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2017 Volvo S90 Test Drive Review
If it's true that styling sells cars, Volvo had better prepare for an onslaught of new customers seeking to get their hands on its gorgeous new 2017 S90 sedan.
Nearly two decades ago, Volvo reinvented itself with the broadly shouldered S80 sedan. Now, the equally bold 2017 Volvo S90 sedan replaces the essentially forgotten S80 as the automaker’s flagship car. Based on the same vehicle architecture and employing the same drivetrains as the award-winning XC90 SUV, the new S90 is positioned to battle midsize luxury sedans from the Audi A6 to the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The good news for Volvo is that the S90 has what it takes to succeed.
Look and Feel
Decked out in Mussel Blue metallic paint and equipped with optional 20-inch aluminum wheels, my 2017 Volvo S90 T6 test car attracted plenty of attention from what are usually jaded Los Angeles residents. We’re talking about a region where a woman is marginally famous for no other reason than that she drives a pink Corvette, where the children of foreign diplomats race supercars on the streets of wealthy enclaves, where Ferrari F40s show up at local Cars ‘N Coffee events, and where the BMW 3 Series is derisively known as the “California Civic.”
In other words, L.A. residents have seen it all.
Yet my Volvo S90 caused people to stare, to swivel their heads as I drove past, and to walk right up and start conversations. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, especially around the subject of price.
You can get a Volvo S90 for as little as $47,945. My test car, however, was the S90 T6 loaded with every option except an air suspension and a black headliner. That brought the window sticker to $66,940, including the destination charge.
That also puts the S90 into serious company, lining it up against the heavy hitters in the segment, including the redesigned BMW 5 Series and the redesigned Mercedes-Benz E-Class. But, based on my experience, Volvo can justify it, in part because Volvo beautifully trims the S90’s interior.
From the supple leather to the matte-finish walnut wood and polished aluminum trim to the beveled metal accents, this is a rich yet minimalistic cabin in the Scandinavian tradition. Even the backs of the steering-wheel spokes are covered in quality material. The aesthetic might not please everyone, but there is no denying that the S90’s cabin has style, right down to the soft glow of its ambient lighting.
Obviously, if you’re looking to drive something different than what everyone else chooses in this class, the Volvo S90 is a terrific choice from a styling and design perspective. But is it a terrific choice for a driver?
I’ll say this: The S90 T6 is quick.
It’s got a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine boasting both turbocharging and supercharging, and it makes 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. The engine note sounds somewhat coarse and unrefined, a distinct step down from the way BMW and Mercedes-Benz tune their 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engines, but the S90 T6 isn’t lacking for power.
An 8-speed automatic transmission is standard, shifting perfectly and delivering the power to each corner of the car for exceptionally sure-footed, all-wheel-driven acceleration. The S90 lacks paddle shifters, but if the driver places the car in Sport mode and uses the manual gate with its intuitive shift pattern, the S90 does a good impression of a sports sedan.
Volvo claims that 60 mph arrives in 5.7 seconds, and by the seat of my pants, that seems credible. Plus, I got 22.3 mpg on my test loop. That’s short of the official EPA estimate of 25 mpg, but I had to modify my route due to weather and road conditions, adding more uphill driving than usual. During a full week of driving, the car returned 24.2 mpg.
Oh, and here’s something you wouldn’t expect: The S90 T6 can tow up to 4,600 pounds.
Drivers can alter the behavior of the engine and transmission by switching to a different driving mode. Choices include Eco, Comfort, and Sport, as well as an Individual setting. You can tell the difference between the three main choices. Eco makes the car feel sluggish and less responsive, while Sport makes the car feel more energetic and reactive. I used Comfort mode the majority of the time, switching to Sport mode for driving on my favorite mountain roads.
In my opinion, Volvo needs to refine the car’s braking system. The pedal doesn’t deliver much in the way of feel, and brake application at the rotors isn’t aligned with the amount of pressure the driver places on the pedal. As a result, when modulating the pedal I felt like I was correcting the car instead of my own input. Plus, at low speeds, brake rumble is noticeable inside the cabin. Outside of an older vehicle with worn brakes ripe for replacement, I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed something like this before.
