Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
Updated 6 June 2016: We've again revised our First Take with more driving in dry conditions and our experiences gained with Volvo's Pilot Assist II system at an event held in Malaga, Spain.
Updated 29 Feb 2016: We've revised our first take with icy driving impressions in the S90 T6 sedan at Volvo's Vehicle Test Center in northern Sweden, as well as new information, pictures and updated specs. Enjoy!
After a strong first act with the XC90 luxury SUV and months of teasing, Volvo has finally drawn back the curtain for its second act: the 2017 S90 premium sedan meant to mix things up with the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6.
Between the automaker's now-trademark, T-shaped "Hammer of Thor" LED daytime running lights and a set of C-shaped tail lights, the S90 strikes an imposing silhouette. Though some of Roadshow's automotive editors initially lamented that the final design isn't closer in line with the Swedish automaker's recent concepts, we've since seen the 90 series grow to include the more recently announced 2017 V90 wagon and have been assured by Volvo that a total overhaul of its lineup is in progress.
The new Volvo is underpinned by the same Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform that the XC90 rides on. The modular platform means that, though these are two different classes of vehicle -- an SUV and a sedan -- their subframes, powertrains and even certain platform proportions are close to identical. This approach saves Volvo a bunch of R&D resources and allows it to iterate designs more quickly, carrying the lessons learned from each model forward to the next. Ideally, we should love the S90 even more than the Roadshow Shift Awards Vehicle of the Year.
Speaking of powertrains, the S90 sedan will be available with the automaker's T8 Twin Engine plug-in hybrid powertrain. You can read all about the 407-horsepower and 472 pound-foot, all-wheel drive T8 system in our full review of the XC90. Suffice it to say that the system uses a complex mix of a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter engine -- the so called Drive-E engine -- and two electric motors to deliver a blend of electric-only range, hybrid efficiency, all-wheel drive and gobs and gobs of power.
The S90 could potentially be hundreds of pounds lighter than the SUV that it shares its powertrain with, so we're hoping to see improvements to the performance and efficiency. We won't know for sure just how much improved until Volvo releases the numbers.
Joining the T8 hybrid model are non-hybrid T6 and T5 models. The T6 uses the same supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter Drive-E engine as the T8, but lacks the hybridization components. Power is stated at 316-320 horsepower (depending on market), reaching the road through a mechanical all-wheel drive system. The entry-level T5 simplifies the formula further with a conventional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 254 horsepower. T5 customers have a choice between front- or all-wheel variants.
I was recently able to get behind the wheel of an S90 T6 Momentum at Volvo's secret vehicle test center in northern Sweden -- so secret, in fact, that I was explicitly forbade to be more specific about its location.
The camouflaged S90 in question is what Volvo's engineers refer to as a TT or "tool tryout" vehicle -- a close-to-but-not-final production car used to perform finishing tests -- which means that while fit and finish are not representative of the final product, the handling and performance are close to what we can expect when the S90 hits roads later this year. This example was also shod with winter tires, which probably won't be standard equipment. I don't think that's an unfair advantage as matching one's tires to the driving conditions is something that all drivers should be doing anyway, especially in extreme conditions such as these.
Where the SUV has a more open greenhouse and commanding view of the road, the sedan's cabin seems to envelope the front seat passengers just a bit more and the lower seating position affords a more intimate relationship with the road. The S90 corners flatter than the XC90 -- which was also available for testing at the proving grounds -- and is just a hair quicker to respond to steering inputs despite Volvo's assertion that its engineers aimed for a similar driving experience. The sedan's handling was, no doubt, helped by the automaker's adaptive suspension helping balance and keeping the chassis flat and the ride compliant.
The T6 powertrain is as thrilling here as it was the last time I tested it; perhaps more so thanks to the sedan's lower weight, but icy driving conditions and subzero temperatures are hardly an ideal environment for testing 0-60 times and driving dynamics. For now, I'll just say that the S90 has more than an adequate amount of power.
On the other hand, the slippery conditions proved to be a good "worst-case scenario" for testing the effectiveness of Volvo's all-wheel drive and stability control systems. In back-to-back laps with the XC90 T8's electronic all-wheel drive system, the S90 T6's mechanical all-wheel drive system felt just a hair slower to respond to traction demands. When things got slippery, I could sort of feel the system responding, shifting power around to catch the vehicle.
The e-AWD system is more seamless in its operation, possibly due to the fact that it doesn't really need to shift power from the front axle to the rear -- it simply has two powertrains that work in tandem. (There was no T8 version of the S90 available for testing.)
