The XC90 showed what a revitalised Volvo is capable of. Can the company's striking new S90 emulate that vehicle's performance by defeating the E-Class?

The S90 won't have it easy in this test. This very E220d saw off a challenge from the BMW 520d in August 2016 and, in this year's Top 12 Best Buys, it came close to toppling the S-Class as our favourite luxury car. The E-Class has pedigree in spades, yes, but it's also deeply accomplished, distilling the S-Class' desirable qualities – refinement, comfort, advanced technology and perceived build quality – into a package that’s more affordable.

But, in that test against the BMW, we unearthed a few weaknesses in the E-Class package on which the wonderfully expressive S90 might just be able to capitalise… More on that later.

First, let's examine our two protagonists. Flying the German flag is the E220d, which is equipped with Benz's brand new and instantly impressive 2,0-litre turbodiesel. It is fed by a single turbo and powers the rear wheels through an equally fresh nine-speed torque-converter automatic transmission. In typical Benz style, there's a sole trim grade available per model, with Avantgarde packages and the like offered as extra-cost options on models lower down the rung, such as the E220d.

The Volvo, meanwhile, comes in Momentum, Inscription and R-Design lines, and it's the mid-range one we're testing in top-specification diesel form. The D5 is a Drive-E 2,0-litre turbodiesel engine boosted by two turbochargers, and it feeds motive force to all four corners through an eight-speed automatic transmission. The most powerful petrol engine installed in the T6 shares this all-wheel drivetrain, while the D4 – the E220d’s equal in terms of outputs – and T5 churn their respective front wheels.

The Mercedes-Benz is the more accessibly priced vehicle, but the Volvo counters with better standard specification and an extra 30 kW and 80 N.m of torque, as well as engorged dimensions that would suggest it’s the roomier vehicle both in the cabin and aft in the boot.

Design

Built on Volvo's Scalable Product Architecture that also underpins the XC90, a vehicle lauded by the CAR team, the S90 wears its New Dawn-christened lines with supreme confidence. From the pen of design boss Thomas Ingenlath, the S90 is a striking object in a segment that’s overtly derivative. Drawing inspiration from Volvo’s gorgeous P1800 Coupé in, for example, the 23 slats studding a large grille interspersed with the Swedish brand’s oversized iron-mark logo and flanked by standard-fitment LED headlamps with the now familiar hammer-shaped daytime-driving lamps, the beautifully balanced S90 makes the E-Class look apologetic, unoriginal and, frankly, dull. Even from mid-distance, it is difficult to distinguish the E-Class from either a C-Class, which would be undesirable; or an S, which isn’t the most severe criticism you could level at the midsize executive sedan.

It’s unfortunate that Benz chose to move away from the unique design of the previous E in favour of lines so devoid of character. Is this something that will bother buyers? Perhaps not, but it doesn’t hurt to add a dash of creativity when drawing the lines of one of your brand’s global bestsellers. Not helping our test vehicle’s cause visually were standard 17-inch wheels that appeared somewhat lost in their wheelarches – although they undoubtedly helped ride comfort – and a silver hue so closely associated with the brand that it becomes pastiche.

Step inside the Benz, however, and it claws back ground. The dash swoops elegantly from side to side, on the way housing classy metalised air vents, a gentle swish of climate controls that couldn’t be simpler to toggle, and an updated version of the Comand infotainment system that telegraphs its functions onto a 12,3-inch central screen. Supplementary to that, there is the option of another screen of similar size ahead of the driver, plus there is storage space aplenty; all contributing to the E-Class being a study in measured style that doesn’t sacrifice usability for unique aesthetics. Perceived quality is redoubtable and space front and rear is as good as buyers could reasonably expect (headroom beats the Volvo by quite some margin).

Criticisms? The rear seat squabs are shorter than they should be and, despite being the first Benz to gain a newly designed rear-view mirror that’s far less bulky than the old version, the unit feels cheap next to the Volvo’s sleek full-glass unit. The glossy plastic on the facia not only easily shows finger marks, but is disappointingly prone to scratches; and a vehicle costing close to R800 000 should have leather from an actual cow as standard, not artificial material called MB-Tex.

Those seats should be fully electrically adjustable, too. To learn how best to specify an interior, the designers from Stuttgart can start by visiting Volvo’s headquarters in Gothenburg. Universally praised by CAR’s staffers, the cabin of the S90 ticks most boxes. It feels more special than the E-Class’ thanks to glitzier finishes (the silver trim can also give way to the more elegant open-pore wood trim option), indulgently luxurious Nappa leather and electrically adjustable seats that are some of the most comfortable in the business, without being bulky. Rear legroom is also more generous and it is much better equipped.

