As the sun sets over Montauk, turning the sky salmon pink and dolphin blue, the parking lot at Gurney’s begins to fill. They arrive in shiny new BMW X5s and Mercedes-Benz GLEs, as well as the occasional soft-top Land Rover Defender. The eastern reaches of Long Island, which include Montauk and the Hamptons, are the destination of choice for well-off New Yorkers looking for a weekend escape from the stresses of city life.
While the Hamptons are a notorious playground for Wall Street frat boys, party girl models, and other devotees of things that are expensive for the sake of being expensive, this corner of Montauk has an altogether more relaxed vibe. Here, kids in bathing suits ride cruiser bikes along the side of the highway, and the main street is populated with diners and boutiques selling beachwear. While Southampton boasts a Nobu and nightclubs with bottle service, at Gurney’s in Montauk, families with deep tans lounge on chaises under the evening sky, listening to a smooth jazz trio playing “The Girl from Ipanema” on the beach. It’s still expensive, of course (and astronomical if you’re looking to buy), but the consumption here feels somehow less conspicuous.
I’ve come to Montauk (via seaplane from midtown Manhattan, naturally) to experience Volvo’s newest luxury sedan, the S90. The setting is not incidental. These are interesting times for the 89-year-old Swedish marque, which was purchased by Chinese automaker Geely in 2010. Thanks to an influx of cash from their new corporate overlords, the brass in Gothenburg have spent the last six years reimagining the brand, redesigning its entire fleet, and preparing to enter the international luxury market in force. Volvos have always been high-end cars in North America, but they’ve not typically been part of the Audi-BMW-Mercedes-Benz conversation, or even the Lexus-Infiniti-Acura conversation, for that matter. For as long as anyone can remember, there have been Volvo buyers and there have been luxury car buyers, and the difference between them has been subtle but formidable.
I spent the day driving the smooth, two-lane blacktop from Montauk to Bridgehampton and back again, stopping for pho- to-ops with antique lighthouses and restored Dutch windmills, and to peer in the gates of Villa Maria, a 100-year-old estate in Water Mill that recently listed for $85 million. The roads are surprisingly busy for a weekday, and the selection of luxury cars on display is impressive. While German, British, and Japanese luxury brands are well-represented, there aren’t a lot of Volvos to be seen. In order for the Swedes to make landfall in places like this (and they do need to succeed in places like this), they will have to draw a significant number of customers away from these brands. For the right buyer, the mid-sized S90 is designed to be among Volvo’s most persuasive enticements.
While Route 27 cuts a linear path all the way down the peninsula, the side roads running away from it meander through the trees, past stately, cedar shingle-clad houses that look like the settings of Ralph Lauren campaigns. The Volvo I’ve been given is a fully equipped T6 AWD model, the top of the range, with a 316-horsepower engine making 295 lb-ft of torque. Volvo, however, in their ongoing commitment to doing things their own special Volvo way, has opted to make the S90 the only midsize luxury sedan on the planet to be offered with exclusively four-cylinder engines. A plug-in hybrid variant is on the way, and a handful of sport-tuned Polestar editions might someday make their way to Canada, but the S90 has no designs for stealing thunder from the Ms or AMGs anytime soon. This is not a sports sedan, just a capable car with a thoroughly modern engine. This car and, presumably, the person who buys this car, values fuel economy over loud exhausts and sick burnouts. Thanks to the addition of both a turbocharger and a supercharger, however, the diminutive two-litre engine never feels the least bit lacking. Switched to Dynamic mode, the S90 puts every one of its horses to the pavement, tightening the suspension and dialling in the steering for a spirited ride through the turns. Much like playing golf or watching David Attenborough, it’s way more fun than it ought to be.
