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2017 Volvo S90: First Drive Review

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author photo by Jason Fogelson June 2016

In case you haven't noticed, Volvo has exploded onto the automotive scene again with a verve that we haven't seen in years. The debut of the company's flagship SUV, the all-new XC90, met with praise and awards from the auto industry, including the coveted North American Truck/Utility of the Year award. Now comes the company's flagship sedan, the 2017 Volvo S90, which we got a chance to drive on a press launch event. Will the S90 make a splash?

Owned by China, Made in Sweden

We have to backtrack a bit into Volvo history to put the importance of the S90 into context.

Volvo was founded in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1919. The first Volvo car rolled off the production line in 1927. Volvo has always strived to be on the forefront of automotive safety, incorporating new materials such as reflex reflective plastic (1950) and offering the first car with standard 3-point seat belts in 1959. Volvo was an independent company until 1999, when Ford bought the car company and added it to its Premier Automotive Group. In 2010, Ford sold Volvo to a Chinese company, Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Company, Ltd. ("Geely").

After a decade of platform sharing with other Ford products, Volvo was once again free to innovate and stand alone. It was a fresh start in many ways, and the new owners at Geely threw a massive amount of support behind Volvo, investing a reported $11 billion in infrastructure.

New Platform

Taking advantage of this fresh start, Volvo developed new platforms for their vehicles. The S90 is built on the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform. As the name implies, SPA can be reconfigured for multiple vehicles while still conforming to factory standards, so multiple types of cars can be built on the same production line, increasing manufacturing efficiency. And the strengths of the SPA design can propagate through the Volvo lineup.

A vehicle platform is basically what's beneath the skin of a car. It includes the suspension and drivetrain, as well as the basic layout of the vehicle. SPA is a unibody platform, which means that there's no frame -- the body of the car incorporates the structure, rather than being bolted on to a frame. Almost all cars built today are unibody in design. A few SUVs and most pickup trucks are body-on-frame.

The S90's body, meanwhile, consists of a big percentage of high-strength, extra-high strength and ultra-high-strength steel and aluminum, strategically placed to create a passenger safety cage. Crumple zones, controlled collapse and directed force sections of the body help to maintain the integrity of the passenger compartment in the event of a collision. All manufacturers use some version of this engineering, but Volvo particularly gives the impression that they're taking it to a new level.

Flagship Looks

The Volvo faithful have proved over time that they were more concerned with safety than with appearance -- there are some very boxy Volvos in the company's past. The 2017 Volvo S90 design team, however, has created a sedan that is elegant and beautiful.

Starting up front, a strong version of the Volvo Iron Mark badge announces the S90's arrival at the center of a concave waterfall grille. Horizontal headlights embedded with daytime running lights designed to look like Thor's hammer add to a strong presence that echoes the look of the XC90. A long hood with a steeply raked windshield and low, sleek roofline gives the sedan a windswept look with just enough detail on the vehicle's sides to keep things interesting.

The S90's rear is less distinctive than its front, with a slightly rounded rear fascia and rather tall trunk flanked by stacked C taillights. Big trapezoidal exhaust pipes poke out beneath the rear bumper.

Overall, the S90 has a nicely assertive stance and a high degree of fit and finish all around. Beautiful Mussel Blue Metallic paint will be the launch color for S90, and it's a stunner.

Scandinavian Design

Vehicle designers often start with design inspiration when they're working on interiors. The words Scandinavian sanctuary connote a modern, clean layout with simple, functional elements and natural materials. The S90 follows these precepts, and the cabin of the sedan feels light and airy, roomy and relaxed. Volvo's seats are among the best in the business in terms of comfort and employ safety innovations, as well. The second row is also roomy and comfortable, with ample head- and legroom for three adults.

