For a carmaker whose overriding priority is safety, Volvo sure pulls plenty of motoring enthusiasts. Yes, its cars lack the all-out driver involvement of those from Germany and Italy, but there’s an intrinsic appeal to understated, yet fastidious Swedish design and engineering – and with Saab out of the picture, Volvo is now the default flag bearer for those of a more Scandinavian disposition.

Its at times shaky financial history (not actually shaky enough to put it out of business, unlike Saab) has probably only helped it become more endearing. Originally founded in 1927 as a carmaking subsidiary of SKF, Volvo became independent in 1935 as a small, vulnerable concern that was eventually swallowed up by Ford in 1999, and was nearly shuttered as its parent company was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Chinese conglomerate Geely became its current custodian in 2010, and although Volvo fleshed out the lower end of its lineup in the interim with the V40 in 2012, it took its time to take on the premium market, developing a new modular platform, engines and technologies. A new XC90 arrived first in 2014 to replace the 11-year-old original, but the world would be waiting still for the latest in a line of iconic Volvo wagons.

Well, the new Volvo V90 has finally arrived, here to fill the parking lots of IKEAs and gardening centres once more. This, as well as its S90 sedan sibling, is probably the most serious attempt Gothenburg has made at challenging the hegemony of the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. But will it work? We drive the stunning new longroof model on local roads to find out.

Volvo Car Malaysia hasn’t been shy with the positioning of the V90 – the base T5 comes within a whisker of the BMW 530i and the less powerful Mercedes-Benz E 250 Exclusive, at the sharp end of RM400,000. The T6 AWD you see here retails, rather ambitiously, at a snip under RM460,000. Both variants carry a modest RM5,000 premium over the equivalent S90 sedans, which seems like good value for the extra space.

That’s as it stands at the moment; later on, the big wagon will be locally-assembled (CKD) in Shah Alam, which will almost certainly bring lower prices. There will also be a T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid version on the way that will take advantage of tax breaks offered under the Energy Efficient Vehicle (EEV) scheme, a route the company has taken previously with the XC90.

Given the significant outlay you’ll need to own one, it’s a good job that the V90 is as svelte as it is. Gone is the trademark Volvo flat roof and upright rear windscreen, replaced by a low-slung glasshouse and a rakish rear end, framed by gorgeous L-shaped LED tail lights. It’s handsome at the front, too, with distinctive “Thor’s Hammer” LED headlights that flank a thrusting six-pointed grille and oversized iron mark.

In between, Volvo has done a great job of paring back the surfacing, with the strong, crisp shoulder line being the only notable flourish along the flanks. The proportions are especially impressive – the long dash-to-axle ratio emphasises the V90’s considerable length and gives it a relaxed, laid-back gracefulness. It’s quite a break from the staid, upright look of its predecessors.

The car already looks great in standard form, but the R-Design appearance package on this T6 model elevates the styling to a whole new level. The larger front air intakes, deeper side skirts and a menacing rear diffuser with integrated twin exhaust exits give the V90 a sportier edge, without being too aggressive.

Meanwhile, satin silver door mirror caps – not unlike the metal covers on Audi S models – add an extra touch of class, and the 19-inch two-tone five-spoke alloy wheels fill out the arches convincingly. But for the full effect, you’ll need to specify the Bursting Blue Metallic paint seen here, which really makes the styling pop.

The same calm, considered approach to design can be found inside as well, with a flat fascia that doesn’t try to assault you with a myriad of angles, surfaces or materials. Instead, it’s peppered with tiny details that only reveal themselves as you go closer, such as the thin piece of metal that frames the dashboard, elegant vertical air vent slats and beautiful knurling on the controls, like the eccentric engine start/stop knob.

Also notable are several pointers to Volvo’s rich history, such as a little Swedish flag on the seats and the “Since 1959” script embossed into the metal seat belt tab, a reference to the company being the first carmaker to introduce the three-point seat belt, on the PV 544. Unfortunately, however, the XC90’s gorgeous crystal gearknob made by Swedish glass specialist Orrefors isn’t fitted here – it’s reserved for T8 models.

The R-Design-specific touches – matte carbon-fibre trim, metal pedals, thicker steering wheel – add a welcome dose of sportiness inside, while the sports seats upholstered in Nappa leather and suede-like nubuck invite you to slide in. Once ensconced, you’ll find them very supportive, with plenty of adjustment and sizeable bolsters that keep you in place in the corners – although they might be a little tight for larger drivers.

It’s the twin screens that dominate the cabin, however, starting with the 12.3-inch digital instrument display ahead of the driver, which can be configured with different themes and is able to display navigation information between the dials. The display technology, however, seems to be a generation behind its competitors, lacking the colour and contrast of the screens in the 5 Series and E-Class.

