Interview: Volvo’s Tisha Johnson

The Senior Director of Design tells us about the slick new 2018 V90 wagon and its Swedish details

by Steve Siler

Beyond the mainstream S90 flagship luxury sedan, Volvo’s ostensibly more practical and definitely more interesting counterpart, the V90, is also expected to arrive stateside next year. On the road in Spain, we were impressed with the V90’s unflappable poise and tidy handling at the limit, especially with the Drive Mode selector in “Dynamic.” (Yes, it’s a Volvo wagon with a “Dynamic” mode, proving that Volvos can still perform even when wearing a backpack.) Our tester was equipped with a 316-hp T6 powertrain featuring a supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder engine, an eight-speed automatic and all-wheel drive. Thus equipped, Volvo estimates a 0-60 time of 5.7 seconds. A Polestar-tuned version is possible in coming years, and that would dial up the performance even higher.

But the V90’s sleek design and gorgeous cabin are what elevate it from merely capable. Square-jawed and geometric in photos, it is surprisingly voluptuous in the metal. Most seemingly straight lines are gently curved, and there’s noticeable fender flare and Coke-bottling in the body sides. From the scalloped chrome grille vanes, C-shaped garnishes on the lower outboard air intakes up front to the discreet parallelogram tailpipes out back, all embellishments are stylish. Volvo’s signature “Thor’s Hammer” headlamps come standard on all US-bound V90s, and the LED taillamps look like medieval hook blades. Missing, happily, are any form of superfluous fender vents, hood bulges and spoilers. Best of all, the V90 wears the profile of a proud, sleek wagon, not an apologist hatchback, four-door “coupe,” or jacked-up quasi-crossover.

Since this is an undoubtedly sexed-up wagon, we were obviously intrigued as to how it came about. Tisha Johnson, Volvo Cars Senior Director of Design, spilled the secrets of turning a domestic shuttle into a Swedish swagger-wagon.

Customers are not willing to compromise the beauty of the car in order to get that utility.

What are the specific challenges in designing a wagon from an interior and exterior standpoint?

The interior really is big. We really did our benchmarking [within the segment] and understood that when you open up that luggage space, we wanted to be sure to not skip on what the customer is going to interact with—especially materials, making sure that while it’s utility space back there that we cared for it in a way that it would feel just as special as the rest of the car.

On the exterior, in this segment [customers] are looking for an elegant car… that’s always a driving factor. They’re not willing to compromise the beauty of the car in order to get that utility. They want something that visually is pleasing. With Volvo, for many years when you look at the silhouette, you’d see a very abrupt back-end, but we had the good fortune of having concept vehicles that really informed us as we moved forward to the production V90; we leveraged those. The Estate concept was very well received. We couldn’t turn our back on that. Then we began the study, canting the rear window forward. You know, we’re Volvo, and there’s a utility aspect to all of our cars, and we could see immediately that we’re only shaving a bit of space back there for the sake of a beautiful silhouette.

You mentioned the importance of communicating Volvo’s Swedish heritage in your designs. Can you be specific about what that means?

I really like to talk about this subject because we are very focused on it. When talking about Swedish heritage there are a few things we can focus on. Swedish lifestyle and aesthetic is by nature quite open. There’s lots of elbow room and this influences the way people live. What you see is lots of open space. That’s on the road, in nature, and that translates into design, into people’s homes…

If you look at the [V90’s] interior, you have that technology in the Sensus [infotainment screen]. That tech is great because it consolidates everything into that nice platform. It could have [had] like 80 buttons, and we have a dozen. The other thing is the use of materials: light woods, linear walnut. It’s a natural finish on a light-tone wood. That’s very much what you find in Swedish homes and Swedish environments.

I talk a lot about the DLOs and we want those to be a very nice proportion, but they let a lot of light in. That panoramic roof lets a lot of light in. We can get into the crystal gear lever [offered in Volvo’s T8 powertrains models, unconfirmed for the V90 at this point], a def homage to Swedish glass design; we worked directly with a very old, established crystal-maker, Orrefors, to make it. Very direct references include a little Swedish flag, and that’s just to remind you where this car originates.

What are the S90/V90 interior design elements you are most proud of?

I’m really proud of our attention to detail. For example, there’s a stitch in the door panel that runs in the door insert in the door pocket; there’s a beautiful elegant shape to that panel. Just making sure we tuned surfaces and treatment to surfaces to help our customers experience this beautiful environment.

[Also] that metallic band that runs from end to end, wrapping around the air vents and under the touch-screen. In order to get a part in production is actually a really difficult thing to do—you’d usually have to have a break line, and you end up compromising in order to get the right tolerances. But we knew that [element] had always been key to the design. So we worked with our engineers, who rethought how we would achieve our result. Now that element becomes a structural element that holds up the components. Which was the original thought!

What qualities or unique features should we be watching for when it comes to Volvo design in the future?

Specifically, we can see those signature elements—Thor’s hammer headlamps, those side window elements that kick up, those signature materials in the interior, very Swedish in the palettes. In general, it’s going to be more of that relaxed confidence, though with different models, you’ll see different characters. On the 40s you see that youthfulness, and on the 90 side, it’s that elegance.

Interior image courtesy of Volvo, all other images by Steve Siler