Don't get me wrong: I still feel that the mechanical system is quite good, working well with Volvo's stability control system to pull the sedan back in line from some truly gnarly slides as I sawed away at the steering wheel, purposely attempting to upset the chassis to test its limits. However, I walked away from the test with a hankering to test the more powerful T8 version; I'll get my chance later this year.
What I'm not super-excited about is the less-powerful, front-drive variant of the T5. I'm guessing that the US buyers that Volvo is courting will probably be cross-shopping the sedan with rear-drive or all-wheel drive competition and think that the T6 and T8 all-wheel drive models will just compare better with the rest of the luxury market. That said, Volvo tells me that it expects the FWD T5 to play a significant role in the European market.
The next time we met the 2017 Volvo S90, it was in the much warmer climate and much drier roads of southern Spain. Here we were able to better evaluate the handling of the T6 powertrain and the sedan's suspension, as well as the new semi-autonomous Pilot Assist II system on public roads.
Those of you who have been anticipating the coming of the S90 may remember that it was announced as "the first car in the US with standard semi-autonomous tech." This means that every S90 that rolls onto a dealer's lot will be equipped with the second-generation of the automaker's Pilot Assist system. However, this semi-autonomous tech is not the same as autonomous driving, and it still very much requires the driver's engagement.
Pilot Assist II is, It's essentially an evolution and fusion of the adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping-assist features that we're already familiar with. The system allows the S90 to maintain a set speed on the highway while assisting with electric power steering to keep the sedan centered in its lane. Even activating the system requires, first, the engagement of adaptive cruise before the Pilot Assist option presents itself. The other requirements for Pilot Assist are clearly visible lane markers and at least two lanes of traffic, which the Volvo will detect with its cameras.
Like the first generation, the Pilot Assist II system is able to detect and follow a leading vehicle, maintaining a safe following distance, but doesn't require one to operate. However, I noticed that the S90 stayed better centered in the lane with a car ahead and more aggressively followed the curve of the road when it turned. When it has an example to follow, Pilot Assist feels more confident.
On its own, Pilot Assist works best on the wide lanes and smooth, relatively straight bends of the expressway -- the sort of roads only that require only a few degrees of input -- at speeds up to about 80 mph. On secondary highways with tighter bends, the system simply couldn't (or wouldn't) keep up and could drift out of its lane. Narrower lanes caused the steering intervention to feel restless and squirmy under my grip, even on straighter passages. It's simply not designed for this level of autonomy.
Volvo stressed to me that the system is designed to help the driver, not replace you, so it requires an alert human being behind the wheel. That's why it's called Pilot Assist. Try to go hands-free, and after a few moments, the S90 will detect your lack of inputs and warn you to get your mitts back on the wheel. This is Volvo's next step toward autonomy, but true autonomy is yet a few bends down the road.
Overall, nothing about the Pilot Assist system feels dramatically different from the adaptive cruise and lane-keeping-assist systems that I've tested for years. It can't, for example, change lanes for you like Mercedes-Benz's system and doesn't claim to be some sort of autopilot system like Tesla's. But unlike either of those examples, it is a standard feature on the S90.
Joining Pilot Assist is an updated version of the City Safety collision-prevention system, which can automatically brake if an imminent collision with a vehicle, bicycle, pedestrian or a large animal (such as an elk, horse or moose) is detected. City Safety should even recognize imminent collisions and stop the car when turning across oncoming traffic and pair with a rear precollision system that can recognize when the car is about to be rear-ended and pretension the seatbelts and active headrests.
Lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, run-off road protection, driver-alertness monitoring, forward-distance alert and a camera-based road sign information system round out a particularly robust list of standard active safety features. Blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and collision warning, a 360 view camera system, head-up display and semi-autonomous parking pilot are the highlights of the optional driver-aid feature set.
My example was also equipped with a full-color head-up display (HUD) that projects speed, navigation, safety and speed limit information onto the windshield ahead of the driver, but I almost never saw it as it's fairly faint and totally disappears when viewed through polarized sunglasses.
Of course, I reevaluated the performance of the Volvo S90 T6 while I had access to dry conditions and the mountainous terrain of southern Spain. With more traction, I was able to better feel how the sedan handled, plus this second encounter was with a vehicle much much closer to the production cars that are currently on their way to dealerships.
