Montauk by Seaplane: The Volvo S90 in the Hamptons

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 24, 2016

I’m in a Cessna seaplane that’s just taken off from the 23rd Street Skyport in Manhattan, and now we’re soaring high above the East River and, beyond, Long Island. From this vantage, the heavily populated island looks pristine and wooded, though the harbors are dotted with the white ticks of sailboats, and craft out on the water leave wakes like little comet tails.

New York from a Cessna seaplane. I didn't even need Dramamine. (Jim Motavalli)

But soon we’re touching down at chi-chi Montauk, at the end of the island. Once the Hamptons’ sleepy uncle, it’s plenty trendy now. This part of the world offers unparalleled oceanfront loveliness and big waves, but also skyrocketing home prices and crazy traffic on summer weekends.

"Lunch," a/k/a the Lobster Roll, is where they filmed the steamy TV serial "The Affair." The Volvo makes a good getaway car. (Jim Motavalli)

Luckily, we missed most of that. We were here to drive the all-new 2017 Volvo S90, which (with the redesigned XC90) is in the vanguard of a totally new lineup from the Swedish automaker. The two cars are built on Volvo’s scalable car platform (known as SPA), and share four-cylinder drivetrains, infotainment (with high-end audio from Bowers and Wilkins) and lots more.

My mind sometimes wanders when designers start talking about how the touchscreen and the air vents are united in a common style language, complete with photos of lions (for strength) and camels (for resilience), but I did get that the interior of the car is a nice place to be. The Swedes and Germans are the only automakers who do wood trim properly. And those “Thor’s Hammer” wraparound LED headlights are pretty cool, too.

Note how the vents and four-pane infotainment share a design language! (Volvo)

And the car itself is brawny and handsome, with cues from the P1800 in the vertically slotted waterfall grille. A pristine 1800E was parked outside our rendezvous, and the journalists wouldn’t leave it alone. I regret selling my 1800S!

The grille on this 1800E inspired the S90's. The journalists wouldn't stop hanging on the poor car. I regret selling mine! (Jim Motavalli)

Engine choices are the T5 turbo four, making 250 horsepower, plus the turbo and supercharged T6, offering 316. We tested the latter. I’m keen to also try the twin-engine S90, with plug-in hybrid also offered on the XC90. Volvo’s Dean Shaw said that car is coming next year, as is the V90 station wagon version of the car.

Volvo's Pilot Assist does its thing--but not around sharp curves. (Volvo)

The S90 is a semi-autonomous car, what they call in the industry a “Level 2.” With Pilot Assist II, you can take your hands off the wheel—briefly—when you see the green steering wheel, at speeds up to 80 mph. We’re talking about 10 seconds at a time, until you’re warned to get involved with the steering again. If you don’t do anything for another 10 seconds, the system disengages.

The driver has the choice of plain old adaptive cruise control, or piloted driving. On the road, the latter is plainly aimed at the long and boring stretches of interstates—or stop-and-go local driving. Around the Hamptons, the system signaled that it wanted driver input around sharp curves. Gentle turns it could handle. It’s a far cry from Tesla’s Autopilot, but undoubtedly much safer in the hands of today’s consumers.

Swedish Volvo drivers worry about moose, hence large animal detection. (Volvo)

This being Volvo, there’s also a suite of performance and safety tech, including four drive modes, large animal detection (the Swedes worry about moose collisions), road edge and run-off road protection, a blind spot information system and a boron steel cage for occupant protection. Despite carrying around all this weight, fuel economy is pretty good, 31 mpg combined as tested (a T6 all-wheel-drive Inscription model).

Todd, my driving companion, is a tech blogger, so we spent a lot of time fiddling with the S90’s 12.3-inch infotainment screen. It mimics the function of a tablet, with useful swiping capability. And we liked the four-tile system, which keeps your commonly used functions, such as media, navigation and iPhone (Apple CarPlay), on-screen all the time.

Road edge mitigation. For safety, it's got ya covered. (Volvo)

We never got lost, but the navigation screen gave up halfway through, providing a flashing psychedelic light show in place of maps. Volvo’s Jim Nichols chalked it up to our car’s status as a pre-production S90.

The navigation screen misbehaved on our pre-production car. (Jim Motavalli)

The S90 is not a sports car, as Nichols pointed out, but it’s a really nice long-distance cruiser if you’re not totally focused on zero-to-60 (and I’m certainly not). The seats are among the most comfortable I’ve experienced, with great travel for six-footers, and the rear-seat legroom is outstanding, too.

Minor quibble: The matte dash top is perhaps a bit too shiny, because in sunny situations it gave us some reflections that wrestled with the heads-up display. Pricing starts at $46,950 (S90 T5 Momentum), but the T6 Inscription adds a lot of features for $56,250. The S90 is at dealers now.

The Cadillac's rear-camera mirror worked wonderfully well, especially at night. (Jim Motavalli)

As it happens, I traveled to New York in a Cadillac CT6 test car, and it’s instructive to compare them, since both cars are AWD flagships bristling with technology. The Volvo has turbo- and supercharging; the CT6 sports the top-of-the-line twin-turbo three-liter V-6, good for 400 horsepower. It moves. The $81,840 Cadillac is bigger and more imposing than any Caddy in recent memory—the American version of a Mercedes S-Class.

Bose does the sound, not Bowers and Wilkins, but the infotainment offerings are comparable. Both deny me access to my 10,000-plus CD collection, alas. That’s the way of the world.

The Cadillac CT6 is one big, imposing automobile. Does it intimidate the Germans, though? (Jim Motavalli)

One cool feature that Volvo hasn’t gotten around to yet is Cadillac’s rear-camera front mirror. I loved it, especially at night when it brightly illuminated what would have been the dark rows of traffic parked along my suburban streets.

Another feature I really like is the tire pressure monitor, which gave me exact measurements of all four wheels—and let me know the left front was getting dangerously low. My old Buick would just say “tire pressure!” without any indication of which wheel.

With the twin-turbo three-liter V6 making 400 horsepower, the rear of this Cadillac is what you'll likely be seeing. (Jim Motavalli)

On this car are surround vision, front pedestrian detection (great in Manhattan), rear cross traffic alert (ditto), forward collision alert, lane keep and lane departure warnings. The automatic braking and safety belt tensioner are comforting to have.

Our Fly the Whale seaplane soared above the city. The airsick bag stayed in place. (Jim Motavalli)

Both the Cadillac and the Volvo are worthy competitors. The Caddy needs to find buyers among Americans who jones on German iron. It’s easily as good as comparable BMWs and Audis. As is the Volvo, too.

Here's the Volvo S90 on location at The Lobster Roll in Montauk:

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