Review: 2021 Volvo V90 T6 AWD R-Design
This Scandinavian alternative is not a bargain-priced Ikea piece.
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Long live the wagon. While there might be some tasteless leftovers from the years of the forgettable 'station wagons,' wagons should not be disregarded. In fact, newsflash: wagons are even cool. No, not small little hatchbacks but proper wagon estate cars. If you don't believe me, just take a gander at this Volvo, because when a wagon looks like the Volvo V90 then yes, they are indeed very, very cool.
This isn't your grandma's old Oldsmobile station wagon. Heavens no. Instead, the designers from a region known for their scaled-down and clean simplicity have bestowed us with a sexy and endearing shape that also happens to be extremely practical. Wagons are practical, after all, because instead of a trunk, they are blessed with gobs of volume for whatever you desire; Taller items have trouble fitting in trunks, but they do just fine in the back of a wagon. Though, lest we forget, wagon is too common of a name for a vehicle like this, rather henceforth we shall call it its proper nomenclature: an estate vehicle, a name made popular in England. While estates have been all the rage in Europe for decades, they have never caught on in the United States in recent years mainly due to the average American's distaste and memory for the old heavy and ghastly station wagons of yore. Shoot, you can even buy a 600 horsepower nuclear estate from Audi or Mercedes. Wake up, America!
Okay, so this Volvo is sexy, especially in the menacing Onyx black paint. Look, if Darth Vader were to make a run to the store, this is what he'd take. Or maybe one of Sauron's Nazgul, too. I could only imagine what it might look like with glossy black wheels to match. In car design, it historically is an attractive element to visually stretch or lengthen a vehicle. Not literally make it longer, but to use design to make it appear longer. The long flowing and slightly sloping roof that makes an estate vehicle does just that, but without making it porky; long and sleek is the goal. From the side profile, the rear hatch tapers towards the roof for added aggression. Avoiding vulgarity, the Volvo, in true Swedish fashion, finds itself not festooned with gills and grills galore, but rather it's a soft and simple execution. This is good car design and if you argue otherwise you need therapy.
Volvo has moved decidedly upmarket throughout the last decade and now finds themselves right in the wheelhouse of BMW and Mercedes in their offerings and prices. Yes, this V90 stickered for $68,435 as equipped which is a lot, but it earns the price tag upon initial ingress. The adorning blonde Nappa leather is as soft and supple as you can imagine and seems to wrap you up like your favorite blanket. Everywhere your eyes gaze and your hands touch just feels impressive and of an esteemed quality. The metal speaker vents for the Bowers & Wilkens are particularly classy. This might be a rather expensive car, but looking at and just being inside is extremely convincing.
The large screen is what attracts your eyes at first glance, appearing almost like an iPad embedded into the dash, but not like an aftermarket garage hack-job in the slightest. Using it to control radio, your phone, navigation and other tasks took some time to get used to - Quite a lot of time actually. I eventually got the knack for it, but be warned that there is a learning curve to it, but with some use it luckily becomes easy and is beautiful to behold. Weirdly, the screen grants the access to rapidly fold the rear seat headrests...while you have passengers. This provided many laughs during my week as various noggins were slyly bonked from behind.
Seats, every seat that is, were found to be supremely comfortable with appreciable shoulder support for the driver. An extending bottom portion provided extra support for those with longer legs, too. It's a long thing at 194 inches total and useful 115 inch wheelbase to give more room in the second row. The cabin was also quiet as a luxury car ought to be. Quite simply, it's a beautiful interior in every sense of the word and easily holds up to the asking price. Though, a trim piece did somehow come loose during my time (just popped back in luckily) and also I can't help but feel the steering wheel should be electronically adjusted and not manual. The other annoying bit is an awkward engine start and stop procedure as you turn a weirdly shaped dial aft of the shifter. It feels odd in your grasp and in use; Turn it right to start and to stop is also right. Oh well.