As expected, the S90 features four different driving modes, each accessible via a laser-cut toggle on the center console. The Sport, Eco and Comfort modes tweak the level of power steering assist, the throttle response, the shift points for the transmission and more. I found that I liked the heavier steering of the sport mode, but didn't like the transmission's aggressive (and sometimes unpredictable) shift program while in that mode. In the Comfort mode, the transmission was silky smooth and well matched for the torque curve of the superturbocharged 2.0-liter engine. Thankfully, there's a fourth mode -- Individual -- that is customizable, so I was able to make the tweaks I needed and create a hybrid sport/comfort mode that I felt was close to my optimal driving setup. Paddle shifters would have been the cherry on top, but weren't available.
As mentioned, the S90 features the same SPA platform that underpins the XC90 with a similar, but uniquely tuned, MacPherson struts on the front axle and composite leaf spring and multilink setup on the rear. Also like the XC, the S can be equipped with an adaptive air suspension...well, half of it, at least. Interestingly, the sedan only gets the air setup on the rear axle. Volvo's explanation is twofold. Firstly, the air suspension is used to autolevel the rear when the trunk is filled with heavy objects or the cabin is full of passengers, and since the S90 doesn't need the range of ride height adjustments of the XC90 on the front wheels. Also, Volvo simply couldn't fit the air suspension setup on the front end and retain the S90's long and low hood.
I'll reserve judgement as the whether the air suspension is a worthwhile upgrade until I can test it against an S90 with a fixed rear end, but for now can say that the adaptive setup holds its own. On the road, the sedan felt confident and balanced. No, the S90 didn't stay race-car flat in the corners, but the body movement that it did exhibit was well controlled and seemed to feel natural. When the sport mode behaved, I was able to accelerate nicely out of corners, but even with my more laid-back Individual settings I could casually maintain a nice clip through a twisty bit, enjoy the fantastic roads ahead of me, and even maintain a conversation with my co-driver while doing so.
What stands out the most about the S90 is the comfort. The cabin is quiet and the ride smooth. While our route had blessedly few potholes, the suspension did a fantastic job of soaking up the dips and bumps that I did encounter. Even if a significant ripple in the asphalt came midturn while I was hustling down a mountain highway, the S90 seemed to handle it in stride. I think the S90 T6's performance and handling will compare well against the likes of similarly priced Audi A6 models.
Settling into the driver's seat, the S90's cabin is immediately familiar to that of the the XC90 SUV. Volvo really stepped up its luxury game with the XC90s interior -- debuting one of the best interior designs in the business -- and the new S90 evolves this high standard with an interesting combo of premium leather, raw wood and real metal. Small improvements include better integrated vents and a new metal bar that supports the dashboard and accents the more horizontal nature of the S90.
The top-trim T8 Inscription's crystal glass shift knob handmade by Scandinavian glassmaker Orrefors is absent from this T6 Momentum-trimmed example, but the 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins audio system is certainly in attendance with an auditory presence that can be physically felt. Feeding the audio system is Volvo's Sensus Connect infotainment system with its iPad-like vertically oriented interface.
This is, essentially, the same Sensus infotainment system that we've seen and liked in Volvo's SUV. It has a well-sorted home screen that divides information into four easy-to-understand panels for navigation, audio source, communication and apps, from top to bottom. What I really like about Sensus is that it has a relatively shallow organizational structure. The most commonly used functions are right there on the home screen, so there's usually no need to go digging into deep submenus.
The S90 will feature Apple CarPlay compatibility at launch, displaying the smartphone-based interface in one of its lower Sensus panels and allowing the driver to retain quick access to other portions of the Sensus system while in use. Android Auto will be available sometime in the year after launch, but Volvo was unable to give me a timeline.
However, while Sensus works well for the main parts of the interface, swiping left or right to the screens where additional features are presented reveals that a shallow structure can easily become a cluttered one for examples that have a lot of options and toggle-able safety features.
The first 2017 Volvo S90 models will start trickling into US dealerships in July 2016. That first wave will consist entirely of T6 AWD models with pricing ranging from $52,950 to $56,250 for the Momentum and Inscription trim levels, respectively. In August, the T5 models will join the rollout, lowering the cost of entry to $46,950 before a $995 destination charge.
Optional extras include a $1,950 Vision Package that adds blind-spot monitoring and surround-view cameras, a $1,000 Convenience package with semi-autonomous Park Assist Pilot, $1,200 for the Premium Rear Air Suspension, $2,650 for the 19-speaker, 1,400-watt Bowers & Wilkins audio system, and a few more available line items. A rough calculation for a fully-loaded S90 T6 Inscription maxes the price range at about $67,500.
The more powerful, more efficient plug-in hybrid S90 T8 will arrive later in the year with yet-undisclosed pricing. Fans of wagons should also know that Volvo will also be bringing its practically identical V90 estate to the States in 2017, so if you need more trunk for your junk, stay tuned.