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Rolling into the third instalment of our 2017 Volvo S90 D4 Momentum long-term review, 'owner' Mike Costello has tapped me to assess Volvo's new-generation Sensus infotainment system.
For some, availability of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with the system might be all that needs saying. For the rest of you, there's the bigger question: if Volvo is now a premium brand, does Sensus have what it takes to rival BMW's iDrive and Merc's COMAND?
For the most part, yes. And, just as iDrive and COMAND couldn't be any less alike, Volvo has taken its own path in developing the new Sensus platform.
Even at a glance, there's a standout difference between Volvo and its key German rivals (and the Japanese, for that matter). It's that portrait-shaped main display, likely inspired by the larger and far more audacious panel that dominates the dash of Tesla's Model S and Model X.
Of course, the Swedes are all about minimalism: where Tesla's main 17-inch display wouldn't be out of place on your office desk, Volvo offers a comparatively compact 9.0-inch screen.
And where Tesla is all about on-screen controls, Volvo is only mostly about that. You still get a phone-like home button, but perhaps more importantly, there's also a row of physical controls beneath the display.
Sitting proud in the centre of that row is a large play/pause/power button wrapped by a silver knurled volume dial. Flanking the dial are back/forward media buttons, front/rear window de-mist buttons and the hazard-light button.
An internal temperature sensor also gets an oddly prominent position in the row – don't mistake it for a micro-SD memory card reader – and, in our entry-level model, there's a blank button for optional extras. An electric-opening glove box, for example.
Just about everything else – which, to be fair, is most things – is controlled through either the main touch-screen display or the glossy and somewhat unconventionally stylised (those Swedes…) steering-mounted controls.
Indeed, whenever you can use the steering controls, you should. That big display looks a treat, but if you so much as glance in its general direction, you'll have smeared the surface before you know it. Throw in a touch of sunlight and you'll be reading through a blur of bright smudges.
When you can see what you're doing, though, Sensus works a treat. It's quick, intuitive and almost deceptive in the way its simplistic aesthetics and layout hide a fairly comprehensive set of features and controls.
The main display is made up of five sections, divided into four key drawers that can slide down to reveal more details, and a fifth permanent section devoted to climate control. A swipe to the left reveals a number of apps and entertainment shortcuts, while swiping to the right gets you to all of the car's main safety and vehicle settings.
The control of each section is, from my view, an intuitive and direct process, with little of the mystery and confusion that often comes with infotainment.
That said – and just like a mobile phone – the more you want to accomplish, the deeper you must dive. Settings for some functions can be buried three of four pages deep. Start/Stop, for example, can usually be found as a main button in the dash of most cars – but here, it's three swipes away from the home screen. Still, most are unlikely to need it regularly, and Volvo will have bet on that in deciding the layout of these controls.
Controlling the climate – one of the more frequently accessed functions for me – via the screen feels less than ideal, but certainly not tricky, and not all that slow. The screen is very responsive and the buttons large, so there's little chance of missing your target or being frustrated by zero recognition of your command.
Above: beware smudges! Perhaps keep a microfibre cloth handy.
Navigation is integrated, and performs well, although you need to connect your phone and its data connection if you want traffic updates. I also found the phone-like pinch and swipe gestures, to move and zoom the display, were faster to respond than in many others.
Interestingly, I couldn't get voice recognition to respond to me at all, despite following the steps outlined in the owner's manual. However, James Ward and Mike Costello have both used it, and both were unimpressed. Slow to respond, I'm told, and then not responding with the requested action. "'Go to [location]' would instead get me "calling [person]," James said.
But, in fairness, voice recognition in most cars is woefully behind the talents of the systems invoked through the simple call of "Hey Siri!" and "Okay Google". (Although, in the car, it usually requires a long press on the voice-recognition button or the on-screen microphone icon.)
By comparison, BMW charges around $550 for CarPlay, and a touch less if you download it yourself through the BMW Connected interface.
Of course, many volume brands are now packing CarPlay and Android Auto in at no cost at all, so…
That said, our model is equipped with the $3000 Technology Package, which adds not only CarPlay and Android, but also DAB+ digital radio, a head-up display, 360-degree camera and an additional USB port.