I pull over in front of a lobster roll place in Amagansett, its parking lot congested with diners eager to pay $26 for a sandwich before retiring again to the pool deck for an afternoon of drinking Patron and taking selfies on inflatable swans. The S90 looks completely at home here among the world’s great automobiles. From the outside, the car is all smoothness and grace, with an elongated hood and a “dash-to-axle” ratio borrowed from golden era Rolls-Royces. A coupe-like roofline curves gently down to an abrupt rear deck, which, in addition to the pair of wide chromed exhaust tips, adds a sporting feel to the profile. It’s beautiful, with all the hallmarks of refinement, affluence, and taste you’d expect to find on a $63,000 vehicle. At this price range, however, there are a lot of good-looking cars to choose from. Even without the big German brands in the picture, the Americans, whose luxury sedans have long been relegated to grandparents and hearse drivers, are catching up. The Koreans, too. If you’re a status-conscious New Yorker shopping for a luxury vehicle, then, why would you want something that says Volvo on it instead of Jaguar or BMW? What does rolling up to a pool party full of models who drive Range Rovers and bankers who drive Porsches in a Volvo say about you?
Well, there is a good reason. The term “the thinking man’s luxury car” might not be warmly received by marketing people trying their hardest to create a sexy new image for the brand, but despite this, the S90 is smart in every sense of the word. It comes with standard Pilot Assist semi-autonomous drive, which holds the car within the lines and maintains speed, up to 130km/h as long as you keep your hands on the wheel. It is also, as you’d expect, extremely safe. Not only has Volvo rolled out several new high-tech safety features in the S90 (large animal detection, road edge detection), it has made the ambitious promise of completely eliminating fatalities and serious injuries inside their new vehicles by 2020. This isn’t something one would tend to brag about over steaks and Chateau Lafite at The Polo Bar, but it’s hard to argue with the appeal. Sure your V8 can do an eight-minute lap around the Nürburgring, but my car is guaranteed not to kill me. Plus, it looks nice. Don’t expect to see that on billboards anytime soon.
For the S90, Volvo has doubled down on its roots, capitalizing both on the brand’s Swedish heritage and the trend toward Scandinavian minimalism that’s currently influencing everything from the decor of hip espresso bars to Yeezy Boost sneakers. Referred to in-house as the “Scandinavian sanctuary,” the interior of the S90 is an exercise in tasteful restraint, inspired by both Swedish design aesthetics and the rugged Northern European landscape. A substantial 12.3-inch centre touchscreen controls audio, navigation, and climate controls, serving the dual purpose of reducing dashboard clutter and looking really slick. It’s also fully useable with gloves on, because Sweden. It’s flanked by a pair of vertical vents whose chromed bars call to mind vintage airplane propellers and whose control dials’ faceted surface is inspired by Swedish crystal. The impressive 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins sound system was developed in collaboration with the Gothenburg symphony orchestra and fine-tuned to recreate the sound of that city’s famed concert hall. Throughout the cabin, light, clean surfaces are used to great effect, but the unvarnished, porous walnut inlay is particularly striking. It is to conventional wood veneer as an Arne Jacobsen piece is to a Louis XV salon chair: they both serve the same function and are both beautiful, but one is clearly rooted in the classical era, the other in the modern. It’s the potted fiddle-leaf fig plant of automotive interiors, a subtle statement about your taste, good sense, and means.
And while that won’t be on a billboard either, that’s kind of the point. Volvo has created a luxury sedan that not only projects that you’ve made it, but that you understand how you got there. There’s an exclusivity to that kind of intelligence.
The smooth jazz trio at Gurney’s has moved on to covers of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, the singer’s soulful warble carrying through the restaurant, across the parking lot, and over the bungalows. The valets scurry to and fro, struggling to keep up with the steady stream of men in immaculate white polo shirts and women in beach dresses and wedge heels rolling in. Flanking the portico is a row of Mussel Blue S90s, their metallic paint glinting softly in the moonlight. This isn’t a car that screams for attention, but, as they step out of their Porsches and Maseratis, people can’t help but take notice. Some walk past without more than a glance while others linger, surely picturing themselves pulling up in a new Volvo and wondering what that says about them.