MY FIRST experience with a Volvo S90 was on the Angeles Crest Highway, a twisting strip of bitumen that climbs from Pasadena into the San Gabriel Mountains on the edge of LA.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting much.
The S90 is a very big car with the emphasis on luxury and I was wondering whether Volvo could manage a string of successes after the cracking XC90 SUV.
Think Volvo and the two defining traits are safety and luxury. The S90 fulfils the luxury styling brief with a big, bold body and lots of standard equipment.
The brand now has a Chinese owner, Geely, and that raises all sorts of questions. More of those a little later.
My S90 drive time followed a romp in the latest Cadillac CT6, a great driving American luxury car that looks good but is as badly built as an early Holden Camira. Then there was a refresher run in the under-appreciated Hyundai Genesis.
The Volvo trumped them both and I was most impressed by the interior design and layout, which - for me - now eclipses Audi as the worldwide benchmark for cabin quality.
Back at home, an S90 T5 Inscription is waiting and I'm wondering whether my original West Coast impression was swayed too much by the LA sunshine and a great driving road. Thankfully, no, it wasn't.
The S90 packs genuine luxury, meets the customary Volvo safety standard with an easily earned five-star ANCAP score and is great value - $79,990 for the base S90 - that should rattle the mid-sized German opposition.
"It's a very interesting car and an interesting segment," says Volvo Car Australia managing director Kevin McCann. "It's got two challenges: they are a small and relatively declining segment and very loyal owners.
"For us, the S90 is a statement of what our brand can do. It's up against classic and conservative customers so we'll be happy to (sell) 100 to 120 cars a year."
He says the S90 also points to what is coming from Volvo as it trickles the technology from its SPA - Scalable Product Architecture - into smaller vehicles. "We've just completed the 90 cluster with the V90 Cross Country wagon and the next big event is the XC60 in quarter four," McCann said.
On the road
The S90 is a big bus but a very comfortable one. It lines up without apologies against a 5 Series BMW or an E-Class from Mercedes-Benz, not matching the former for driving dynamics but giving little else away to the Germans.
The luxury is everywhere but - much as in a BMW - there is a price to pay. The S90 D5 Inscription all-wheel drive starts at a good-value $96,900 but the car I'm driving ratchets the price up to $118,555.
The extra cost comes from, among other items, a giant glass sunroof ($3000), glorious Bowers and Wilkins audio ($4500), electric folding rear seat ($250), rear sunblinds ($500) and CD player ($160).
I'd keep the audio, the head-up instrument display for $1900 and some other kit - and definitely dump the 20-inch alloys that cost $2850 but come with 40-series tyres that destroy the ride and make the S90 jiggly and uncomfortable on anything but the smoothest surface.
Back to the car itself. It's clear that Geely has given Volvo the cash - as Tata of India has done for Jaguar Land Rover - to invest in a classy vehicle architecture that maintains its safety tradition while upgrading the refinement.
The S90 is very quiet inside and roomy too for five adults. The outward view is good, it's relatively easy to park (although the turning circle is not great) and the boot is spacious.
On the safety front, it has everything you need and a bunch of stuff you think you don't - for example, auto safety braking with pedestrian protection and lane-keeping assist - for cosseted travel.
The diesel engine would not be my choice, as it's a little gruff in the context of the refined S90, but it has 480Nm of shove channelled through a creamy eight-speed auto to all four wheels, another safety pay-off.
The cruising range is great - better than 800km on a tank, thanks to a claimed thirst of just 5.1L/100km.
So my only genuine complaint is the nasty ride with the low-profile tyres.
I also prefer the lighter interior trim colour from the California drive car ... it's called "Champagne".
The S90, a surprise package in California, keeps me happy at home. It's a very, very good car.
For me, Volvo is now doing the best interior design and finish in any vehicle below $400,000. It's taken over from Audi as the benchmark for interior quality and that, alone, would be enough to get The Tick.
As a genuine luxury car, the S90 is worth a look for anyone shopping the predictable strata in Audi, BMW and Mercedes showrooms.
Volvo S90 T5 Inscription
Price: From $96,900
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Capped servicing: $2930 over 3 years
Service interval: 12 months/15,000km
Safety: 5 stars
Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cyl twin-turbo diesel, 173kW/480Nm
Transmission: 8-speed auto; AWD
Dimensions: 963mm (L), 1890mm (W), 1443mm (H), 2941mm (WB)
Towing: 2200kg, 750kg unbraked, 110kg ball weight
0-100kmh: 7.0 secs