Operating previous Volvo entertainment and navigation systems was akin to performing open heart surgery at the bottom of the ocean with one arm tied behind your back. The new Sensus system thankfully saves us from having to make any more tortured analogies.
As one would expect, specifics for the Sensus system vary depending on the car's specifications. For example, the video playback and navigation features described below are only available on models equipped with a 7-inch high-res screen. A 5-inch screen is standard on the S60/V60, while the 7-inch screen is standard on the T6, and is an AU$1425 or AU$2400 option throughout the rest of the S60/V60 range.
This review is based on our time with the system on the Volvo S60 T6.
The top shelf S60 T6 comes fitted with a high-resolution 7-inch screen high on a dashboard recess. The menu system can be operated by either a knob on the right of the dashboard or controls on the steering wheel's right spoke.
Using the knob is compromised by its uncomfortable position midway up the dash on the right, and it's all too easy to confuse the OK/Menu and Exit buttons located in the centre of the dial. We found the scroll wheel and series of buttons on the steering wheel much more convenient to use, but as there's neither a home menu nor a Mode button, switching between inputs and functions requires a stab at the Nav, Radio, Media, Tel, My Car and Cam buttons on the dash.
The menu design is pleasingly modern, and for the most part is logically laid out. There are, however, a few features that aren't completely intuitive.
For instance, when you're listening to some music from an iPod or a USB stick, it's not at all clear how you go about changing the album or folder. To do that, you need to scroll up or down to see the track list and then hit Exit to view the preceding folder or album. Incidentally, hitting the Media button doesn't bring you automatically to the device you're currently listening to; you have to reselect it every time.
When you're on the navigation map, by default there are handy bars across the top (track info) and bottom (climate control). If they disappear, it's probably because you've pressed Nav one time too many. To bring back the info bars, just press the button again.
Another good thing to remember is that the T9 number pad on the dashboard serves not only as a way to dial numbers, but also as a way of entering nav destinations or searching through a phonebook; it's certainly quicker than using the onscreen rotary letter selector.
From the My Car menu, an owner can configure various car options, including the S60's various safety features, whether the wing mirrors dip when reversing and how long the interior and exterior lights stay on after you leave the car.
Across the S60/V60 range, entertainment options include Bluetooth for both music streaming and hands-free telephony, an iPod/iPhone-compatible USB port, auxiliary jack, AM/FM analog radio and a disc slot. A 7-inch screen is in lieu of the standard 5-inch unit; DVD and DivX playback and navigation are optional on the T5 and D5, and standard on the T6.
Several other luxury car manufacturers offer their integrated entertainment and nav systems with memory card slots and a hard disk for storing either ripped CDs or MP3/WMA files. This presently isn't available, even as an option, on Sensus.
Movies look excellent on the widescreen, high-resolution 7-inch screen. Thanks to the T6's surround sound system, they sound great, as well. Videos can also be played from a USB stick, as the DivX and Xvid codecs are supported. A two-screen DVD entertainment system can be fitted to quell rear seat passengers.
Searching through large music libraries on iPods/iPhones running iOS 4 and above can be slow, with long, long lists, especially of albums or artists, taking quite a while to load and scroll through. Thankfully, navigation of USB sticks is several orders of magnitude faster.
The standard Bluetooth hands-free system works well in the hushed confines of the S60/V60. Oddly, it only automatically pairs with the most recently used phone, and sometimes refuses to do so automatically.
As is common with these systems, there are some contention issues resulting in zero sound output if you have an iPhone paired up via Bluetooth and also plugged into the USB port. This is easily fixed, though, by unplugging the device and then plugging it back in.
If your Volvo is fitted with sat nav, the Sensus system will feature voice recognition. Tap the voice command button on the steering wheel, and a helpful list of commands will appear on the large LCD screen. Recognition rates are quite high, thanks again to the quietude found inside, and the system will let you voice-dial names straight out of your phonebook without any fussing around with training or creating voice tags.
You can, however, improve recognition rates by spending a few minutes training the system. In a disappointing twist, though, the system won't let you enter navigation destinations by voice, unless you create a voice tag for it.
Aside from voice recognition, other features that the navigation system misses out on include text-to-speech, speed limit information, speed and red light camera locations and traffic information. Lane guidance in the form of junction view is only present for highway and freeway exits.
Route calculation times are acceptable, and the system claims that its routing system can learn your preferences, but during our week with the S60 we weren't able to discern any difference between the routes calculated on day one and those calculated on day seven. Unlike most other nav systems, Sensus assumes that any new destination you enter should be part of an itinerary.
The LCD screens in middle of the tachometer and speedometer are rather low-res affairs that only manage to display trip computer and cruise control info. This means that navigation instructions can only be seen on the 5- or 7-inch display.
Volvo's new entertainment and nav system is light years ahead of what preceded it, but it still lags behind the best that the Germans have to offer.