Equipped with 20-inch wheels and Bridgestone Potenza tires, and when placed in Sport driving mode, the S90 can handle corners and curves with impressive grace. This is not an outright sport sedan, and it doesn’t beg to be driven that way, but it can hustle when necessary.
Unfortunately, I think the bigger rims and more aggressive rubber negatively impact ride quality. Occasionally, the S90 T6 rode more stiffly than expected and sometimes exhibited less-graceful recovery than demanded of a midsize luxury sedan like this one. Road noise was louder than is preferable, too. Generally, though, the ride was fine on mostly smooth SoCal highways, and I’m sure the optional air suspension would further improve the car’s comportment.
So, is this a luxury car? For the most part, yes. Aside from excessive road noise on certain types of pavement and the unbecoming ride stiffness that arises on occasion (each of which could be attributable to my tester's 20-inch wheels and tires), the S90 delivers a smooth and supple ride.
What about a sports sedan? To an unexpected degree, also yes, and likely thanks to the oversized rubber. Switch to Sport mode, use the manual shift gate, and you’ll be able to hustle this Volvo harder than you’d guess.
Still, there is room for refinement on both of these fronts. This is a good car to drive, but not a great one.
Form and Function
Volvos have long been known for their soothing, comfortable seats, and in the new S90, that’s true for front-seat occupants. They lack a massage function, and the controls are unnecessarily fiddly, but they provide excellent long-distance support. In my test car, they were heated and ventilated, too.
Rear-seat passengers are not as lucky. Sure, in my test car the premium Nappa leather was smooth and supple, the 4-zone climate system gave each passenger control over his or her temperature, and the outboard positions had heated cushions. Unfortunately, the seats sit unexpectedly low in the car, and the foot wells are rather tight. Plus, the rear side-window sunshades are unexpectedly difficult to use.
As a parent of frequently squabbling children, though, I must admit that I loved the ability to fold the rear headrests down using a button in the Sensus infotainment system, clunking them lightly on the head.
Outward visibility impresses, and I particularly like the view over the hood, which, unlike that in many modern aerodynamic cars today, displays sheet metal texture for visual interest. Parking sensors, large blind-spot warning lights, and multiple camera views accessible through Sensus also help to make the driver aware of his or her surroundings, though the wide-angle reversing camera provides a somewhat odd and distorted view.
Interior storage space is not what I would call generous, and the center-console storage bin is a verifiable joke. I’m not even sure why Volvo bothered. That leaves the glovebox, the door-panel bins, and the stylishly hidden cup holders for storing anything much larger than the key or a smartphone.
Deep but somewhat narrow, the S90’s 13.5-cubic-foot trunk is on the small side for a larger sedan. That’s not much bigger than a Toyota Corolla's.
Volvo loads the S90 with technology, and I’ve got a love/hate relationship with the Sensus infotainment system. Oriented vertically and working similar to a tablet computer, the touchscreen display is at once exceptionally easy to understand and use while at the same time being infuriatingly distracting.
Like a tablet is when you’re lounging on the couch and giving it your full attention, Sensus is simple to use when you are not driving. You forgive its slow loading time and the occasional lack of response and forgetfulness as to which screen contains the application you seek. When you're driving, using Sensus is exactly like trying to use a tablet while riding a bicycle. In other words, it is ill advised.
Between its regular inability to recognize dry fingertips attempting to execute a command to how often I selected the wrong “tile” on the screen because of bumpy pavement, Sensus was a steady source of frustration and distraction.
Yes, the graphics are impressive, as is the ability to drag and drop tiles in order to custom-tailor screens to personal preference. But the display collects fingerprints like the FBI, its vertical orientation forces the driver to contort his or her wrist around the gear selector in order to use the Volume control knob, and it washes out when the sun shines directly on it.
Also, while trying to find a specific restaurant in an unfamiliar area, the voice-recognition system proved useless. I finally resorted to employing the handwriting recognition system in order to find the place and chart a course.
On positive notes, I liked the digital instrumentation with four different display themes, and the 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins premium audio system sounds terrific. Is it worth $3,200 extra? That’s for you to decide.