The S90's dash is remarkably clean and neat, thanks in part to the integration of function into the Sensus Connect system, which operates via a big, iPad-sized touchscreen in the center console. Sensus, which is also available in the XC90, is a big step forward for interfaces. It incorporates intuitive operation, such as swipes and pinch-to-zoom, that are familiar from smartphones and tablets. A philosophy Volvo terms "Now and Whenever" keeps vital information instantly accessible on screen, while less vital settings and deeper-dive functions are nested in the operating system. It's finally automotive telematics approaching the functionality and ease of use that computer companies have worked on baking into their products.

Safety, Safety and More Safety

Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo Cars' president and CEO, has stated that the company's vision is, "By 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car." That commitment, "Vision 2020," is manifest in the vast array of standard and available safety features on the S90.

In addition to the passive safety options, active safety features also abound. New large-animal detection and road-edge detection join the established Pilot Assist and other radar- and camera-based systems. The S90's combined active and passive systems can deliver a semi-autonomous driving experience. Once you engage the systems, the vehicle can maintain your speed and following distance in traffic, keep you in your lane -- even in gentle curves -- and bring the vehicle to a complete stop when necessary. Volvo is careful to point out that driver involvement is a requirement for making this system work -- this is not a self-driving car system, but a Level 2 semi-autonomous system. If you take your hands off of the steering wheel for more than a few seconds, the vehicle sounds a warning, and if you don't put your hands back on, it will turn Pilot Assist off.

Volvo is very serious about safety, and the S90 has the most comprehensive suite of safety features of any car on the market right now.

But How Is It to Drive?

It's easy to get lost in the weeds of design and technology. All of that gets pushed aside when it's time to drive.

At launch, there will be two available engines for the S90: a T5 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder unit with front-wheel drive that's tuned to produce 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque and a T6 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged 4-cylinder with all-wheel drive (316 hp/295 lb-ft of torque). A plug-in hybrid version of the S90 has been promised for later in the model year. We only got to drive the T6 version of the S90 in Spain, as all the vehicles available to drive were loaded, top-of-the-line all-wheel-drive cars.

The good news: The S90 drives very nicely. Power delivery is smooth and direct and handled by the standard 8-speed automatic transmission with aplomb. Our test vehicle had an available air suspension setup with selectable damping, which allowed us to dial in a relatively firm ride.

The not-as-good news: The S90's class includes some of the best-driving big sedans on the market right now, especially if you define best in terms of sportiest. The S90 never develops that compelling sense of momentum that you can get in a BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Jaguar XF, and it doesn't deliver the nimble handling of an Audi A8, some of the S90's stated competition.

The S90 is somewhere between those assertive sport sedans and the Lexus GS in terms of handling and performance.

Pricing and Trim Levels

Four trim levels of the S90 will be available when it hits the market: T5 Momentum (starting at $46,950), T5 Inscription (starting at $50,450), T6 Momentum ($52,950) and T6 Inscription ($56,250). Momentum models are hardly stripped-down. They'll come with leather seating, navigation, keyless entry and drive, and the whole suite of Volvo Safety features (including Pilot Assist) as standard equipment. The Inscription ticks most of the rest of the boxes, and there are several simple packages available to bring Momentum models closer to Inscription levels without swallowing the whole salami.

Who Will Love This New Volvo?

Though Volvo has targeted and benchmarked a very sporty set of luxury competitors, they might be looking in the wrong direction for new customers. The Volvo faithful will be thrilled with the S90 -- it's a great indication of the next level of Volvo's development. Other buyers may come from current nonluxury owners who are looking to move up to a more premium vehicle. Someone who is currently driving a Camry, Avalon, Accord or Buick Regal might find the S90 to be a logical next vehicle.

Volvo's new platform has delivered the unexpected delight of an original, capable luxury sedan that's unique and appealing.

RELATED INVENTORY
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Used 2017 Volvo S90 T5 Momentum
Used 2017 Volvo S90
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Used 2017 Volvo S90 T6 Momentum AWD
Used 2017 Volvo S90
$45,800
This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2017 Volvo S90: First Drive Review - Autotrader