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Executive Wheels: Volvo s90 – Too much whiz-bang for its own good

Distracted driving is a problem – and sometimes built into the car itself


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Over the years I have loved Volvo. For the most part they have been staid vehicles, very conservative, with an emphasis on safety. The notable exception (safety is always a given) was the introduction in 1971 of the P1800ES – a sleek, dynamic car that turned heads. But for the most part, people considered Volvos to be boxy, safe, and highly reliable vehicles. I have always loved them because they were unique – nothing else in the automotive space was like a Volvo, and I have always lauded automotive distinction in a copy-cat world.

So I was excited to get into the S90 – I have never driven this now two-year-old model – particularly given that I recently drove the XC90, the SUV that is very similar in features, and I wanted to see how it played out in an all-wheel-drive sedan. By the way, all-wheel-drive is my favorite safety feature, and I am tickled pink that it has become nearly a staple in the sedan marketplace.

And then they brought it to, and I could see from my porch that it is an exquisite looking vehicle (although I must confess, I find the latest Volvo exteriors to be more derivative than in the past), and when I saw the interior I fell in love all over again. With its cream-white nappa leather upholstery and accents, and the light walnut wood trim on the doors, console and dash, this could be the nicest looking interior of any car on the market. The feel of this car is all class.

As it turns out, however, this sedan, in only its second model year in the current configuration, is due for an overhaul. Volvo announced earlier this summer that all of its new models for the 2019 model year will be either fully electric or include an electric component, hybrids if you will. So soon the S90, along with the entire line, will be at least hybrid, and – given some of the very modern components in this 2017 model – it won’t be long before Volvo, always a leader will take us into the autonomous auto era, driverless.

What is that, you ask? Well, on this S90 there is a feature called Adaptive Cruise Control with Pilot Assist. Adaptive Cruise Control automatically adjusts the speed to the traffic and will even apply the brakes automatically if the car in front slows way down or stops.

Ah, but there’s more.

Here’s what the Volvo website says:

“ACC is supplemented with Pilot Assist which not only keeps the set speed and distance to a vehicle in front, but also supports the driver in keeping the car within the lane as well. It relieves the driver from the need to constantly adapt the speed to the vehicle in front and adjust the steering to keep within the lane in low speed traffic. Pilot Assist is available at speeds up to 80 mph.

“Please note: The driver is expected to actively participate in the driving and remains responsible for monitoring, supervision and over all operation of the vehicle. Pilot Assist is restricted in how much acceleration, braking and steering force a driver can apply.”

In other words, it more or less drives itself on the highway. It’s eerie – driverless cars are going to take some getting used to, no doubt, as the instinct is to drive and take the curves as the driver. But this car is a good example of where this is all going. Amazing, yes. But I have to admit I’m not quite ready for it.

And it almost feels like an afterthought to mention that this S90 will self-park, parallel or in a space, with the Pilot Assist. After all, self-parking car technology has been around for well over a decade, and I will say what I always say about this feature: it’s cool, a little disconcerting, and in the end, it’s quicker just to park it yourself.

Whiz-bang, for sure. As for other exciting options, consider the Active Bending headlights, that turn to illuminate the curves ahead, and also, using cameras, set the beams at high or low depending on traffic conditions. And, the S90 has Thor’s Hammer Daytime Running Lights along with the auto highbeams. Thor’s Hammer – remember, this is a Swedish-made car, so the mention of Norse mythology is, well expected.

The S90 comes in four configurations: the T5 in a Momentum (front wheel drive) and Inscription edition (all-wheel-drive), both featuring a 2.0-liter in-line four with a turbocharger with some 250 horsepower (starting at ($46,000+), and then the T6 Momentum and this T6 Inscription, both featuring a 2.0-liter in-line four with both a turbocharger and a supercharger, 316 horses, and all-wheel-drive.

Of course, I got to drive the top-of-the-line T6 Inscription, which carries a base price of $55,450, and there are two things about the engine I should note. First, it is very quick and smooth, as if it had a much bigger engine, and with all of the turbo/super charging it still garners an EPA rating of 22 mpg city/31 mpg highway (combined 25 mpg), following the trend in autodom to get more out of smaller engines to improve gas mileage. Second, while most cars with twin turbos and/or superchargers tend to eliminate turbo lag, I still noticed annoying turbo lag here – not on the highway, but often in the city at slower speeds.

On the plus side, this S90 handles superbly well, and in spite of all the Pilot Assist kind of stuff, it is a driver’s drive. I didn’t take it on an extended drive, but I would imagine that it would be a great road car for the long haul. Part of that is that the interior is quite quiet, the seats are immensely comfortable in a stiff-keep-you-awake kind of way, and the truck is huge so taking gold clubs and plenty of luggage would be easy.

You’d think with all this going for it, I would highly recommend the Volvo S90 – but I can’t.

The thing I haven’t mentioned is a deal killer for me: all of the control technology. There is a huge, 9-inch screen in the middle of the dash for operating all of the controls – climate, sound system, apps, seats, everything – and it is the most distracting operating system I have ever experienced. Nothing is intuitive; I had to resort to the owner’s manual several times just to figure out what to do, and I often just listened to the same two radio stations (one AM, one FM) so I wouldn’t have to hunt around to find another. The screen slides like an iPad and you often have to dig deep to find how to do simple things, like adjust the many position of the seat, or turn off the heads-up display.

And never mind the mirrors – for the first couple of days every time I got into the vehicle the right outside mirror turned upward and stayed there, and I was forced to adjust it every time I got into the car. I finally parked on a side street, went to the manual, and simply turned off the automatic mirror adjustments; I never I find out how to have it automatically do what I wanted. I often found myself paying attention to the screen and not my driving, which is no small thing.

My car contacts told me this is the first Volvo to be completely designed in China since Volvo was purchased, in 2011, by Geely, a Chinese multinational auto manufacturing company. Obviously, the Chinese are into whiz-bang technology and here they have missed the mark.

As I said, the base price on my test-drive S90 T6 Inscription is $55,450, and they added on a bunch of options, many of which I have addressed, that brought the bottom line to $66,105. This is indeed a luxury vehicle, and that price – and the car -- is highly competitive with anything the Germans, Japanese, Koreans or Americans can offer. But since distractive driving is a great problem, this one has too much of it for my taste.

Whiz-bang, yes. Too whiz-bang.

Rating: 3 wheels (out of four). 

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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