Volvo stakes its entire reputation on safety, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the S90 receives the highest possible ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), with the exception of headlight performance, which is deemed Marginal. I tried to look the car up on the NHTSA’s new website, but they seem to think the S90 is an SUV, so their data is suspect.
One thing I really like about the S90 is that it comes with free emergency crash-notification service for 10 years. If that doesn’t underscore Volvo’s commitment to your safety, I don’t know what would.
Volvo is also hard at work on autonomous technology, with the goal of preventing all deaths and serious injuries in its new cars and SUVs by 2020. That’s admirable, and as a part of that goal, every S90 comes standard with Pilot Assist, a semi-autonomous driving system.
Naturally, I tested it, and I found that it was not particularly satisfying to use. I checked to make sure all the driver-assistance technologies were activated, and I tested it again. Again, I concluded that the technology could not be counted upon to consistently assist the driver in potentially dangerous situations.
Perhaps my expectations were set too high. Based on the scenarios below, all experienced with the Volvo’s Pilot Assist system engaged during clear, sunny weather, you be the judge.
1.) On Pacific Coast Highway out past Malibu, the Volvo caught up to a group of five cars, all traveling in the two northbound lanes. The lead car in the right lane slowed and turned right into a restaurant called Neptune’s Net. The driver behind him then accelerated in order to try to beat me to a merge immediately past the restaurant where the two lanes of northbound traffic become one. The Volvo did not identify any potential hazards, did not reduce speed, and I had to brake to politely allow the other driver in.
2.) On the southbound 101 freeway in Camarillo, near the outlet malls, there is a kink and a small rise in the lanes of travel. Here, while driving in the leftmost lane, the Volvo was traveling without a lock on a vehicle ahead. As it approached slowing and stopped vehicles just behind this kink in the road, it did not appear to recognize the need to slow down. Eventually, I had to take control and apply the brakes.
3.) With Pilot Assist set to its middle distance-control setting, the system allows enough space for other drivers to tuck between the Volvo and the car ahead. An Audi did exactly this, and at a slightly slower rate of speed than the S90 was traveling. The Audi was almost completely into my lane before the system recognized its presence, braking just before I was going to finally apply pressure on the pedal.
4.) On the southbound 101 freeway in Montecito, California, a vehicle pulled out of the nearly stationary right lane of traffic into my lane. The Volvo recognized the vehicle, understood that it was traveling much slower (though was accelerating), and braked harder than a human would. This action caught the driver of a Toyota 4Runner behind me unaware. That person, who could see over the shorter S90, rightly perceived that it was unlikely that I would brake hard as there was no need for it. But the Volvo’s software had determined otherwise, and almost caused an accident.
5.) Regularly, the system’s lane-assistance technology would allow the Volvo to pinball from one side of the lane to the other.
Lest you conclude that Volvo has somehow flunked the semi-autonomous driving test, you should know that I’ve experienced similar flukes in analogous systems installed in the 2017 BMW 5 Series and 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
Therefore, the moral of the story is that autonomous driving technologies are not just around the corner. Based on what’s available today in some of the most sophisticated cars on the planet, that’s hype.
What does “cost effectiveness” mean to a person spending the kind of money the S90 costs on a car? If the goal is to own a beautiful automobile that stands well apart from a crowd that typically chooses the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Lexus GS, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, then this Volvo demands consideration.
If you are a technology maven looking to sample the latest and greatest advancements in driver assistance, collision avoidance, and infotainment systems, the new S90 will scratch that itch.
If you are seeking a safe vehicle, one that you can put your family into without hesitation, secure in the knowledge that even if a collision cannot be avoided, the company’s engineers have done their best to protect the people you love most, there is immense value baked into this Volvo.
If, however, you’re seeking the most dynamic midsize luxury sport sedan, or the one with the most cachet, or the one most likely to deliver years and years of unassailable dependability, the new Volvo S90 is less “cost effective.”
Personally, though I think it could use some additional refinement, I really like this car, flaws and all. But then, I prefer to drive something different from what everyone else chooses. And to a family man like me, safety is sexy even without the S90’s seductive sheet metal.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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