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Volvo estates are close to an institution in the UK, renowned for their practicality and safety. For the most part the new V90, which shares much of its DNA with the S90 saloon and XC90 SUV, is everything you'd expect. It's spacious, practical and rammed to the gills with clever safety features, but it’s also smarter than your average car.
Volvo’s semi-autonomous Pilot Assist feature, which will steer, brake and accelerate just like a Tesla at speeds up to 80mph on motorways, comes as standard. The Sensus Connect infotainment system, meanwhile, is based around a 9-inch touchscreen and features Spotify, Yelp local search and live traffic updates. Apple CarPlay is an optional, and very handy, extra too.
The V90 is every bit as impressive as its German rivals, and edges them all where in-car tech is concerned.
The V90 is pretty much everything you could want from a large, executive estate. While my initial reaction was something like “Holy crap, it’s huge!”, it doesn’t feel like a big car. OK, it’s not nimble and engaging like a sports car, but it is light and easy to drive about town, and quiet and relaxing on long motorway journeys. The looks grew on me over the week I had it – I'm not a fan of the Luminous Sand colour, mind – while the interior and cabin can’t be faulted.
Passengers will enjoy the V90, too. The rear seats two adults comfortably, or three children with room to spare – hell, even three adults won’t complain. The ride isn’t as silky smooth as some, but you’ll only notice the largest bumps.
While it lacks the classic square rear beloved of Volvos of yore, the 560-litre boot space is plenty and there’s 1,526 litres with the seats down. That said, if space is a priority then the Mercedes E-Class trumps all comers. The flat boot entry makes loading very easy and is perfect for perching on after muddy walks and kids' football matches.
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The D5 PowerPulse version I tested featured a 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel engine – 235hp, 0-60mph in 7.2 seconds – and four-wheel drive. Clever tech eliminates turbo lag well, giving it plenty of poke when accelerating. That said, it’s thirstier than the standard 190bhp 2.0-litre diesel in the entry-level D4, so I’d be tempted to opt for that. It is, by repute, a perfectly serviceable motor and £7,000 cheaper to boot, leaving you change for some of the excellent extras available. PowerPulse is worthwhile if money’s no object, though.
If I had to complain about driving the V90, I’d say the 8-speed auto 'box is slightly indecisive – and the engine note more raucous – when accelerating from low speed. Cruise up to a roundabout and then accelerate without stopping and the V90 jerks into action, surging in a less-than-smooth manner before finding the right gear. Conversely, the gearbox is fine at higher speeds and the engine settles into a barely audible hum at motorway speeds.
It’s on motorways and A-roads that the V90 truly excels. That’s partly because it’s quiet and comfortable, but also because it can (for the most part) drive itself. Volvo’s Pilot Assist works in a similar way to Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’, using cameras and radar to keep the car in-lane and adjust to the flow of traffic in front of you.
Indeed, the only differences come in the degrees of assistance and sophistication. While Tesla’s system attempts to deal with a wide range of road situations, Volvo positions the more aptly named Pilot Assist as a feature for motorways and multi-lane A-roads only.
On paper, provided adequate road markings and conditions, Volvo’s Pilot Assist will take care of all steering, braking and acceleration under your supervision. And, in practice, it works brilliantly. In a near two-hour journey encompassing the M3, M25 and A3, I made no more than 20 interruptions to Pilot Assist – mainly for changing lanes, navigating junctions and where road markings were lost due to road works.
Unlike earlier versions of Volvo’s system, it doesn’t need a ‘lead car’ for reference, though its Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) means it adjusts naturally to the flow of traffic. Where full assist isn’t available, the system always falls back to ACC, with the small steering wheel icon turning on the dash from green to grey. I’d prefer a more obvious audible alert as well, but it’s a reminder that you still need to pay attention at all times.
Pilot Assist is a godsend when navigating tedious 50mph average speed zones, contraflows and slow traffic, but it’s just as reliable at normal cruising speeds up to 80mph. It takes so much of the stress out of long journeys, so the fact it’s a standard feature is awesome. Anyone who regularly navigates major roads for their commute, or any other reason, will absolutely love Pilot Assist.
The only serious weakness is a slight preference for hugging the left-most line in a lane, particularly when driving in the slow lane. Pilot Assist normally adjusts, but even so you can do so yourself without disengaging Pilot Assist.
Of course, it’s a reminder that this is a semi-autonomous system, not a fully autonomous one, and Pilot Assist won’t tolerate removing your hands from the wheel for long. An ‘Apply Steering’ message appears after around 15 seconds, and audible alarms start chiming not long after. I didn’t test the system beyond this, but it will eventually disengage if you don’t obey.
The other obvious limitation, which is true of all systems like this, is that Pilot Assist can’t look ahead and anticipate like a human driver can. The radar that guides the Adaptive Cruise Control responds to what’s directly in front of it, not what’s a mile down the road. This means it will break hard when you arrive at the back of long tailbacks, unless you intervene beforehand to enjoy a smoother ride before re-engaging Pilot Assist to navigate the impending jam.
Caveats aside, though, Pilot Assist is a good system and it’s standard on the V90. In contrast, the Drive Pilot system from Mercedes is a £1,700 extra on the E-Class. That’s a huge tick in the V90’s favour.
Of course, there’s no shortage of standard safety features either. The City Safety system detects pedestrians, cyclists and will apply an emergency brake where necessary, while Run-off road protection automatically tightens seatbelts if you leave the road. There are enough airbags to build a bouncy castle, including one for driver knee protection.
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The V90’s techie smarts don’t begin and end with Pilot Assist. The main infotainment system, called Sensus Connect, comes as standard with a 9-inch touchscreen at its centre. It has built-in support for Yelp (local search and reviews), Spotify and navigation with live traffic updates. You can even create a Wi-Fi hotspot provided you have a data SIM inserted.
There’s also optional Apple CarPlay support (£300 extra) and Volvo says this is the only system where you can use CarPlay ‘windowed’. This means you can use the built-in navigation while still enjoying your podcasts or music via Apple Music, use Siri via the steering-mounted controls, and make calls hands-free. It’s just a shame Android Auto isn’t supported as well, but it’s a no-brainer if you own an iPhone.
Outside of CarPlay, Sensus Connect is good but for a few quirks. The touchscreen is admirably responsive and quick, and the interface is easy to grasp if you’ve used any modern smartphone. There’s even a home button and the screen works when wearing gloves.
Volvo’s found a nice balance between touchscreen and physical controls. While most features are accessed via the touchscreen, including climate control, there’s still a large multi-function dial and physical buttons for enabling things like screen demisting and other toggles you need quick access to. Most features are accessible using voice control, too, activated from the steering wheel.
The navigation system is decent, but it did leave me pining for the Google Maps app on my iPhone after a while. Live traffic updates are useful, and you get full European mapping and lifetime updates, but it doesn’t feel as dynamic at finding the best route. I often found it easier to look up an address on my phone and input in manually than to rely on the slightly clunky POI and address search.
In use, directions are fine most of time – lane guidance is included and the combination of a map on the digital driver display, and summaries on the optional heads-up display, is very handy. But occasionally final reminders came a little too late for me to make the correct turn.
CarPlay works great – it’s fast and largely intuitive. Apple Maps remains underbaked, but it’s worth it alone for the Music and Podcasts apps, and easy hands-free calling. It connects via a USB socket in the centre console glove box, so your phone is charging when in use. Spotify is supported in CarPlay as well.
Out of the other apps, Yelp (pictured above) is the most useful. While it takes a little while to get going, once loaded it’s a handy resource to quickly find something nearby. Again, though, some might find it easier just to use their phone.