2017 Volvo S90 Review: Living the (Nearly) Self-Driving Life

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With warning bells ringing in my ears and the Volvo S90 perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, it occurred to me that the car's engineers probably didn't envision their luxury sedan packed full of safety features would be gingerly shepherded down what amounted to a mountain goat path in Spain. But the unintended off-road experience--plus hours of hands on (and hands-off) driving--proved that the technologically tricked out S90 is more than just a pretty face. It's also the first car to come standard with an array of semi-autonomous driving features.

The 2017 Volvo S90 is the second model from the automaker, following the XC90 SUV, that's based on a new engineering platform and features Volvo's touch-screen based connected car system. Volvo has upped the safety and self-driving features on the sedan, adding large animal detection and taking the initial Pilot Assist version from city-only driving up to 80 mph highway speeds. It works well compared to similar systems from other automakers, but there's a learning curve for drivers anxious to adopt the latest technology.

Suite Tech: Almost Autonomous

A myriad of safety and advanced driver assistance (ADS) systems are baked into the 2017 S90 as standard equipment. It includes road edge detection that monitors the shoulder and gently tugs the wheel back into the lane to prevent dangerous wheels-off-road rollovers (that's the system pinging me on the mountain path).

Photo: Volvo

Photo: Volvo

To its pedestrian and cyclist collision avoidance systems, Volvo has added large animal detection that uses radar to sense obstacles ahead and a video camera to identify deer and moose. A warning light and chime will sound should you encounter such a threat and then if you don't apply the brakes, the car will do it for you. (As a demonstration that cars are increasingly rolling computers, Volvo will also do a software upgrade of its 2016 XC90 to add the large animal detection feature.) According to a 2012 State Farm study, there are about 1.23 million deer-car accidents a year, so any technology that can help mitigate such accidents is welcome.

Photo: Volvo

Photo: Volvo

The technology attracting the most attention in the S90, however, is the company's latest semi-autonomous Pilot Assist system. It has been upgraded so that it now works above 30 mph up to about 80 mph and it no longer relies on following a car in front of you. The new Pilot Assist will maintain your speed and follow lane markings, steering the car for you as long as your hand rests lightly on the wheel.

On the highway, the Pilot Assist system worked well most of the time. Once you've set the speed and turned it on by pushing a button on the left-hand portion of the steering wheel, a green steering wheel icon lights up in the center stack on the head-up display to tell you it's on. You can take your hands off the wheel for up to 16 seconds before a message flashes on the dash to take the wheel again. If you don't, you’ll hear more warning chimes and then the automated system disengages. The system is also smart enough to temporarily switch off when you signal to change lanes and then turn back on when you complete the lane change; it worked flawlessly in such situations for me (it could even train drivers to signal for a change).

The new Pilot Assist system will maintain your speed to up to 80 mph and steer the car for you as long as your hand rests lightly on the wheel.

Volvo emphasizes that the Pilot Assist feature is not intended for YouTube showboating: It's a driver support system--you're still captain of the ship. There's a good reason for that: the system is not perfect. On quick, curvy mountain roads, the Pilot Assist sometimes failed to "see" an upcoming corner in time. It also takes time to become accustomed to the steering feel. If you put the car into "comfort" driving mode (for a more plush, effortless highway drive), there's a distinctive tightening of the wheel every time the car makes a lane-centering adjustment. On the other hand, the steering tweaks are less noticeable if you set the car into "dynamic" mode.

Furthermore, some drivers won't appreciate the way the car will continually force the vehicle squarely into the center of the lane if they're more comfortable either hugging the yellow line or skirting the right white line.

Photo: Volvo

Photo: Volvo

You can become complacent with Pilot Assist, and then you’re suddenly reminded that human driver input is essential. As I came around a slight curve on a two-lane highway, the S90 gently steered me away from the right hand soft shoulder at precisely the moment a car coming the opposite way veered into my lane to avoid a cyclist on his side. I quickly directed the car back toward the right side to avoid a collision. If I had not done so, the Pilot Assist would not have reacted in time.

While the Volvo engineers have overcome flaws I've witnessed in competing vehicles, such as being fooled by dark shadows or pole reflectors on curves, not everything was seamless in the S90.

MORE: Connected Cars: A Guide to New Vehicle Technology

On two days of test driving, I encountered several tunnels with the car in Pilot Assist mode. Sudden lights and shadows did not fool the S90, but near the end of one particularly long tunnel, the emergency braking kicked on for a split second and then off before I could apply the accelerator to disengage the system. It should have also have automatically turned off the Pilot Assist but it didn't. The glitch did not present any danger, but the hiccup was a demonstration that no software program or computer is absolutely flawless.

Tablet In the Dash: Connecting the Dots

Volvo's Sensus touch-screen based connected car system made its debut in the XC90 last year. The big 9-inch vertically mounted screen uses infrared sensors, so that it can be used with gloves, and it reacts quickly and smoothly. It's based on a four-tile interface with navigation, media (radio and music), phone, and apps.

