What’s you idea of a Chinese car? Some piece of gimcrack engineering based on an obsolete western model? A crude knock off of someone else’s design, but badly built and unsafe at any speed? Maybe even a modern budget hatch made under a joint venture with a large established manufacturer from Europe, Korea, America or Japan?
All those would be accurate, I grant you, but allow me to introduce you to a different kind of Chinese vehicle; the Volvo S90 R-Design. It’s made in Daqing, which is in Heilongjiang province in the far north east of the People’s Republic. A few years ago Volvo, which had run into severe financial difficulties as part of the Ford Motor Company’s ownership, was sold to the Geely Corporation of China. Geely has pumped many billions of pounds worth of investment into the venerable brand, and the S90 is one of the results.
And yet even car fans are little hazy about the new Chinese influence on Volvo. To my shame I’d not heard of this city of 3 million people, and an important industrial centre for many decades (also apparently the subject of a Supreme Declaration by Chairman Mao in 1959 entitled “Learn from Daqing”). In truth there are many gigantic metropolises in China that we’re completely unaware of, a sign, I think, that we are still to comprehend the scale and force of the – unfinished – new Chinese industrial revolution. By the way, Geely also owns the London Taxi company, and recently opened a new factory in the Midlands to build an electric version of I and some electric-powered vans too – a small ray of hope for the British motor industry, post-Brexit.
That, then, is the provenance of this sporty version of Volvo’s smart new S90 range, the R-Design, and it is everything you’d expect a Swedish brand to bring you. It’s big on safety, the only problem with that being I’d have had to crash it, or attempt to, to properly test out the many safety features. So I didn’t discover if the automatic braking that is supposed to be applied when it senses an imminent collision actually would take place, still less whether that would be preferable to avoiding action on your own human initiative.
Other safety-oriented features I can report work very well indeed; the little lights in the door mirrors that cover your blind spots, for instance, as well as the warnings that you’re too close to an obstacle in front and the “road edge detection” that can sense if you’re wandering too far out of your lane and will attempt to steer the car back into line.
With radar controlled adaptable cruise control that will speed up or brake according to pre-set instructions, the sportily inclined S90 is something of a contradiction – a sporty car that doesn’t exactly invite you to drive it. Indeed, the S90, like many modern Volvos and other “premium” marques, is edging steadily closer to the ideal of the driverless car, which is something I still cannot quite believe in (and some recent prangs suggest that its imminent arrival has been exaggerated). You ought to know too that, as far as any hapless pedestrians are concerned, the Volvo scores superlatively for their safety in an accident.
“Take back control” is a fashionable slogan, so I thought I would do precisely that in the R-Design. The sporty touches are mostly cosmetic – dramatic big alloy wheels (options up to 21 inches, with 18 inches as standard), more supportive seats, and “sports” pedals, for example. More substantively, the chassis is lowered a little (15 millimetres). Volvo’s Polestar performance arm doesn’t endow vehicles with the same sort of raw edge that BMW’s M-sport variants possess.
Where the S90 scores most impressively is the cabin. It is classy and individual, and comfortable and stress-relieving. Volvo’s well-known German rivals have much of a muchness about them; but the Volvo is ahead in flair and ease of use, especially with its large and tall central display touchscreen.
The only serious criticism of the Volvo is that there is no petrol engine option. I think we know enough now about diesel and its uncertain future, and I am a little surprised that, in Britain at any rate, customers are only allowed to choose between two four cylinder diesels (my test car was the lower powered of the pair, the D4. The D5 adds about 20 per cent more power, all-wheel drive and shaves about a second off the 0 to 60mph time). Capable as they are, they are not, very possibly, what you’d call future-proof.
Overall, the blend of entertainment, the feeling of safety and the cosseting ride is maybe the Volvo’s greatest safety asset of all – keeping the nut behind the wheel secure. Well done, China.
Volvo S90 R-Design D4
Price: £35,400 (range starts at £32,900)
Engine capacity: 2 litre; 8-sp auto
Power output (hp @ rpm): 190@4,250
Top speed (mph): 140
0-62 mph (seconds): 8.2
Fuel economy (mpg): 64.2
CO2 emissions (g/km): 116