David Motton

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With head-turning looks and four-wheel drive, does this 232bhp Volvo V90 have what tow car ability it takes to make the grade? We've hitched up to find out

Overview

Volvo is best-known for its estate cars, and the V90 is the Swedish manufacturer’s latest.

Like the XC90 SUV, the V90 shows Volvo’s desire to push further upmarket, so the V90 is hunting for the likes of the Audi A6 Avant, the BMW 5 Series Touring and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate.

There’s a choice of strong but frugal turbodiesel engines. We’re driving the more powerful D5 with four-wheel-drive running gear to further its credentials as an all-weather tow car.

In Volvo’s determination to establish itself as an alternative to the big-name German brands, is it losing sight of what its existing customers want? We’ll consider this and more as we establish what tow car ability it has.

Towing

Think of the ideal tow car, and many will picture an SUV.

However, with their lower centre of gravity and plentiful luggage space, the best four-wheel-drive estates can give any SUV a run for its money.

The Volvo V90 is a case in point. Any V90 is a reasonably hefty tow car, but adding a four-wheel-drive transmission further pushes up the kerbweight.

Volvo quotes both a kerbweight and a weight in running order in its brochures. It confirmed that it’s the latter that gives the weight of the car with a 90%-full fuel tank, necessary fluids, and including 75kg for the driver (which is the definition of kerbweight we use).

So, the Volvo weighs 1817kg. The car’s legal towing limit is 2200kg, and the maximum download on the towball is 100kg.

We matched the car to a Swift Expression 586 with a Mass in Running Order of 1335kg.

At a steady 60mph it was almost a surprise to see the caravan in our mirrors, there was so little movement. Crosswinds and overtaking high-sided vehicles failed to make the Volvo waver.

Some cars feel fine at motorway speeds but are found out by the lane-change test. The Volvo was serene and unflustered, however.

The steering was direct, body roll was held in check, and the V90’s tyres found ample grip on the wet track. It felt planted and secure.

The Volvo V90 is a quick tow car as well as a stable one – certainly with this engine. With 232bhp at 4000rpm and 354lb ft of torque between 1750 and 2250rpm, the Volvo can really shift with a caravan in tow.

Our benchmark 30-60mph sprint took 8.2 seconds, and 50-60mph needed just 3.5 seconds. On the road that means reassuring and urgent acceleration whenever you want it, and holding your pace on hilly roads is easy.

Thanks to the torquey engine, four-wheel drive and electronic parking brake, the hill-start test was simple. The e-brake held car and caravan still, then released smoothly – all that torque going to each wheel did the rest.

During regular towing, the Volvo’s brakes were easy to apply smoothly, and showed plenty of bite when needed – an emergency stop from 30mph required 10.5m. That’s very short, given how damp the track was.

As a tow car, the Volvo V90 doesn’t really put a foot wrong. It’s stable, quick and dependable in emergency manoeuvres.

The kerbweight is high for an estate, so it’s a sensible match for many caravans, and this four-wheel-drive model is capable in all weathers.

Everyday driving

The V90 faces stiff competition from the likes of the BMW 5 Series Touring and the Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate. From the driver’s seat it holds its own, though.

On country roads, more feedback through the wheel would be welcome, but the steering is direct and accurate. It might not be especially involving, but the V90’s handling is very composed.

Taut handling hasn’t been achieved at the expense of ride comfort, however. At high speeds the Volvo V90 is smooth and serene, although it can be caught out by sharp-edged bumps in town.

Without a caravan in tow, the V90 D5 is very quick. With so much pulling power to call upon there’s rarely any need to use full throttle, and the eight-speed gearbox swaps ratios smoothly.

It can be a little slow to respond if the car is left in ‘comfort’ or ‘eco’ mode. Switching the Drive Mode system to ‘dynamic’ adds weight to the steering and makes the gearbox more responsive, although the more relaxed feel of ‘comfort’ mode suits the car better during regular driving.

Despite the D5 badging, the V90 is powered by a four-cylinder engine rather than one of the brand’s old five-cylinder diesels.

At high revs the engine can sound rather gruff, but when driving gently it remains subdued. In fact, the V90’s refinement is among its most impressive qualities.

There’s very little wind noise, even at 70mph, and road noise is also kept in check.

Combine that with the comfortable ride, and this really is a remarkable car for long-distance driving.

Space

This is where traditional Volvo customers might not approve of the brand’s new approach. The V90 is a very practical car, but a few compromises have been made to make it stylish, too.