Under the long hood is a transverse-mounted engine of peculiar peculiarity. Boasting just four cylinders and known as the T6, this unit is both turbocharged and supercharged, juicing up 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. This has been a Volvo hallmark for years now, with the idea being that you get the efficiency of turbocharging and reusing your waste, but also the immediacy and response of supercharging. This can otherwise be known as twin-charging. Does it work? Erm.
While the four-pot is indeed responsive and as lag free as a turbocharged car can be, I did find it wanting in the power department and also economically. 0-60 MPH was dealt with in 5.8 seconds as aided by clean getaways from the all-wheel drive, but it never really feels that fast. Once up and over 50 MPH, it's just not quick enough for something that costs this much and also looks this good. Around town and slower roads, the supercharged aspect pays dividends in regards to feeling perky and responsive to get you on the move. The eight-speed transmission also gave faultless and smooth shifts.
While the EPA might rate this Volvo at 32 MPG on the highway, I never saw over 28 on a long freeway trip cruising on I-5 at a modest 72 MPH, which proved to be rather disappointing. In mixed driving, the mean could only muster 22. So, here's another case of a four-cylinder engine underperforming in efficiency testing. I actually have no idea how the EPA reached their numbers unless they tested it downhill. BMW's six cylinders give not only truly outstanding performance, but also better mileage. It is smooth for a four cylinder powerplant at least and the Volvo does well to shield you from unwanted noises from it under acceleration.
Now, why might you want a wagon 'estate' car rather than an SUV? Well, the V90 drives like a car, not an overweight high-riding utility vehicle. And rather well, too, does it drive. Don't expect it to light your undergarments on fire with this one (though the heated front and rear seats do work well), though, as that wasn't the design brief. However, steering is nicely weighted and judged even if it's as mute as a mime. Point the wheel in your desired direction and the Volvo responds quickly to your itinerary, it's as easy as that. The ride quality could be softer, but it strikes a balance between ride comfort and control over the chassis through corners with more speed. This is the R-Design, after all. Adding to that, this V90 was specced with the optional air suspension that works to adapt to driving conditions and modes.
Aided by the all-wheel drive system underneath, on snaking canyon roads the Volvo was more than adept at quick changes in direction and never struggled for grip nor traction. Balance is decent and it hides the size and weight rather well, too. On these tight and tricky roads, there isn't much in the world that it couldn't keep up with. Unfortunately, it's just not entirely involving nor fun, even with the V90 engaged into the sporty Polestar drive mode. However, I think capability is the more meaningful attribute for a vehicle of this class, and capable the Volvo is. What it never feels like, though, is a large and lumbering SUV, which is why the estate makes all the sense in the world.
As far as comparable alternatives go for an estate car, there isn't much to choose from. BMW doesn't sell their rendition in the United States. Audi offers an A6 allroad, Jaguar did make an XF Sportbrake (since discontinued for, you guessed it, slow sales), and Mercedes has the E450 All-Terrain Wagon. All of these offerings start at a higher entry point than the Volvo, which can be had for as little as $58k with the T6 engine. Options pumped this tester up to $68,435 signed, sealed, and delivered, but you could, for example, remove the Bowers and Wilkins for $3,200. On the contrary, most of the German alternatives will reach the low to mid $70Ks to match the equipment level onboard the 'Swede. While both the Audi and Benz do provide some off-road cred, Volvo has their own 'Cross Country' version with a lifted suspension for a more go-anywhere lifestyle.
For a luxury estate vehicle, the Volvo has a lot to offer while standing out from a typical sedan or SUV. The estate makes a lot of sense to me: you get the practicality that comes with an SUV, but it's still very much a car underneath and drives like one. And plus, it looks fabulous and is highly exclusive (how many have you seen on the road?). I do reckon this Volvo could use a bit extra power and should achieve better fuel mileage, but on the whole the V90 is another polished machine out of Scandinavia, one that more should pay attention to.
2021 Volvo V90 T6 R-Design AWD
Price As-Tested: $68,435
The Road Beat Rating: 4/5
Pros: Beautiful inside and out; wagon practicality
Cons: Isn't cheap; four cylinder weak on performance and economy
Verdict: Make wagons great again