Volvo has never been in-your-face; you know, the sort to blatantly associate itself with speed or beauty. If it were a person at a party, it would be that strait-laced gentleman in a crisp suit who charms you with his sleekness and modest Scandinavian cool, unlike his attention-arresting German and Italian counterparts who revel in the limelight. The Swedish automaker has always played it safe, literally, but the new Volvo S90 T8 Twin Engine, available in two trim levels, namely Inscription and the plusher Inscription Plus, wants to be heard. And it has resorted to Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), Britain’s leading manufacturer of high performance speakers and headphones since 1966, to help convey its message, loud and clear.
More about B&W’s immersive aural experience later. First, we must address the timely addition of Volvo’s flagship premium sedan to the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) battleground. It is a move that reinforces the brand’s claim that every model launched after 2019 will be either electric or hybrid, phasing out vehicles powered solely by the internal combustion engine. And what progress it has made — the T8 Twin Engine (not to be mistaken that it has two engines) is an innovative approach to power-train design. It combines a turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder petrol engine that powers the front. An electric motor, which draws juice from a 10.4 kWh lithium-iron-battery, drives the rear wheels. Synergised, the collective output easily cranks out an impressive 407hp and 640Nm of torque.
At first look, the S90 T8’s design language, like most of its latest siblings, still speaks with the same Swedish eloquence. Its two variants do not differ visually, both sporting LED taillamps, a new grille and the 19-inch diamond-cut wheels similar to the XC90. Most important of all, it is equipped with the iconic “Thor’s Hammer” LED headlights — not exactly a sobriquet you would expect from a brand that places safety firmly at its core. But with a name like that, what better way to steal someone’s thunder than flaunting those T-shaped running lights as you pull up to the valet?
As a matter of fact, Volvo is here to tell you that it has remapped its visual DNA for the sake of marketability and a more pronounced sense of identity. However, does this locally-assembled PHEV — a tangible solution to a more sustainable future — follow through on its promise of uncompromising performance even with hybrid components integrated into the design? There is only one way to find out — get on the winding North-South Expressway.
The S90 T8 assures better efficiency without the penalty of less boot space because the hybrid battery has been repositioned to the centre tunnel of the car, replacing the propeller shaft. Such powertrain design, made possible by Volvo’s acclaimed Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) chassis, also lowers the car’s centre of gravity, improves handling and protects the battery from external impacts. When you need extra room to fit two wheeled suitcases and five boxes of frozen salted-baked chicken from Ipoh for your mother-in-law, a 500L trunk space is most definitely a huge boon.
From the clean lines that flow seamlessly from nose to tail to the powerful electric motor within, the S90 T8 with agile handling is sprinkled with a litany of engineering prowess. But it is what you are dealing with directly — the cabin amenities — that helps you form a connection. The interior of the car is so impeccably built that it easily allows us to command virtually every function of each component — be it the nine-inch, tablet-sized touchscreen head unit that supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with Bluetooth audio streaming or the handmade crystal gearshift exclusively made by Orrefors, a Swedish glassmaker founded in 1898. The CleanZone air filtration system provides a clean in-car environment as we ease into the black Nappa leather upholstery behind the wheel.
As mentioned earlier, sound is also a prominent theme in the new S90 T8. Outfitted with 19 speakers, a 1,400-watt Class D amplifier and a tweeter-on-top technology that minimises acoustic reflection from the windscreen, the B&W premium sound system (only available in the Inscription Plus) has been meticulously tuned to mimic the experience one gets at the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. As we cruise down the highway in Hybrid mode with the road noise never rising above a whisper, a crisp-sounding Freddie Mercury belting out We Are the Champions gives us heart palpitations as the thunderous music seeps through the air-ventilated subwoofer. For a moment, we actually do feel like champions!
With a personal theatre on wheels and a full sun above our heads, we would be remiss if we do not give the car a little boost. As we careen around the hilly areas in Power mode, which combines the full output of the petrol engine and the electric motor, the S90 T8 — capable of sprinting from 0 to 100kph in only 4.8 seconds — accelerates with great authority. The communicative powertrain package has a great throttle response but if you plan on just coasting along without any drama, the emissions-free Pure mode — on which one can travel up to 40km with the battery fully charged — allows you to waft up and down the highway in electric silence.
A unique feature to the Inscription Plus, we must also highlight, is that it receives air suspensions with electronically-controlled adaptive dampers (Four-C) for all four corners. They keep the rear at the precise level irrespective of load and adapt to various driving conditions. Both trim levels share a number of features, such as the Park Assist Pilot, 360-surround View Camera, Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) with Cross Traffic Alert and the Lane Keeping Aid.
And because Volvo will always be Volvo, its leadership in the field of automotive safety is not going to be rivalled anytime soon. The City Safety Technology, expected in all models now, includes automatic breaking and the Large Animal Detection ability that mitigates collisions with large animals such as moose or, more plausibly in our country, an elephant. Not to forget, the new model also launches with IntelliSafe as standard, which includes Adaptive Cruise Control, Disaster Alert and Pilot Assist, an advanced semi-autonomous feature designed for adverse weather or long stretches on the road.
So there we are — stealing glimpses of Ipoh’s limestone caves and the verdant forest as we daringly take our hands off the wheel with the aid of the Pilot Assist. Our car gently slows itself down and pumps the brakes when it senses a looming vehicle or traffic hazards ahead. It no longer needs to keep pace with the vehicle in front of us, cruising ever-so-smoothly while keeping the body properly aligned with lane markings up to speeds of around 130kph. It is very tempting to relinquish control and let our mind wander but the car computers are smart enough to prompt us to keep watch on the wheel again after a small amount of time. Otherwise, the Pilot Assist automatically deactivates.
As the automotive world edges closer to the self-piloting driving era, Volvo — like many of its semi-autonomous driving contemporaries — seems to cajole us into a mind game between trusting its technology and our own instincts. But the automaker, determined to eliminate deaths and injuries in its vehicle by 2020, brings a whole new meaning to “independence” while looking out for you and your family. The S90 T8, as clever and eco-friendly as it may be, wants you to know that you will always be in charge and look sharp while saving the world. With or without the help of Mjölnir.
The Inscription model is priced at RM368,888 and Inscription Plus is RM388,888. Visit www.volvocars.com.my for more information.