Volvo is moving boldly into the great unknown of semi-autonomous driving, with its large S90 sedan (and upcoming V90 wagon). But is it moving too quickly with its driving aids? Volvo is among the first makers to provide a self-driving mode in a nonelectrified vehicle.
The S90 is beautifully styled, richly appointed and layered with many smart and considerate designs. It is a large car by Volvo and European specifications but more of a large midsize car by U.S. parameters. It is about 9.5 inches shorter than the full-size Hyundai G90 or the Lincoln Continental, but it is also 10 inches longer than Volvo S60 midsize sedan. Sizewise, it compares to the BMW 5-Series, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or the Lexus GS.
The S90 is sold in two trim levels in front- or all-wheel drive with two four-cylinder engine choices and an eight-speed automatic transmission. Pricing starts at $47,945 for the Momentum T5 with 250-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Pricing includes the $995 freight charge from Gothenburg, Sweden, and free scheduled maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles.
The T6 AWD Inscription, today’s tester, starts at $53,945 and includes the 316-horsepower supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. With options, the tester was $66,105.
My drive week was like a divided highway. It was easy to appreciate and enjoy the fresh Scandinavian styling. The interior wood trim looks natural and hand-worked. The full leather upholstery (not leather-faced upholstery) has robust quality and precise assembly.
The engine performance is tuned for fuel economy, which has ratings of 22 mpg city, 31 highway and 25 mpg combined on the recommended premium fuel. I was averaging 24.7 mpg, though the 15.9-gallon fuel tank is small for a large car.
There are drive modes of Eco, Comfort, Dynamic and Individual. I drove on Dynamic to put some urgency in the acceleration. With a curb weight of 4,222 pounds, Volvo cites zero to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. Manual shifts can be made with the shift lever, but there are no paddle shifters at the steering wheel, which really won’t matter to most users.
Despite the artful layout, the shifter console is large and is an inefficient use of space. And the 12-volt plug and two USBs for device charging are tucked away in the center armrest console.
Sightlines are open, and the seats are supportive and oh so comfortable. There is a large driver footrest and an expansive rearview mirror, and there are large fabric-covered visors that do not extend.
Nearly all cabin, audio and navigation controls are negotiated via a large vertical iPad-like touch screen in the center of the instrument panel, with secondary touch points for temp-fan-vent and seat heating. The only hard buttons are for defrost, audio volume and audio tuning.
Volvo insists that this tablet system is as safe or safer than hard buttons, and that after its owners adapt to the swipe system, they will not go back. But I find there to be too much distraction from driving by hunting through and pecking at the screen.
The back seat space feels snug, though there are 36 inches of legroom and the window seats are comfortable. The center seat is hard and narrow with no footroom around the wide and tall transmission tunnel. There is a 12-volt plug but no USB for charging. The seatback does not fold, but there is a ski pass-through in the center armrest, which also has a tray and slide-out cup holders.
At 13.5 cubic feet, the trunk space also seems small (not including some underfloor capacity), but the opening is wide at 38 inches and long at 45 inches. Details include a pair of bag hooks, a 12-volt plug and two lights.
I made a couple of forays into the self-driving mode without in-depth coaching. I did get some instructions over the phone from a qualified rep within Volvo PR.
Pilot Assist is a semi-autonomous system, Volvo says, intended to be used for the daily commute on roads with clearly marked lanes or a divided highway. It is a Level 2 system, which requires hands on the wheel for it to work — and a foot hovering above the brake pedal, as in my experience.
Pilot Assist is activated through the car’s active cruise-control system. On my inaugural flight, the car took wide turns and drove over the white line on the right, and then moved left and drove whisker-close to the double-yellow centerlines as traffic was approaching. It slowly turned back to the center of the lane, but I nearly shouted, “Pay attention!”
Volvo admits that reflections and some road angles can set off a false reading. And there is much data to read: yellow lines, white lines, broken white lines, Botts’ dots, double yellow lines, dark pavement, light pavement, broken pavement, crosswalks, bright sun and shade. And then there will be fog, sleet, ice, snow and rain. There will be animals to recognize and random flotsam that blows across the lane.
Road conditions are a lot to process — for man or robot. While no harm came to the car, I was a mental wreck. After 20 miles, I was worn out from watching the road and watching for alerts.
I’m fairly aware of these technologies, but if my experience is close to the learning curve of new owners, there will need to be a Pilot Assist flight instructor at the dealership to address the do’s and don’ts. I seemed to have learned all the don’ts in my early testing. Clearly, it will take time and mileage to become comfortable with the robot driver.
The S90 is a large-ish sedan reaching for the moon. But for many buyers, the slightly smaller and feature-rich S60 sedan may prove to be a better value and use of space.
2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inspiration
–Body style: large, five-passenger rear- or AWD sedan
–Engine: 316-horsepower, supercharged and turbocharged direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 295 foot-pounds torque at 2,200 to 5,400 rpm
–Transmission: eight-speed automatic with stop-start at idle
–Fuel economy: 22/31 mpg city/hwy; premium fuel
–Zero to 60 mph: 5.7 seconds
–Fuel tank: 15.9 gallons
–Trunk space: 13.5 cubic feet
–Front head/leg/shoulder room: 38.7/42.2/57.5 inches
–Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 37.8//35.9/55.9 inches
–Length/wheelbase: 195.4/115.8 inches
–Curb weight: 4,222 pounds
–Base price: $53,945, including $995 freight charge; price as tested $66,105
–Assembled in Gothenburg, Sweden.
–Warranty: 50,000 miles/48 months bumper to bumper with roadside assistance