Volvo believes it can strike gold a second time in a year with the launch of its self-driving (2017 style) Volvo S90 midsize sedan. As with the Volvo XC90 crossover a year ago, the S90 offers an attractive cockpit, serious levels of active and passive safety, and a more advanced version of the Pilot Assist self-driving controls standard on all S90s.
Pilot Assist takes over driving chores and keeps the S90 aligned in the center of the lane, while tracking the speed of the vehicle in front to maintain a safe following distance. There’s virtually no interstate with a curve too sharp for Pilot Assist to handle. The vehicle intends to compete against Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, although on sporting characteristics it may align more with Lexus GS or Lincoln MKZ, at least until the high-performance Polestar variant ships. (Polestar is to Volvo as AMG is to Mercedes.) The S90 is on sale by July in the US; most drivers will pay in the fifties, nicely equipped.
Volvo Pilot Assist provides Level 2 autonomous driving on the Department of Transportation’s 0-to-4 scale of vehicle automation. Level 0 is no automation. Level 1 is one or more standalone functions, such as stability control or lane departure warning. Level 2 combines two or more functions working together, most commonly adaptive cruise control and lane centering assist. Level 3 is extended hands-off autonomy, while Level 4 is full autonomy from the start to the end of the trip.
Through continuous improvement over the past year, Volvo increased Pilot Assist’s functionality range from zero to 80 mph (or 130 kph), up from 0-30, and further tweaked lane centering assist, which keeps the car centered in the chosen lane. It also no longer needs a car in front as a guide.
Pilot Assist may work better than the competition in winter conditions because Volvo placed the controlling radar in the windshield mirror cluster (photo below), along with the camera that helps with lane departure warning. Volvo says the section is heated and swept by the wipers.
I drove the new 2017 S90 sedan for two days along Spain’s southern coast (Costa del sol), on roads with reasonably good lane markings and, unlike much of the northern United States, no potholes. I was able to tap a steering wheel button to access and then turn on Auto Pilot. The car immediately took over driving chores and changed the steering feel from moderately light to what I’d call heavy for a power-steering-equipped car; you could override Pilot Assist, but it took some effort. It worked well from speeds all the way up to the 80 mph limit down to a stop, then back up to speed. The X90 tracked very close to the middle of the road; once in a while it veered a foot or two off center, then returned. It handled the gentle curves of limited access roads well. It won’t pull out and pass slower cars.
Volvo says you only need to have finger on the wheel to show the car there’s a still a driver on board. There’s a reason to keep your hands on the wheel (beyond legislative mandates that drivers keep a hand on). There are times when Pilot Assist gave preference to the right-hand lane marking over the left and started to take the exit ramp. Not always, but not never, either. There’s also occasional confusion when N lanes merge to N-1 lanes and the car has to determine which lane it belongs in. The most common issue affecting Pilot Assist is when a car barely ahead of you changes into your lane; you notice the car coming into your driving lane a long second or so before the radar picks up the car. This is an issue with all ACC cars, not just Volvo.
On two-lane country roads, Pilot Assist works capably with the exception that some roads are too curvy for Pilot Assist to track properly. No car does that perfectly, yet. Even if you can drive with just a finger on the wheel and overcome the S90’s auto-steering, you’ll want at least a full hand on to make corrections easier. To be clear: You don’t have to fight Pilot Assist for control of your car, it’s just that there’s more effort involved than with Pilot Assist disabled.
Overall, Volvo has placed itself in the top rank of semi-autonomous driving cars, along with Mercedes-Benz and Tesla. (Those two change lanes automatically once you flick the turn signal.) It’s a feature that makes long vacation trips less of a chore, especially late in the day, and takes the hassle out of congested traffic of daily highway commutes.
The S90 can be had with two engines, two trim lines, and front or all-wheel drive. The 250-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine (T5) is currently front-drive only. The 2.0-liter four with a supercharger (for low-speed acceleration) and turbocharger (T6) produces 316 hp and is all-wheel drive. The front-drive S90 T5 Momentum trim line lists for $47,945 list including $995 freight; the T5 Inscription trim line is $51,445. The all-wheel-drive S90 T6 Momentum is $53,945 and the T6 Inscription is $57,245.
All cars come with Pilot Assist, Collision Avoidance by City Safety (self-braking to a stop at up to 19 mph, collision mitigation above that, pedestrian-cyclist-large animal detection day and night), run-off road mitigation, lane departure warning, road sign information (speed limits and such), and drowsy driver alerts.
Moose are a big problem in Sweden, just as deer are in the US, and in deer-heavy states, as many as one in 50 cars hits or is hit by a large animal every year. Run-off road mitigation and protection tries to detect and return the car to the roadway even in the absence of lane markers; it works best if there’s a detectable contrast between the paved roadway or shoulder and what’s beyond. If the car does go off-road, the seats have a crushable shock absorber that protects the spine from the heavy impact of a car bottoming out. This is an example of Volvo finding safety aspects to improve on what gives it a lead, for now, on the competition.