Above: that Mike Stevens fella just won't take the hint... swipe away!
In my view, these features – each and every one of them – should be standard equipment. In a premium offering, and one that can be viewed as a challenger brand – having declared it is stepping up to take on the top-shelf premium brands – this sort of kit should be thrown in. It worked for Lexus.
Still, if you're happy to spend up, CarPlay and Android Auto are an obvious boon. In my case, as an Android user, it also means I have access to the full Google Maps experience, which can't be had with either the integrated satellite navigation or with the iPhone.
As the screens in our gallery show, the two platforms run in the bottom section of the screen – partly a design limitation of CarPlay and Android, partly a result of the unusual portrait layout of the display, and partly so that Volvo's other features can still be viewed and accessed.
Any 'app' available to those two platforms can display, including a number of music and communication services, much of it controlled very well through Siri and Google Now voice control. (See our CarPlay and Android Auto video.)
Interestingly, my first run at using Android Auto in the S90 resulted in a bizarre lockup that almost completely froze the system. The screen wouldn't respond, and neither would the volume dial, even after having unplugged my phone. In fact, even after having turned off the engine and left the car!
Now, it's popular to blame Android whenever something goes wrong (I'm the only Android user in the CarAdvice Melbourne office, and they do love reminding me of my 'condition'), but with the number of cars I have access to… it's more likely this was an issue with the vehicle.
A full 'factory reset' of the infotainment system seemed my only option – and with static blaring out at me after somehow getting radio to respond but then being stuck loudly between stations and without volume control – I gladly took it.
After that, the system worked fine and I was able to use Android Auto without issue.
Handily, if you don't want to fork out for CarPlay and Android, Volvo's Sensus platform already supports a number of apps, including Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, the location-sharing Glympse app, Yelp venue reviews, WikiLocation, and the Record & Send voice dictation function.
Audio quality from the standard 10-speaker system is good and clear, and really should be perfectly acceptable for most owners. Still, if you're an audiophile for whom money is no object, you can step up to the $4500 19-speaker Bowers and Wilkins 'Premium Sound' system (and we'd be keen to hear from you if you've done so).
Bluetooth call quality is likewise clear and crisp, as the audio clip below will show. Connecting a new phone to the system is a quick and intuitive process, and reconnecting when you return to the car also happens quickly.
The rear-view camera provides a sharp and clear image, booting up quickly when reverse is engaged and disappearing just as smoothly.
If an object is too close to the vehicle, an on-screen diagram will show which sensor has triggered the alert. Likewise, the 360-degree view shows a clear image, albeit with the usual distorted crazy-mirror effect on objects that are close-by.
Away from the dash and diving in behind the steering wheel, there's a 12.3-inch display that joins the likes of Volkswagen, Audi and Mercedes-Benz in replacing the conventional physical instrument gauges with a broad full-digital screen.
There, you get the usual meters for speed and revs, along with a centre section that can show navigation, media and vehicle status. From here, via the steering-mounted controls, you can also access the Adaptive Cruise Control and hands-off Pilot Assist system described in our second instalment.
And that's Volvo's Sensus infotainment system. In all, it is, in my view, one of the better systems going around – and that's with this new-generation platform being only a couple of years old, while the iDrive and COMAND platforms have had years now to iron out the bugs and work out the kinks.
2017 Volvo S90 D4 Momentum
- Date acquired: April 2017
- Price as tested: from $82,490 plus on-road costs
- Engine: 2.0-litre twin-turbo diesel
- Power: 140kW at 4250rpm
- Torque: 400Nm at 1750-2500rpm
- Transmission: eight-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
- Claimed fuel use: 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres
- Weight: 1738 kilograms (tare mass)
- Seating: five
- Country of origin: Sweden
- Odometer reading at pick-up: 4096km
- Odometer reading: 7220km
- Travel since previous update: 1721km
- Fuel consumption since previous update: 5.7L/100km mixed driving, mostly freeway since last update