Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 Volvo S90

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This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
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Before my current career of telling people about how cars drive, I paid for school by tending bar at a local jazz/blues night club in downtown Sudbury. Nightly, and for years, I got to listen to live music, 20 feet from the stage.

Call this stereo a must-have if you’ll spend hours using your S90 as a rolling concert hall; it replicates audio with a spectrum of depth, clarity, and spatial positioning that nearly made my eyes water.

Some years later, I’m cruising in the new Volvo S90, somewhere through the Muskokas, contemplating breaking the silence with a test of the Bowers and Wilkins stereo, whose frontal tweeter is pointed at my face from the center of the dash.

So I do. And I throw on a little Cold War Kids, and a thing happens.

There’s a prominent snare drum in the intro to the song “Hot Coals”. On every other high-end car stereo that’s pumped this song into my cranials, my brain surmises that it sounds like a snare drum was recorded, transcoded, reproduced, and played back, and that it sounds pretty much just like a snare drum.

But played over the Bowers and Wilkins stereo in the S90, for a split second, my brain said, “Hey, that sounds EXACTLY like a snare drum is in here with us! What the heck?!”

I was actually startled – stomach pang and all – just for a moment, because I thought something was happening in the back of the empty car. As someone who listened to countless hours of live music, this is the first car audio system that made it sound, physically, like there was a snare drum nearby.

You hear the drum. The drumsticks scraping against it. The slight metallic twinge of the springs and structure of said drum reverberating after it’s struck. And that’s at any volume, blasted or quiet. A similar clarity comes from the other instruments, and vocals, and each seems to originate from a defined space within the cabin.

Call this stereo a must-have if you’ll spend hours using your S90 as a rolling concert hall; it replicates audio with a spectrum of depth, clarity, and spatial positioning that nearly made my eyes water. You’ll discover new details abundantly, in even your most familiar audio tracks.

This is all front and centre in what I perceive Volvo’s new flagship, most strongly, to be: a rolling toolbox of implements for use during relaxation on the open highway.

The Inscription-trim tester came brimming with the latest in Volvo high-tech flauntables, and the car proves, perhaps, the most impressive on an hours-long drive, of which we completed several.

Another travel companion of note is the Pilot Assist system. It includes adaptive cruise control, actively adjusting braking and throttle towards maintenance of a safe following distance in traffic. It can stop the S90, and get it moving again. But it also steers, and when activated, the wheel goes ultra-stiff and nearly feels locked. It’s Pilot Assist’s way of telling drivers it would rather do the steering, as it analyzes road markings, positions itself between lane lines, and autonomously brakes and accelerates to maintain a safe position on the road. The consistency of this system is among the best I’ve ever seen, which creeps me out a little.

After dark, the lighting system adds comfort and confidence too. The adaptive LED low beams are about average for the segment: there’s clean, white light spread evenly in front of the car and nicely into roadside foliage and culverts. But engage the high-beams, and the lighting system really struts its stuff, turning the S90 into a rolling light cannon, with massive foreground illumination, plentiful peripheral lighting, and far-reaching light that positively drenches the roadway and 15 or more feet into the tree line well up ahead. You won’t easily outrun the high-beams, and hours into an after-dark drive, my eyes remained fresh and alert, not strained.

Drivers take it all in from what’s probably the S90’s greatest asset: the cabin. Taken widely, it’s tidy and elegant. The central iPad-like command screen eliminates the need for dozens of other buttons and consoles, clearing room on the console and dash for a plethora of premium materials, including matte-finished wood, stitched leathers of various colors and textures, and metallic accenting that playfully intersects and overlaps other elements of the scenery.

With the all-digital instrument cluster and massive central command screen, there’s a definite presence of advanced gadgetry, though the focus is more on the materials, not the tech. It’s a unique, tranquil atmosphere.

