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First drive: 2017 Volvo S90

Volvo's S90 luxury sedan looks to leave Mercedes, BMW in its rear view

Volvo has carved their own identity in the last 6 years, and they now have a mid-size sedan that can compete with the best luxury cars on the market.

In the European car market, Volvo is kind of an “other” brand. They don’t yet have the street cred for performance that BMW, Jaguar, and Porsche have attained, nor the reputation for luxury that graces Mercedes-Benz. Volvo is certainly a far cry from anything Italian, too. So what is Volvo about these days? Safety is probably the first thought in your head – as it should be. Volvo remains committed to enhancing safety for people inside its cars, and for people outside them, too.

But Volvo’s about much more than safety these days. The Swedes are doing their best to earn a reputation for performance that will rival BMW or Jag, and to stand with Mercedes-Benz in the luxury and quality competition. What’s more, Volvo wants to do all that while maintaining their own unique identity. Volvo’s been at this task since its 2010 separation from the Ford family of brands, and they’re doing outstanding work.

Related: Volvo engineer: Tesla Autopilot is ‘an unsupervised wannabe’

Volvo just launched two new vehicles for the 2017 model year. The S90 will be Volvo’s flagship sedan starting immediately, while the sibling V90 station wagon will join the family next spring. Both vehicles sit on a midsize platform shared with the XC90 SUV, and use the same drivetrains.

Beauty is more than skin-deep

The S90 is an attractive design, with a strong belt-line running the entire length of the vehicle, and a sleek coupe-style roofline. The car features a short overhang in the front, and a longer overhang under the trunk in the rear. Body cut-lines are sharp, with smoothly shaped regions in between.

2017 Volvo S90
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Wind tunnel requirements to reduce drag and cabin noise dictate much of the overall shape, as they do with all competing cars, but the S90 was clearly conceived in a Scandinavian design house rather than a German studio. This is not a flashy car. Rather, the S90 presents an understated and elegant appearance.

Advanced Driveline Technology

The S90 is coming to market with two engine options – both are the Drive-E design 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The T5 engine is turbocharged and good for 250 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The T5 engine reaches max torque at 1,500 rpm and stays there to 5,000. Horsepower rises linearly to 5,600 rpm and then drops off slightly.

This is not a flashy car. Rather, the S90 presents an understated and elegant appearance.

The T6 engine is both supercharged and turbocharged, and is rated at 316 horsepower and 295 pound-feet. This engine reaches maximum torque at 2,100 rpm, and again stays flat to about 5,000 rpm before dropping off. Horsepower rises linearly to 5,600 rpm.

Both engines have seen duty before throughout the Volvo product line, and they have proven to be efficient as well as effective.

The only choice of transmission in the S90 is a smooth 8-speed automatic, but buyers of the T5 engine will get that automatic in a front-wheel-drive configuration while T6 buyers will get all-wheel-drive. That’s all you have in the way of engine options; there’s no mix-n-match with the S90. Well, not yet anyway. As with the XC90, the S90 will be available with the potent 400 horsepower T8 hybrid AWD combination at some time in the future.

2017 Volvo S90
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

So, how do these engines perform? Although we drove only the T6 for this review, we’ve been in the T5-powered cars before. Both engines do a credible job, with the T5 pushing the S90 from 0 to 60 in about 6.5 seconds. That’s within a tenth of a second of this year’s BMW 528i and the same as the Mercedes E350. The T6 will get up to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds, which is about the same as the BMW 535i and the Mercedes-Benz E400. When the T8 arrives, it should propel the S90 into the low-mid 5-second range.

What that means to you in the driver’s seat is that the Volvo S90 has respectable power to accelerate, merge, pass, and cruise. This is not an M5 or AMG powerhouse, but it wasn’t intended to be a competitor for those cars. EPA mileage estimates have not yet been released, but they can be expected to be competitive in the high 20s.

Scandinavian Luxury

Inside, the S90 is as expected. This car will compete head-to-head with the Germans or the Japanese luxury brands easily. As with every aspect of the car, there’s a particular Scandinavian approach to luxury. For example, instead of lacquered and polished wood trim, the designers at Volvo left the grain open, so you can see and feel the natural wood. All touch surfaces have been attended to, with fit and finish appropriate to a meticulously detailed luxury automobile.

As with every aspect of the car, there’s a particular Scandinavian approach to luxury.

The dash and controls are clean and simple. Volvo gives you vertically slatted air vents with a diamond-cut twist knob in the center instead of thumb wheel. That may sound like a small thing, but the movement of the vent and the knob are precise and solid. Little things like that are the hallmark of quality; the things you don’t necessarily notice, but which affect your overall perception of the car.

The new nine-inch touchscreen interface is larger than previous screens offered, and it’s easy to use if you’re familiar with standard tablet techniques. Swipe right from the home screen and you’ll get one set of options, swipe left for others. Volvo’s system has its own apps, but also supports Apple CarPlay. Sorry Android users, you’re still waiting.

Related: 2016 Volvo S60 Cross Country review

The seats are comfortable, and optionally heated and ventilated. You can also get massaging action, which is well worth the extra cash. The massage generally works up and down either side of your spine, and hits the tension points commonly associated with a desk job. You can control the speed, location, and pressure, and the massage action goes for about 10 minutes every time you activate the system. After a long day at your desk, you’ll be hitting that button like a lab rat.

