Certain car brands conjure up a particular image the minute you hear them.
If someone says Ferrari you instantly imagine something sleek, fast and red. Land Rover means square off-roader, Barbour jackets and wellies. And Volvo, for as long as anyone can remember, instantly brings to mind boxy estate cars packed with antiques - or Labradors.
Of course, Volvo does a lot more than “boxy but good” estates now. It’s got a whole range of SUVs, the sporty looking S60 saloon and a coupe-SUV on the way. But it hasn’t totally abandoned the traditional estate market and the V90 is its current contender against the likes of the Audi A6 Avant, Mercedes E-Class estate and BMW 5 Series Touring.
Not that the V90 is boxy. Long gone are the days of Volvos that were designed with a ruler and set-square. This latest big load lugger still has the traditional estate shape but thanks to some deft design touches looks low, long and sleek rather than solid and slab-sided.
Where once there were flat edges and functional square details there are now subtle creases and lines that soften the Volvo’s substantial bulk - it’s still 4.93m long and 1.87m wide - but retain a certain amount of understated road presence.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a total sucker for Volvo’s interior design. From the smallest XC40 through to the massive XC90, there’s a clear design language at play that keeps things simple, neat and cool. Pale leather and a panoramic roof (part of a £5,000 option pack) create a wonderful feeling of airiness and space, enhanced by the soft open-pore wood finish. Simple chrome trim lines the dash and door tops and even after several years, the V90’s cabin feels inviting and comfortable in the face of rivals that try to dazzle with technology and flashy finishes.
This being a proper big family estate, it seemed sensible to take it on a proper big family holiday - five-up for a week in the Scottish Highlands, taking enough changes of clothes, buckets, spades and food supplies to keep an army going.
At 560 litres the V90’s boot is big but not the biggest in its class. The 5 Series and Jaguar XF Sportbrake are almost identical but the E-Class has them all beaten with a massive 640 litres (don’t mention the far cheaper Skoda Superb with its 660 litres). So, not class leading but still a decent size and sensibly designed to offer a large, accessible load area with no annoying lip and plenty of space for all our family’s luggage.
There’s a similar generosity of space for passengers. Even with two bulky child seats, there is enough shoulder room for a third child to endure a five-hour drive without complaint and there’s sufficient legroom even behind a very tall driver. The main drawback of the V90 as a true five-seater is the bulky transmission tunnel that swallows up most of the legroom for a middle rear passenger. You’ll never hear a complaint from those in front thanks to generous room all round and some of the most supportive seats in the business.
Volvo is committed to an electrified future, with plans for all of its cars to be EVs by 2030. Before then it’s leaning heavily into hybrids. The whole range now comes with mild hybrid options but our V90 was a T6 plug-in affair. This uses a 2.0-litre petrol engine and an electric motor to provide drive to all four wheels - the same arrangement as our old long-term XC60. With 335bhp it offers a very un-Volvo-like 0-62mph time of 5.6 seconds but official economy of 134.5mpg with 47g/km of CO2 emissions.
Of course, those figures, which help win favour with the tax man, are pie in the sky and mid-40s economy is more realistic. What’s nice about the V90 PHEV, though, is its ability to cover around 30 miles under purely electric power. Even when the petrol engine does kick in, the entire arrangement is smooth and effortless, much like its on-road manners, which feel set up for long-distance cruising with minimal effort and maximum comfort.
Which brings us back to the traditional image of a Volvo - easygoing, comfortable and practical. The V90 still excels in all those areas but with a more stylish and high-tech twist that earns it a place at the premium end of the market.
Volvo V90 Recharge Plug-in Hybrid T6 AWD Inscription
Price: £56,800 (£61,140 as tested); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol with electric motor; Power: 335bhp; Torque: 435lb ft; Transmission: Eight-speed automatic; Top speed: 112 mph; 0-60mph: 5.6 seconds; Economy: 134.5 mpg; CO2 emissions: 47g/km