More impressive is the glossy nine-inch portrait-format touchscreen that forms part of the Sensus Connect infotainment system. Volvo has crammed quite a lot of functionality into the system – aside from music and navigation, the screen also controls the air-conditioning and plenty of other features that are traditionally operated by several hard buttons across the cabin.

Because so many functions have now been dropped into a separate menu in the user interface, the whole thing feels absolutely bewildering to use at first, as it’s fairly difficult to discern the functions of the myriad of buttons at a glance. But time breeds familiarity, and before long you’ll start to notice the benefits of having such a tall screen plastered in the centre of the dashboard.

For one, the big screen is able to provide an expansive view of the navigation map, so you can see more of your selected route – even if the map itself is less detailed or attractive to look at compared to BMW and Mercedes’ systems. Scrolling through radio station presets and playlists is also a cinch, and you don’t have to dive deep into the menus to get to the main controls.

Volvo may be looking to take the Germans head-on in terms of interior ambience, but fit and finish still leaves a little to be desired. There are plenty of leather-lined touch points and soft touch plastics on the upper surfaces, but the few materials that are neither are hard and slightly brittle. The worst offender is the piece next to the covered cupholders, which has a sharp edge that can slice your finger if you’re not careful.

Thankfully, there’s little to complain about in terms of interior space. Aside from the comfy and infinitely-adjustable front seats, those at the rear get ample head- and legroom, the former even with the panoramic sunroof that eats up space. However, the tall transmission tunnel means that three-abreast seating can be a little awkward, particularly if they’re all adults.

It’s the boot that lets the side down. Boxy wagons with massive cargo holds have been a staple of Volvo’s lineup, going together with Swedish flat-pack furniture like meatballs and lingonberry sauce. However, the V90’s sweeping glasshouse and dramatic sloping rear windscreen – designed to give the car a more lifestyle bent – cuts deep into luggage space, so it’s no longer Gothenburg’s trump card.

In fact, the V90’s boot is actually smaller than most of the wagon competition. At 560 litres, it’s 10 litres smaller than the new 5 Series Touring, and a shocking 110 litres less than the latest E-Class Estate – which itself has 25 litres less luggage space than its predecessor.

Fold down the 60:40 split-folding rear seats and space only increases to 1,526 litres, 175 litres short on the BMW and 294 litres on the Mercedes. It should of course be noted that the V90 is the only large wagon to be sold here officially, and its boot is still a fair bit larger than most executive sedans.

The Volvo also does have a few neat touches of its own; aside from the usual tie-down hooks to secure your luggage, there’s also a handy shopping bag holder that flips out from the floor on the T6, which should prove useful for your weekly Tesco runs.

As befits a Volvo, the V90 is chock full of safety kit, with both models getting the IntelliSafe suite of driver assistance features. This includes City Safety autonomous emergency braking, which operates at speeds between 4 and 70 km/h and can detect vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and large animals.

Volvo’s Pilot Assist semi-autonomous driving system also comes as standard, incorporating Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) with Queue Assist and Lane Keeping Aid (LKA) – these keep the car in the middle of its lane and at a set distance from the car in front, at speeds of up to 130 km/h. It’s a first in the segment here in Malaysia, with the BMW 530i only coming with active cruise control.

Although the cruise control works well for the most part – taking the load off prodding the throttle in stop-start traffic – we’re not quite so sure of the lane-keeping function. In practice, the V90 veers unnervingly close to the left side of the lane to be able to put our trust in the system, perhaps because it hasn’t really been designed with our road markings in mind – systems from other manufacturers like BMW and Mercedes work much better in practice, and at much higher speeds than the Volvo.

Other safety features include Driver Alert Control (DAC), Run Off Road Mitigation and Protection with Road Edge Detection, Lane Departure Warning, Rear Collision Warning and Mitigation, Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) and Cross Traffic Alert (CTA).

All this is on top of the usual array of active and passive safety features, including six airbags; seat belt pretensioners on all seats; rear booster cushions for children; ABS with EBD and brake assist; stability control with Active Yaw Control, Understeer Control Logic and brake-operated Dynamic Torque Vectoring; hill descent control; Ready Alert Brake (RAB) and Fading Brake Support (FBS).

Forming the bones of the V90 is the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) that also underpins the XC90, S90 and new XC60. Suspension is handled by double wishbones at the front and an integral-link rear axle with a transverse composite leaf spring to make room for more luggage.

Unlike the XC90, the V90 does without air suspension, sticking to passive springs and dampers. This T6, however, receives the R-Design setup that is stiffer and lowers the ride height by 15 mm. A scroll dial aft of the starter knob lets you cycle through the Eco, Comfort, Dynamic and Individual modes, which adjusts steering weight, brake feel and engine and gearbox response.

Naturally, a range-topping model needs range-topping power, so the 2.0 litre Drive-E turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine has been outfitted with a supercharger to boost power and low-end response. Essentially, it’s the same mill fitted to the 407 hp/640 Nm T8, but shorn of the electric part of the drivetrain.

