I'm sitting in the driver's seat of the brand-new Volvo S90, somewhere along one of Southern Spain's finest roads. I'm driving, but just barely. The car is handling the throttle and brake, as well as most of the steering.
There are many reasons this car is mightily impressive and important: it's the first car to come with city- and highway-capable, self-steering autonomous technology as standard equipment. It's critical for Volvo, because it's the rebirth of the Swedish safety maven's flagship sedan. At a base price of $47,945 after destination charges, the company is using the S90 specifically to lure buyers and lessees away from its competition: the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E Class, Audi A6, and Cadillac CTS.
More subtly, it represents the hand of Volvo, very calmly and deliberately raising its proverbial middle finger squarely in the direction of Tesla, and what Volvo considers underdeveloped, irresponsible self-driving technology.
Volvo's approach to self-driving tech is as advanced as it is cautious
On one hand, Volvo's newest version of its Pilot Assist system -- debuting on every single S90 -- is incredibly advanced. It works up until 80mph and uses an entire suite of sensors to find the edge of the road, even if it's not clearly marked and there's no other traffic to be seen. That's a major advancement from systems like the one found on a Tesla, which, while effective, requires both pretty clearly marked lanes and a car ahead to follow.
On the other hand, Volvo is very clear that it absolutely does not want you relying on the system. It exists to provide you with a reassuring backup that can ease the physical strain and mental stress of your daily commute. Whereas Tesla’s use of semi-autonomous technology is part of a wider ethos of tech-as-showmanship, Volvo's is grounded within its decades-old compulsion of safety first. It's a philosophical difference, but one that manifests itself by way of warnings and eventual shutoff if you don't keep your hand on the wheel -- unlike in a Tesla, where some drivers think its perfectly acceptable to just sit back and get some shut-eye.
The sensors even know the difference between moose and squirrels
The S90 is the next step in what Volvo has for years described as Vision 2020: the company's goal to have no fatalities in a new Volvo starting in the year 2020. No one is pretending the S90 will suddenly make you immortal, but it does come with an always-on large animal-detection system -- jokingly called "Moose Detection" -- aimed at cutting down on the more than 1.2 million moose and deer strikes that occur each year. In addition to watching for people and other cars, the sensors pick up on animals, identify if they're large enough to pose a threat, warn you, then apply the brakes to avoid an awkward up-close encounter with an angry hooved animal. That's something the competition, be it from BMW, Tesla, Mercedes, or Audi, simply doesn't have at the present time.
It's sexy on the outside, and it knows it
Walking around the new S90, a few things stand out: first and foremost is the sexy shape. Yeah, I said "sexy" in reference to a Volvo. The chiseled shape is the result of quite a bit of engineering, starting with the decision to go with a smaller engine. Combined with that accent line that runs the length of the car, picking up the light just below the windows, the effect is a car that looks downright svelte.
The grille is similar to the legendary (and also eminently sexy) P1800. But the star detail is the headlights. See that stripe down the middle? It's really Thor's hammer -- as in, the hammer wielded by the Chris Hemsworth-like Scandinavian god of thunder. The "hammer" doubles as the illuminated element of the headlight, and the split-beam is the result of some fancy fiber-optic engineering. It sounds like the sort of cheesy high-concept design that doesn't hold up in reality, but when you see the twin hammers in your rearview mirror, they project a thoroughly original and self-assured aura rivaled only by BMW's angel eyes.
The inside is a masterclass of form-meets-function
Climbing inside is like opening a textbook on functional design. That aluminum strip that seemingly divides the dash? On most cars, that would be a glorified sticker applied with glue, but here, it's a legitimately functional component to hold up the dashboard and center display. The display itself you'll recognize from the XC90 -- to call the interface intuitive is an understatement. You can use the touchscreen even if you're wearing gloves, and the A/C is always visually displayed, lest you waste valuable fractions of a second trying to find the right setting. It's a safety feature that just so happens to make life easier.
The same can be said for the seats. They're orthopedically designed to reduce fatigue on long trips, and even feature their own unique crash structure -- a small crumple zone to help protect the spine in case of an accident. As of right now it's the only car in the world that has them.
And you know what? It drives well, too.
For a car that weighs give or take 4,000lbs, it moves quite well, thanks to the turbo and supercharged four-cylinder under the hood putting out 316hp on the S90 T6. If you get the entry-level T5, you've still got 250hp on tap and plenty of torque to get moving.
On the not-exactly smooth Spanish backroads, the S90 soaks up mid-corner bumps beautifully. Is the Pilot Assist perfect? No. But it works sensationally well on most back roads and in traffic. On highways, there were a few occasions where the Pilot Assist declared its undying love for the righthand stripe and hugged it too tightly for comfort. None of that's an issue as long as you take the "Assist" part of its name to heart -- which you absolutely must. Most of the time your hands simply sit there, and the steering wheel's haptic response will alert you with adrenaline-releasing rapidity the second the car finds something amiss.
The Swedes are most certainly back, baby
Sure, the XC90 has been a great vehicle for a while now, and the S60 and V60 are a perfectly fine pair of cars, especially in Polestar guise. But Volvo isn't really Volvo without a large sedan and wagon offering a legitimate and personality-filled alternative to the ubiquitous offerings from Mercedes, Cadillac, Audi, et al. With the S90 and its wagonized V90 fraternal twin (from behind the wheel, it's virtually identical to the S90, though you won't be able to buy one in the US until next year sometime) it's safe to say the Swedes are back.
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