Photo: Volvo

Photo: Volvo

One nifty trick is that the car supports Spotify without the need for a connected smartphone. The system also works with Apple's CarPlay and uniquely does not have to give up the whole screen to Apple's uber app. This is a major advantage over other CarPlay implementations because it means you have the rest of the screen to access features such as temperature control and ADS functions, which cannot be controlled from within CarPlay.

I found the Volvo interface logical and easy to master. Swipes left and right invoke different screens with various detailed adjustments covering everything from adaptive cruise control to flexible seat bolsters. You can also input an address using an on-screen keyboard or draw letters on the screen (remember the Palm Pilot?).

One nifty trick is that the S90 supports Spotify without the need for a connected smartphone.

Volvo has also added Wi-Fi based on 4G LTE support so the whole family can enjoy the wireless connection. Topping it all off, there are just enough physical buttons and steering wheel controls so that you don't have to reach for the screen if you don't want to.

Photo: Volvo

Photo: Volvo

Alas, the Sensus' bette noire is the speech recognition component. It uses a limited lexicon of words, rather than understanding natural language instructions. So it works reasonably well handling navigation commands or music requests, but it does not understand requests to change the AC or switch driving modes. (Siri can't help you with those tasks either, because Apple’s assistant is limited to infotainment functions.)

The navigation system worked well--with the one off-road, cliff-hanging exception--and responded quickly when we missed a turn at a traffic circle. I particularly appreciated the head-up color display that showed speed, direction and icons telling me when various driver assistance programs were engaged.

MORE: Apple CarPlay FAQ: Everything You Need to Know

Just Drive It: Luxury Four-Door

On my little dirt path excursion into Spaghetti Western territory, the all-wheel drive system in the T6 model was a welcome feature. The S90 climbed steep embankments like a sprightly cross over, and negotiated the ruts and rocks with aplomb. So if you face snowy winters, the Volvo should give you added confidence. But the S90 is really built for cruising.

The new S90's sinuous lines are a refinement of an evolving design, and while the company refers to details like the front running lights as invoking Thor, I found the front more feline than hammer of the gods. So too with the driving experience. Highway handling was smooth and relaxed.

Photo: Volvo

Photo: Volvo

The combination of turbo and supercharging the 4-cyclinder, 316-hp engine means you're not lacking for power in the low end when trying to merge, and yet you've still got enough of a boost at higher speeds when you need to pass. The model I drove was rated to get you from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds; not the quickest in its class but also not terribly tardy.

Whether you're trying to save gas, cruise in comfort or snap the car through country curves, there's a preset driving mode for your mood. Comfort mode, for example, loosens the steering to make it more forgiving while dynamic mode is best for backroads. You can also customize the suspension, shifting and steering for your own individual preferences. But whatever setting you choose, you'll find the car predictable and responsive, adhering to Volvo's philosophy that there should be "no surprises" when it comes to driving.

With all the driver assistance technologies engaged, I found the S90 subtle in terms of communicating to me what was happening. If I strayed too close to the shoulder a steering vibration let me know I was stepping on the white line--without alerting the passengers as well. In general, such warnings as proximity alerts and chimes were obvious and understandable.

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The one change that took me several hours to get used to was the fact that the Pilot Assist can turn off when you may not expect it; if you get too cavalier on a twisty highway with poorly demarcated lines, the system will turn off and start to drift before the driver notices. The more miles behind the wheel, the more I became accustomed to the hand-offs, but it's an issue facing every automaker with semi-autonomous designs.

Bottom Line

On the path to making automobiles safer and saving lives, the 2017 Volvo S90 is a milestone because it establishes advanced safety technology as standard equipment. Other automakers, by contrast, have only promised to make automatic emergency braking standard by 2022. Furthermore, pedestrian detection and the large animal detection systems work both day and night, providing another level of driver assistance.

Compared to others in its class, such as the BMW 5 Series or Audi A6, the new Volvo S90 is a serious contender, especially for those who are serious about safety. While the semi-autonomous systems aren't perfect, they still can save a driver from a disastrous mistake, something any family or couple looking at a sedan should appreciate.

2017 Volvo S90 T6 Inscription: The Vitals

Price as Tested: $57,245 MSRP (including destination charge)
Engine and Drive train: 2.0-liter, supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder engine with eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.
Fuel Rating: N/A.
Connected Car System: Volvo Sensus with 9-inch touch screen.
Safety Technologies: Collision avoidance with pedestrian, cyclist and large animal detection; lane departure warning, edge mitigation, adaptive cruise control with auto stop and go.
Driver Assist Technologies: Lane keeping (Pilot Assist), parking assist, 360 degree camera view, rear-view camera.
Installed Options: Rear cross traffic alert, bending headlights.

John R. Quain

John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. For Tom's Guide, he has reviewed televisions, HDTV antennas, electric bikes, electric cars, as well as other outdoor equipment. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program.