Also standard are LED headlamps, and a 9-inch vertical orientation, one-button Sensus touchscreen with navigation, and Volvo On-Call onboard telematics. All cars except the entry trim line have a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel; it’s an option otherwise. Steerable headlamps and auto high-beam are either standard (Inscription) or available.
Oddly, Volvo makes blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert an option, in a $1,950 Vision Package (along with a surround view camera, auto dimming mirrors, and retractable side mirrors). Volvo explained there are core safety attributes that all S90s should have, and then there are safety features that are best suited as options. Blind spot detection falls in the second category. Then the buyer can decide, Volvo says. Our suspicion is Volvo will get pushback on blind spot detection being an option on all S90s when so much else is standard. Volvo may also hear mixed feedback on Apple CarPlay and a two-port USB hub being optional, part of a $1,000 package, on the Momentum trim line. CarPlay comes standard on Inscription. There is no Android Auto yet.
A climate package adds heated rear seats to the standard (except T5 Momentum) heated fronts, heated steering wheel, and heated in-wiper washer nozzles. A $1,000 convenience package adds front and parallel parking assistance, a 12V power outlet, and a power rear trunklid that works by kicking you foot under the rear bumper.
A very nice 800 x 600 pixel head-up display is $900, rear air suspension for an even softer ride is $1,200, and gazillion-speaker Bowers & Wilkins ultra-premium audio is $2,650 and for some reason adds a space-stealing CD player in the center console; otherwise with no CD you’ll have to make do with the radio or your smartphone or Spotify.
A year ago, the Volvo XC90 SUV showed how quickly Volvo could gain market share once it unveiled truly modern vehicles, using the scalable platform architecture (SPA), meaning one basic design can be modified for longer wheelbase, overall length, height and width; the only fixed measurement is the front wheel-t0-dash ratio that gives the car much of its identity from the side. The XC90, the reigning North American SUV of the Year, grabbed fourth place among midsize, premium three-row SUVs. (Even counting premium two-rows such as Lexus RX and mega-SUVs such as Cadillac Escalade, it’s a top-ten vehicle.)
In the category of midsize premium SUVs, two- or three-row, SUVs sell slightly better than the sedan equivalents. Volvo believes it can capture 5% of the premium sedan market, or about 15,000 units out of 300,000. The SUV numbers suggest Volvo’s goal is reasonable.
Volvo says its key competitors are the Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lexus GS, Acura RLX, and Infiniti Q70. To that we’d add the Hyundai Genesis sedan and the Lincoln MKZ — the Genesis because it represents exceptional value, the Genesis and MKZ because they’re geared more for comfortable than sporty driving.
The Volvo S90 is enjoyable to drive, the cockpit fit and finish is up with Audi in terms of desirability (the HVAC vents are pieces of art), the seats are super-comfortable, the headrest looks as if it alone could support the car, a portrait-orientation center stock monitor is the way to go especially for navigation (if it’s not on the four horizontal bars of the main display, remember to swipe left or right for everything else), the premium audio is fantastic, the safety is world-class, and Pilot Assist is a true step forward. The cockpit was comfortable in my tests, the matte walnut finish looked more upscale than high-gloss woods would, the LCD instrument panel was legible, and the handful of buttons on the center stack made for a cleaner look. As with any car that relies on a touchscreen with only one button for the display (and just a handful of buttons elsewhere on the center stack), as the ride gets rougher, the ease of using a touchscreen falls. The crystal engine start knob on the console pays homage to Sweden’s glass industry, although to some the crystal starter knob and the roller wheel to choose eco, comfort, or sport may seem over the top.
Volvo may gain traction as it broadens the S90 line. Volvo expects to have a long-wheelbase version in the future to improve further on the car’s comfortable interior. A wheelbase stretch did wonders for the compact Volvo S60 Inscription. There will also be the aforementioned sporty S90 Polestar models. Separately, Volvo will deliver a sibling V90 wagon to world markets this year and to the US market next year along with a plug-in hybrid. In a brief test drive, the wagon shared most of the attributes of the S90 and more cargo capacity. Volvo will later have a second scalable architecture for its smaller cars, all part of the $10 billion investment made when Geely bought Volvo from Ford in 2011. So far, the investment is paying off.
What Volvo envisions seems possible: being in the top 10 and possibly top five among premium sporty sedans. The XC90 showed it can be done. The Volvo’s “Vision 2020” plan of no one killed or seriously injured in a Volvo is both aggressive and attainable with the cars that Volvo is bringing to market. Relentless development and useable new technology made possible by the Geely investment (“bailout” is such a charged term) is paying off.