Own a big dog or two? A more upright rear window would allow them to travel in greater comfort.

The load space is long and wide, but not especially deep. Its capacity of 560 litres matches that of an Audi A6 Avant, but it’s well beaten by the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate’s 640 litres.

Fold down the rear seats and the capacity increases to 1526 litres. Again, that’s a lot of room, but far from class-leading. The boot floor is flush with the tailgate and low to the ground, though, so loading heavy bags is a cinch.

There’s lots of space for passengers, with plenty of front legroom, but the sunroof does reduce headroom. We found the driver’s seat to be comfortable for long days behind the wheel.

The standard of finish really is very good indeed. There’s quality everywhere you look, with soft-touch plastics, precise switchgear and lots of neat design details.

The centre console is dominated by a huge screen. The display is crisp and clear, and the screen is sensitive and accurate to the touch, so there’s no need for the repeated prodding that some require.

Air vents in the door pillars ensure those in the back enjoy a good ambient temperature, and there’s enough legroom for six-foot passengers to sit behind an equally tall driver.

However, the stout transmission tunnel means that two rear passengers will be more comfortable than three.

So, the V90 is a roomy car. But Volvo’s new approach means that attractive design has been weighed against ultimate practicality.

Running costs

Volvo’s now taking on the big German brands head-on, and that’s reflected in the pricing.

The V90 range starts from £34,955, and our D5 AWD Inscription costs £44,455. Polite twisting of the salesperson’s arm should drop that to £42,591, according to WhatCar?’s Target Price research team.

By way of comparison, a Mercedes-Benz E220d Estate 4Matic AMG Line costs £42,170, although it’s worth noting that the Merc’s engine is significantly less powerful than the Volvo’s.

Your money buys lots of toys as standard. Inscription-spec cars have Nappa leather upholstery, heated front seats, powered adjustment for the driver and front passenger’s seats, hands-free boot opening and closing, LED headlights, two-zone climate control, sat-nav and Sensus Connect for internet connectivity.

The Volvo is also very efficient: according to the official combined figure the D5 AWD is capable of 57.6mpg. When towing on A-roads and motorways, we saw an impressive 29mpg.

There’s a long list of standard safety kit, and the V90 has scored five stars in the latest round of Euro NCAP testing. That included an excellent 95% score for adult occupant protection.

When the time comes to sell on the V90, What Car?’s used-car experts predict that it will be worth 41% of the original list price. That’s relatively modest for a prestige-badged car.

Technical specs

Engine size1969 cc
Kerbweight1817 kg
85% KW1544 kg
Towball limit100 kg
Maximum towing limit2200 kg
Power232.0 bhp
Torque354.0 lb ft
Official MPG57.6 mpg
CO2129 g/km
30-60mph8.2 seconds
30-0mph10.5 m

Verdict

Like the XC90 before it, the Volvo V90 clearly shows where the manufacturer sees its future. It’s an appealing vision, but it’s not a perfect picture.

If you think that a Volvo estate should be the ultimate, no-nonsense load-hauler, then the V90 will leave you scratching your head.

Don’t get us wrong, this is still a very practical car, but it doesn’t have the cavernous load-space that you might expect of a big Volvo.

It’s also expensive to buy, although that’s offset to some extent by the impressive fuel economy, low emissions and generous standard specification.

When considering what tow car ability it has, though, there is no doubt that the V90 is extremely impressive. Whatever test we put it through, the Volvo mastered it.

In emergency manoeuvres, at high speed and in everyday towing, the V90 was unflustered and reassuring. The engine has tremendous mid-range pulling power, so the V90 is a quick tow car as well as a stable one.

And, of course, being four-wheel drive this V90 performs well in all weathers.

We thoroughly enjoyed the V90 without a caravan behind, too. It’s not a sharp or engaging drive, but it is a very comfortable and capable one. The ride is smooth, and the cabin is hushed and quiet at speed.

The cabin is superbly made and very stylish. The infotainment system is one of the best you’ll find in any car, and there’s lots of passenger space.

The more time we spent with the V90, the more we liked it. There are bigger estate cars, but very few are so adept at towing a caravan.

Conclusion

Pros

  • It's a superb tow car
  • As a solo drive, it is capable and comfortable
  • Fuel efficiency is impressive
  • You get a lot of kit as standard

Cons

  • It is not as practical a load-lugger as you might expect
  • It's quite pricey
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