Outputs have thus swelled to 320 hp at 5,700 rpm and 400 Nm from 2,200 to 5,400 rpm – figures that are 66 hp and 50 Nm up on the T5 model. An Aisin eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive are standard on the T6. With the addition of a not-so-frugal supercharger and all-paw system, it’s no surprise to find that combined fuel consumption has jumped from 6.8 to 7.7 litres per 100 km.

For all the shock and awe generated by those brow-raising numbers, initial impressions could leave you feeling a trite disappointed. Sure, the T6 is fast, dispatching the 0-100 km/h sprint in just 6.1 seconds, but the portly 1,883 kg kerb weight does its best to blunt the feeling of speed behind the wheel.

A closer inspection of the figures bears this out – even without all-wheel drive traction, the much less powerful, but hugely lighter 530i completes the same benchmark just a tenth of a second slower, as does the Mercedes E 300. Yet this rather superficial comparison doesn’t tell you the full story.

Indeed, the T6 isn’t the speed freak the engine outputs might suggest, but its remarkably seamless power delivery more than makes up for it. The quick-spooling supercharger provides instant throttle response from idle, after which the larger turbo takes over to punt you towards the redline – and the horizon.

You don’t feel any switchover as the revs climb, just a wave of torque that builds the instant you floor the loud pedal. Emphasising this easygoing nature is the eight-speed auto, which shifts smoothly and responds fairly quickly to throttle inputs, although the gearchanges themselves aren’t exactly the fastest.

If only the engine note was a little more sonorous. Volvo may have managed to extract the power of a multi-cylinder mill while sticking to its four-pot limit, but it certainly hasn’t replicated the sound. The T6 produces a flat drone rather than a warble from a six-cylinder engine, and doesn’t quite have the latter’s trademark creamy smoothness, with small vibrations coming through to the major controls.

That would be fine if it was at least whisper-quiet, but that isn’t the case here. The V90 doesn’t isolate the powertrain from the occupants as well as its competitors do, and while the noise coming from the front is not very intrusive, it does make itself known under acceleration. There’s also a bit more roar from the tyres than we would otherwise have liked, although wind noise is well-suppressed.

What’s more, the ride isn’t up to par with what you’d expect for something so expensive. The stiffer suspension and larger wheels conspire to rob the V90 of much of its compliancy, crashing into large potholes and sharp bumps. The good news is that the car remains composed over undulations and smaller ridges, but even here the Volvo falls short of the standards set by the BMW and Mercedes.

Not something you’d likely want to hear, especially as even with the sportier setup, the V90’s dynamic abilities still aren’t a patch on the best of its rivals. The steering is accurate and weighty enough (especially in Dynamic mode), but it’s low-geared and doesn’t give the car a real sense of agility.

What you do notice is the lack of body roll, but on the flip side the harder suspension makes the Volvo fidget over mid-corner bumps. As expected, the V90 has momentous traction owing to the all-wheel drive system, but the addition of a driven rear axle hasn’t exactly turned the car into much of an entertaining steer – push harder and it is still the front that washes wide first.

To sum up, the Volvo V90 represents a bit of a quandary. Yes, it’s very fast and capable, but it just doesn’t have the last degree of poise and precision of the E-Class and especially the accomplished 5 Series. Despite this, it’s also not comfortable or refined enough, which is borderline unacceptable for an executive car designed to cosset. Quite simply, it feels out of its depth next to the competition in terms of driving dynamics.

But while it wouldn’t be wrong to dismiss the V90 solely on its road manners, it would also be a bit unfair. Because this is a car that has been beautifully designed, full of thoughtful practical touches and lavished with the kind of attention to detail that escapes most of its German rivals. It also helps that it is positively gorgeous to behold – especially dressed to the nines in R-Design trim and in this fetching blue hue.

Ultimately, whether the V90 is right for you depends very much on what you’re looking for in this rarefied segment. As a traditional mode of business-class transport, the Volvo is just too noisy, stiff and dynamically inert to cut the mustard – so whether you’re looking to be isolated from the world or immerse yourself in the driving experience, both the BMW and Mercedes are far better options.

That’s not to say that you should avoid the V90 altogether; after all, it is the only large wagon officially on sale in Malaysia, so if you’re looking for a massive, luxurious load-lugger, this really is your sole option. And if you just want to splurge on a left-field alternative that stands out against a sea of grey sedans, you really can’t do much better than a funny-looking car with a funny badge.

Of course, if all else fails to justify the purchase, you can always just look at it.

The Volvo V90 is on sale now in two forms – the RM393,888 T5 and the RM458,888 T6 AWD R-Design you see here. Prices are on-the-road without insurance, inclusive of a five-year/120,000 km warranty.

GALLERY: Volvo V90 T6 AWD