Operating through a sat-nav-enabled nine-inch portrait-oriented screen flanked by large air vents controlled with solid-metal knobs, the Sensus Connect system imitates the functionality of a smartphone. It comes replete with a hard-touch home button, side swiping to access different screens and pinch to zoom. And it mostly works very well, with only smaller options relegated to petite virtual buttons that require the driver’s eyes away from the road for a split-second too long. The system on this test unit occasionally lagged, though, especially when accessing the climate-control screen. In that respect, the E-Class’ Comand system responds faster and its displays are larger and clearer.

As mentioned, both vehicles are roomy enough to seat up to five adults in comfort and their boots are identically sized at a fair 360 dm3. The Volvo has slightly more utility space, while the Benz counters with a luggage bay that’s more neatly trimmed (the carpeting in this S90 was shoddily fitted).

On the road

Considering each vehicle employs a 2,0-litre turbodiesel engine mated with an automatic transmission, the way they utilise their drivetrains couldn’t be more different. A product of the company’s Drive-E engine technology, the S90’s twin-turbo oil-burner features its new PowerPulse tech designed to mitigate turbo lag. The system uses a 2,0-litre tank of compressed air that is fed through to the turbos on pull-away and under light throttle inputs for instant spool-up. It works well, too. Lag is negligible and the eight-speed Geartronic transmission does a stellar job of putting the engine in the meat of its 1 750 to 2 250 r/min torque band.

But why must it be so grumbly? While setting up the vehicles for this photo shoot, they were parked line astern with their engines running and the only powertrain that could be heard was the Swede’s. On the move, the Drive-E unit is gruff under acceleration, sends a slight buzz through the steering wheel and seat, and only really settles down at a cruise.

By contrast, the new Benz engine is class-leading. Offering no ground-breaking PowerPulse technology, it is simply a refined, well-configured variable-geometry turbocharger and that allows the far less powerful, though lighter, E220d to accelerate to 100 km/h nearly half a second quicker than the Volvo, according to our own performance testing. The S90 does start catching up at higher speeds once it overcomes its mass disadvantage and the drag created by the BorgWarner all-wheel-drive system.

In terms of on-road dynamics, it’s pertinent to note the S90 test unit is equipped with optional air suspension (R17 500 and only on the rear axle), which works very well in squashing bumps before they puncture the sense of calm inside. Sitting on optional 20-inch alloys (R12 750) enveloped in wafer-thin 35-profile tyres, the suspension handles long-wave undulations with aplomb, but sharp intrusions are felt, and the body pitches and yaws slightly as you work the throttle and brakes.

Grip levels are modest and understeer is the natural result of over-egging it in bends, but the S90 is generally a pleasure to steer. The E220d, by contrast, feels light on its feet, easier to steer and always composed. Once the E-Class cruises, its ride settles down wonderfully, keeping its body flat and letting in very little wind and road noise (the Volvo’s tyres kick up quite a fuss on rough tar). Both vehicles braked extremely well, and their basic autonomous-driving systems – Pilot Assist in the S90; Drive Pilot in the E – work as well as can be expected (i.e. decently, but the technology is clearly still in its infancy).



TEST SUMMARY

On paper, the S90 is excellent value for money and comes equipped with sat-nav, adaptive cruise control, reactive LED lights, Nappa leather and a list of other items as standard. The Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, charges you extra for such luxuries. While we always suspected the Swede would be better equipped than the German, might this be its only persuasive selling point?

A few minutes spent behind the wheel of the S90 quickly dispels such a notion. This is a beautifully wrought car that’s a worthy follow-up to the XC90 SUV. It doesn’t win today, though, and that’s because it is up against an even more rounded product.

That said, considering how much the CAR team reveres the E-Class, a one-point difference in scoring is more telling about the Swede than the German. There’s no doubt the E-Class could (and perhaps should) have widened that winning margin, but sadly the standard specification is stingy; the vehicle undoubtedly needs the optional R29 900 air suspension to round off the otherwise excellent dynamics.

Further, we can’t help but feel Benz’s designers should have done more to make it stand out from the crowd. As ever, though, CAR favours depth and quality of engineering over design and standard specification, and for those reasons, the E220d continues its winning streak.

*From the April 2017 issue of CAR magazine