battery is juiced or not, you’ll be paying eight per cent company car tax instead of 37 per cent. That's what you’ll be clobbered with if you opt for the B5 (P).
The T6 does have other advantages, mind, like outright performance. Its combined power sources add another 100hp to the overall mix, which makes 350hp in total. And that makes the T6 a bit of a sleeper. 0-62mph in 5.5 seconds, which for a large estate is quick, while the B5 (P)’s 6.9 seconds is merely brisk. The thing is, the V90’s laid-back nature meant I rarely felt inclined to hoof it. Besides, I'm far too sophisticated these days to go in for any childish, red-light-drag races (mostly), but I did appreciate the T6’s added driveability.
Having the torque-fill of the electric motor, both off the line and when you’re at speed, is a massive boost metaphorically as well as literally. For a start, you can safely go for gaps in the traffic that would have you broadsided in the B5 (P), and the T6 is much more relaxing on the motorway. Just a little twitch of the right foot and you’re seamlessly into the fast lane. In fact, the T6 edges toward effortless performance, whereas the B5 (P)’s comparative lack of torque means you’re more often cracking the whip by plunging the accelerator to the pedal stop. That means more noise, so even discounting the T6’s full-stealth EV mode, it’s invariably more refined.
There are downsides to the T6, though. Mostly to do with the ride and handling. It’s 2,026kg, and no, that’s not when it’s towing a boat. That's on its own. Even with the Cross Country’s four-wheel-drive adding 100kg to a regular V90 petrol, it still trims 166kg from the T6. That’s not buttons: by my calculations, it’s about 50 bricks, and you can feel it. The T6 has more understeer, leans more and, on a wet road especially, feels a lot more ponderous. Don't forget, that’s compared with a car that’s jacked up by 65mm and running thinner tyres with plumper sidewalls. In fact, the Cross Country handles reasonably tidily, with a half-sensible balance front to rear. It's not a driver's car, but it is a car that gives you a decent amount of confidence nevertheless. The issue I found with both V90s was the steering: the on-centre feel is poor, so you have to keep it in check in a straight line, and at no point does the steering get chatty. In fact, if it were a person it would be designated a mute.
Getting back to tyres, the Cross Country’s bigger sidewalls no doubt soften the blows from the great caverns that have been opening up in the roads recently, but the main factor in it riding noticeably better is most likely to be weight again. The T6 will surely have stiffer springs to prop up its bulk, and over sharper intrusions it thumps and crashes more often. It’s not upsetting, but I much preferred being in the Cross Country, which generally pads over stuff in a mellower manner. In other aspects, you can tell they're cut from the same cloth. I relish the hospitable feel of a V90’s interior – even more so with the cloth seats that the T6 came with. But all Volvo seats are famously comfy, regardless of the upholstery. Those, along with the isolation from wind and road noise at speed, make the V90 a spectacularly good motorway car.
There is an issue, and that’s the infotainment. I mentioned the last time I tested a Volvo with the latest Android software that I thought it was a backwards step in some ways. That's confirmed, it is. I feel a bit sorry moaning about this, because ever since Volvo launched the previous Sensus infotainment package in the XC90, everyone, including me, gave that a drubbing. The problem is, it really didn’t need a root and branch change. The software’s stability and responsiveness was the issue, and the fact that the Apple CarPlay integration felt a bit half-baked – it only used a fraction of the car’s 9.0-inch portrait screen. But in terms of the layout and the ability to swipe from the home screen to the settings menus easily, it was great and dead easy to use.
Now it's all been changed, and the good news it the Android system is more responsive. However, I made telephone calls in both cars and the person on the other end couldn’t hear me, so the reliability still isn't quite there. That also came to light when I plugged my phone into the Cross Country and the Apple CarPlay had an immediate hissy fit. It crashed completely and refused to reappear. If this happens to you, I’ve since learned what to do. Press and hold the home button for more than 20 seconds and the system reboots, which did solve the issue. It won’t solve the problem if you have an Android phone, though. How strange is this? Android developed this software, yet the V90 doesn’t have Android Auto. True, some of the apps that you’d have on your phone can be download to the car, but not the full suite. That includes Waze, and which company owns the company that develops Waze? Google. Where’s the sense in that?
Then there are the small icons. The temperature controls are tiny, and some of the other features are buried, like the T6’s driving modes. If you want to save the battery range, which I did, you have to wade through the menus to press the ’hold charge’ function every time you switch the ignition off and then on again. Just leave things how I left them, please. That in itself is a pain, but if you forget to do it after stopping at, say, a services on the M4, which of course I did, when you arrive at your destination – the town that you were saving all that lovely, clean, green energy up for – it's all vanished into thin air.
Then there's the dimmer control for the screens. Yes, I know, this sounds like I am just picking up on stupid stuff now, but hear me out. In the old V90, I am sure there used to be a simple dimmer wheel – an old-fashioned rheostat – just to the right of the steering wheel. Not anymore. And with the screens lighting up the car at night with the intensity of a small sun, I was searching away trying to find out how to stop myself from being blinded. I'm not being big-headed here, but I’ve been doing this job long enough to know that if I can't fathom something out without looking in the owner's manual, generally that's the fault of the user interface, not me. But I couldn’t work out how to dim the screens myself, and couldn't I work it out after searching in the digital owner's manual, either, because that was useless.
At this point, it did cross my mind that, just maybe, I’d reached that stage of life – you know, where electronics stop making sense and you have to ask a young person for help. So I asked Cam T, who is young, and he couldn’t work it out, even after looking it up on Google – it's all bloody Google's fault. I found out how to do it eventually, but only by chance. It's not in the section called 'Displays,' where I had been looking. Oh no. I found it because I wanted to change the interior lighting, so I went to the section called 'Lighting,' found a slider for 'Ambient lighting' and moved that. And that when the flipping instruments and screen dimmed. IT MAKES NO SENSE.
Okay, rant over. And the upshot is, despite the evidence of the preceding paragraphs, I still love the V90. It’s a bit of a shame that Volvo, like all manufacturers seem to do, is fiddling with stuff but not thinking about whether this is actually adding anything – or, more worryingly, making things worse. But overall the big estate is a joy to be in. Of the two drivetrains, which one would I choose were I buying one today? Well, as much as I liked the T6 in the V60, I felt that in the V90, the ride and handling compromises were bigger. I wouldn’t discount it, but it probably wouldn’t be my first choice.
I think that would be the car I thought I was getting: the Cross Country diesel B5 (D). I know that’s not a popular choice these days, but it’s still a sensible one for me. The diesel is cheaper than the B5 (P) Cross Country – and way cheaper than the V90 T6 I had. It's also torquier, which adds in some of the mid-range shove you lose with the petrol-only option. I do lots of long journeys, too, and can't charge at home very easily, which means whether I had the T6 or the B5 (P), I'd be getting nearly 10mpg more on average. Whatever the engine, though, a V90 is one of the best wagons on sale, and despite what Matt Bird says now he's swapped his 3 Series Touring for an SUV, estate cars trump SUVs every time.
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