Cars are getting smarter at reading the world around us. Volvo's S90 can take over the boring long-distance driving on highways and freeways, but even when you're actually doing the steering yourself, the driver's seat is a very nice place to be.
What Is It?
The 2017 Volvo S90 is the top of the line sedan from the Swedish car company. Competing with other full-size cars from European marques like the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes' E Class and the Audi A6, it's available in a variety of engine and interior spec trims ranging from the circa-$90,000 Momentum to the circa-$120,000 Inscription. The range starts at $79,900 before on-road costs.
You can choose from a few different engine options for the S90, starting at a T5 2.0-litre 5-cylinder turbocharged petrol or a D4 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel, stepping up to a super- and turbocharged 2.0-litre 5-cylinder in the T6 and gutsier D5 2.0-litre diesel. All versions of the S90 use the same 8-speed automatic gearbox, but there's a choice between front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive on the higher-end models. Stated fuel consumption ranges between 6.7 and 7.5L/100km on the petrol and a flat 5.1L/100km on the diesels. Like the XC90 which I tested early in 2016, a plug-in hybrid variant of the S90 using the T6 superturbo four-cylinder petrol engine alongside a 65kW rear-mounted electric motor and 9.2kWh lithium-ion battery should be coming to the range some time in 2017.
The S90 sets itself apart from the crowd with advanced self-driving features, though, which Volvo calls Pilot Assist. It's not a fully autonomous system, but like Tesla's Autopilot it can provide a moderate level of driving input on the steering wheel to keep within lane markings when they're clearly defined on a highway road. It functions at speeds of up to 130km/h, and doesn't rely on tracking another car ahead of it like previous versions of the hardware did.
As tested, our D5 Inscription — with a few optional extra including a sunroof, metallic paint, high-end Bowers & Wilkins sound system and a tech package including a 360-degree camera setup, heads-up display for the driver, and Apple CarPlay support for the central 9-inch vertical touchscreen — was a $118,555 vehicle. That's about $20,000 of extras on top of its $96,900 list price.
What's It Good At?
The tech inside the Volvo S90 is fantastic. I liked the 9-inch central touchscreen display that I first tried out on the XC90 much more than the comparatively slow and simplistic touchscreen on Tesla's Model S and Model X, and it continues to be made good use of on the S90. The interface is clean and easy to understand — quite like Android's cards layout — and provides quick access to navigation, media (everything from Bluetooth to DAB+ radio) and phone calls, as well as in-car settings for things like air conditioning.
The self-driving, semi-autonomous highway-road-following tech, that uses high-resolution cameras arranged in a 360-degree arc around the S90, works just about as well as you could expect it to. On a jaunt up and down the F3 in Sydney, at speeds of 120km/h to 80km/h, the system followed road markings in all three lanes without any hiccups, and when there were no lane markings to follow the system gave a warning before disengaging and returning full steering control to the driver. You can eat up the kilometres with it and arrive at your destination comparatively relaxed and refreshed. Volvo is confident enough in its self-driving tech that it's giving an entirely autonomous car to a normal family from Sweden — that should tell you everything you need to know about the state of play.
Beyond highway work, Volvo's active safety systems on the S90 extend to a new autonomous low-speed braking system for city driving that can recognise everything from a cyclist to a pedestrian down to a large animal and brake to avoid a collision. Of course, as you'd expect, you also get a rear camera with blind-spot monitoring and optional cameras in the car's side mirrors, all of which contribute with a sensor package to parking assistance.
The S90 is also just a good car to drive, too, when you're not using its cruise control or autonomous driving features. The steering is well weighted, although it feels a little bit disconnected from the wheels for the S90 to be a spirited driver's car. Body roll is slight for the most part and not unreasonable, and on the upper-spec cars you have the peace of mind that all-wheel drive brings for driver and passenger safety — and convenience, if you're planning on taking your new car to the snow. Road noise and general road harshness are extremely low: you can have a quiet conversation with your passenger despite travelling at highway speeds even on the optional low-profile 20-inch tyres.
What's It Not Good At?
The 8-speed gearbox is composed for the most part, and shifts quickly and smoothly during suburban and highway driving. I did find that during city driving, including occasional zots from traffic light to traffic light and weaving in and out of slow-moving cars on a multi-lane road, did sometimes ask a little too much of the transmission's generally placid nature; there's a certain speed of around 30km/h where the car can't decide whether to choose second or third gear depending on whether you're accelerating or decelerating. It's not a big deal, but if you're commuting in your new S90 you might notice it once or twice.
The starting price of each of the cars in Volvo's S90 family is quite reasonable, but you'll start to drive the price up whenever you add on an enticing table of extras. Build your own in the configurator and You'll see what I mean. You do get leather seats and multi-zone (and powerful) climate control as standard, but there's a long list beyond that to add to. If you want the excellent B&W speakers I gave an ear-bleeding full-volume test, that's $4500 extra. Apple CarPlay support for the 9-inch touchscreen — which has an interesting application, using only half the portrait-style display and letting you access other features simultaneously — is $300. Trick power seat cushion controls are $645. The heads-up display is $1900.
There's not much to not like about the new Volvo S90. You could say it's quite an expensive car, and it is especially at the upper trim levels. $120,000 is the same kind of money that you'd expect to spend on the other European marques that are more popular in Australia, and it's likely that the excellent S90 will nonetheless have some tough competition from the upcoming Mercedes E Class, which will have both hybrid options and increased autonomous driving capability. For what it's worth, the S90 is a beautiful and distinctive piece of machinery, in everything from its 'hammer of Thor' headlights to the smooth metallic cut in the lower body of the car's doors. You're not wasting your cash.
Should You Buy It?
Volvo's newest car is a very well put together machine. Its technology package is one of the most complete — not just in features, but in the ease of use that it presents to the driver with — on the road today, and the advanced features like partial autonomy on the highway work perfectly well. It's also an enjoyable driver's car, whether you're commuting to work or enjoying a weekend getaway in it. I wouldn't call it sporty, but it's responsive and reassuringly solid — and, in typical Volvo fashion, it never feels unsafe or uncomposed. It's a sensible car — oodles of interior and boot space and comfortable seats and fuel economy you could take to the bank. It's the kind of car I'd be happy to own.