Seats are gorgeously trimmed, highly adjustable, and will likely prove the comfiest you’ll visit in the course of your day. There’s room for four full-sized adults, though rear-seat head room is limited for taller occupants. At 5'11", I noted no issues with head or leg room in any outboard seat. You sit deep in the S90, surrounded by its cabin, not up and over top of it. It’s so classy, there are even lighters and ashtrays for your dirty smokes.

Notably, the nicely trimmed trunk is shaped like a flat, rectangular box. It’s fairly shallow, but long and wide and square, right to the edges.

The ride is a mixed bag. The S90 undulates softly and gently over its baller-status twenties, and the ride is heavyset, comfortable, and defined by a firm core to its damper feel, which makes it entertaining to toss around, if you like. It handles better than its appearance would suggest, but on rougher roads, the big wheels and thin tires result in a sharpness around the edges of the soft ride, as well as increased noise levels.

Should drivers really get the S90 cooking through some corners, a pleasingly heavy and locked-on feel results: body motions are kept admirably in check, with minimal roll and lean, requiring a high rate of speed to coax any protest from the sticky Pirelli P-ZERO tires. Though the steering and handling aren’t sports-car precise, the S90 does delight with confident, unflustered cornering that seems to defy its size. I noted a charmingly small turning circle for such a big car, too.

A 2.0L four-cylinder dispatches 316 horsepower, backed by nearly as much torque. Synergistic use of both a supercharger and turbocharger sees the advantages of one compensate for the disadvantages of the other: the supercharger provides right-now thrust, immediately, and the turbocharger keeps up the pace when the blower runs out of steam. You feel neither of the power-adders kick in or out of action – simply, there’s just plenty of power perpetually at the tips of your toes, and low-end torque available from just a few millimetres of throttle squeeze.

The S90 goes along with urgency when called upon, even if the smoothness and effortlessness at low revs mean it’s most impressive driven gently. Opened up, gear shifts aren’t fired off in any rev-matched rush, and the engine sounds no more exciting than a Kia Optima. Some drivers will wish for a more pleasing sound.

In emergency stops, the S90 pulls down to stationary at an alarming, nearly blistering pace, even if the pedal lacks a precise feel. During several fast stops, I wondered if I’d go through the seatbelt.

Mileage over a highway-heavy test drive landed at 8.9 L/100 km. That’s better than the smaller and less powerful 2017 Audi A4 on my watch. You could spend more feeding a Chihuahua.

Gripes? Just two. First, the central command system looks slick, but requires a few-day learning curve, during which you’ll invent new swear words as you get familiar with the fairly illogical way that much of it operates. Don’t worry: if you can work an iPad or an Xbox, you’ll be fine before too long.

Second, the self-parking system. After three attempts on the same parking space, the S90 had nearly given a Volkswagen Golf a nose job and landed across four spaces, before telling me that parking was “SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED”. Skip this feature, maybe.

A final note: this top-line tester with a few options came in around $74,000, though I’d guessed the price somewhere around $10,000 more than that after my first five hours on the highway. Down to the last detail, Volvo’s ensured this S90 looks and feels the part of world-class luxury flagship, perhaps most notably, via the dense and substantial feel to nearly everything on board.

Shoppers after a healthy dose of the latest tech, uniquely stand-out styling, good mileage, generous sizing, and among the very best lighting and stereo systems on the road, should give the S90 their immediate attention.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders 4
Peak Horsepower 316 hp @ 5,700 rpm
Peak Torque 295 lb-ft @ 2,200–5,400 rpm
Fuel Economy 10.8/7.6/9.4 (L/100 km, cty/hwy/cmb)
Cargo Space 500 L
Model Tested 2017 Volvo S90 T6 AWD Inscription
Base Price $63,000
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,295
Price as Tested $75,320
Optional Equipment
$10,925 – Convenience Package $1,500; Climate Package $1,150; Vision Package $2,000; Metallic Paint $900; Graphical HUD $1,150; 20-inch wheels $975; Bowers & Wilkins Stereo $3,250