Safety is Standard

Volvo has made a very public goal that by 2020, no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo. Some people like to scoff at Volvo’s fanatical devotion to improving safety, but generally those people have never seen or been in a truly serious collision. The technology that Volvo is developing today will be copied tomorrow and made mandatory for all cars in a few years.

The list of safety features on the S90 is too long to list out here, but there are a few world firsts that should be mentioned. Where most cars with lane keeping assist use their cameras to look for a painted line on either side of the car, Volvo takes things a step further with Road Edge Detection. The S90 will look for a number of different factors such as vertical objects and color or texture changes to indicate the road edge, and it will use that to keep you on the road.

Volvo pioneered pedestrian detection a few years ago, and they’ve now added large animal detection with automatic braking. If a large animal such as a deer or cow darts into your path, the S90 will see it and automatically apply the brakes if you don’t. That may sound like a so-what feature if you live in the city, but more than 100 people are killed each year in animal collisions nationwide.

Now let’s get into the cool stuff. As a world first, the S90 includes semi-autonomous driving as a standard feature. When you experience this, you’ll get how close we are to truly self-driving cars. With Volvo’s Pilot Assist system, you still keep your hands on the wheel (or the car will complain at you) but really you can let the car do all the work. Volvo optimized the system for the highway, and it will follow gentle curves right in the center of the lane. On our test drive, we let the car drive for a full 10 minutes before we came to a town and had to steer again.

On the Road

One nice thing about the S90 is that you can define its personality in a pretty noticeable way. Like most cars in this class, you can set driving modes that change the shifting, steering, and suspension behavior. We left the car in Comfort mode most of the time. As you might expect, the steering was heavily assisted in this mode. If someone complains that the S90 steering is numb, just tell them to change to Sport mode, and things tighten up considerably. There’s also Eco mode, which may be responsible but it’s less fun.

The T6 will get up to 60 MPH in just 5.7 seconds, which is about the same as the BMW 535i and the Mercedes-Benz E400.

Our one eyebrow-raiser on the S90 was the downshifting behavior in Comfort mode. Predictably, with an 8-speed transmission the car has to change gears a lot if you’re speeding up or slowing down. When you’re doing something a little tricky, like entering a roundabout, you have to slow down to get the timing right, then charge into the roundabout with confidence. We were test-driving in Spain, and they expect you to know how to drive your car over there. The S90 had a tendency to think you were going to come to a stop, so it would take a moment, maybe a half-second, to respond when we suddenly goosed the throttle to enter the flow of traffic. That led to at least one Spaniard with a lowered opinion of American drivers. But before the next roundabout we slipped into Sport mode and all was well again.

You’re going to love driving the S90. The suspension generally is smooth and tight and the brakes work the way you expect them to. The roads in Spain were about on par with all but the newest pavement in America, and road noise is kept to a minimum. When there’s broken pavement, the S90 just soaks up the bumps. The total effect is a fast road machine you can take from coast to coast in perfect comfort. Did I mention the massage?

Pricing and Trims

One of the best parts of the S90 story is the pricing. There are only two trim levels, and as mentioned, just two engine/drivetrain combinations. So this is very simple.

The base Momentum trim (which is just fine for most buyers) gives you leather, navigation, an eight-inch driver information display, sunroof, LED lights all around, dark birch wood trim, and Volvo On-Call concierge services, among many other features. With a T5 engine and FWD, that car will cost you $47,945. With the T6 engine and AWD, you’re looking at $53,945.

2017 Volvo S90
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Move up to the Inscription trim, and you get heated and ventilated seats, the open grain walnut wood trim, a 12.3-inch driver information display, bending LED headlights, Apple CarPlay, Nappa leather, extra seat adjustments, and leather touch surfaces around the cabin. The Inscription S90 will cost you $51,445 with the T5 drivetrain, and $57,245 with the T6 package.

It’s worth noting that the S90 comes with a 4-year, 50,000 mile warranty, and all regularly scheduled service is covered in that period.

Überprüfen Sie Ihre Spiegel

That German phrase means “check your mirrors,” and that’s what BMW and Mercedes should be doing right about now. Volvo has carved their own identity in the last 6 years, and they now have a mid-size sedan that can compete with the best luxury cars on the market.

While we were in Spain, we also got to drive some pre-production models of the V90 station wagon. Volvo was even kind enough to bring only brown wagons for us. Automotive journalists are nothing if not predictable, and we all swooned over the V90. It’s the same car as the S90, only with more usable space in back. The V90 should show up at dealers early next year, while the T5 S90 models will show up in September. But if you want to test drive an S90 now, the T6 models are arriving at dealers in the next few weeks.

If you read this far, the bottom line is obvious. If you’re shopping among the BMW 5-series, Audi A6, Mercedes E-Class, or the Cadillac, Jaguar, Acura, Infiniti, Lexus, and Genesis equivalents, you need to be sure to check out the Volvo S90. This is a luxury car that really gets everything right.

Highs

  • Good looking
  • Quiet and comfortable
  • Good engine power
  • Excellent safety story
  • Available AWD

Lows

  • Sometimes slow to downshift
  • Delayed entry for the wagon version