Car tech review: Volvo S60 T8 Twin Engine hybrid
Plug-in hybrid features Apple CarPlay and a 9-inch portrait touch screen
Volvo's car infotainment system is called Sensus Touchscreen. The latest incarnation launched two years ago, and has since spread across the entire Volvo range, including the new $55,000 S60 T8 Twin Engine hybrid, where we recently saw the system in use. In that time, it's received some user interface tweaks and updates to keep it looking fresh, but fundamentals remain the same, all the while keeping the look subtle and refined.
Sensus system today
In previous versions, the Sensus system used a smaller display in the car. But, as is the current trend, Volvo increased the screen size to nine inches and uses the extra space to replace some, but not all, of the physical controls. The result is a 9-inch display which sits in the center of the dashboard in a portrait orientation like that of a Tesla Model S or Model X. The screen is framed by a pair of conventional air vents, with physical controls for media playback below
But where the screen dominates in the Tesla Model S or Model X, Volvo's approach is more elegant. We put the Sensus Touchscreen through a test, which works with both Android Auto for Google users and Apple CarPlay, although we tried it out with the latter.
Software and performance
At first glance, the user interface looked a little dated compared to those offered by other manufacturers. But, concerns that the system lacked polish soon disappeared replaced by a realization that, when driving and not looking at the display for more than a couple of seconds, the design makes perfect sense.
Volvo Sensus Touchscreen does not have a home screen in the traditional sense. Instead, the interface is split horizontally into collapsable sections for maps, music and phone. A fourth option appears for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto when a smartphone is connected to one of the two USB ports.
There is then a swipe-down panel for system alerts and notifications at the top, and swiping to the left of the home screen reveals a page of applications. To the right of the home screen is where you find a settings page for adjusting car functions, like the position of the head-up display, color of the interior ambient lighting, and the vehicle's various driver safety systems.
The system is controlled via a 9-inch touchscreenGearBrain
These pages either side of the home screen may seem cluttered at first, but presenting everything at once makes more sense than burying settings in sub menus. Besides, many of these settings — like the position of the head-up display — only need adjusting once, then they can be forgotten.
As with Tesla and the infotainment systems of others, Volvo keeps the climate controls visible at all times. This includes the temperature on each side of the cabin, simple controls for the heated front seats and steering wheel, plus the direction and intensity of the air vents.
All of this is very responsive, and although there is no haptic feedback, the interface reacts so quickly that I was never unsure if my touches had been registered or not. It is also very intuitive, and is placed high enough on the dashboard so that adjusting the climate doesn't take your eyes too far from the road.
A second all-digital display sits behind the steering wheel, showing your speed and revs. But instead of a normal rev counter, the right-hand dial adjusts depending on the mode of the car. The system cleverly shows when the petrol engine will kick in to accompany the electric motors, and fuel levels are shown for each energy source, with an estimated range for each.
CarPlay neatly takes up the lower half of the displayGearBrain
It's a simple system and one which, at a glance, gives you all the information you need about the car's complex drivetrain. Added to a quiet and smooth ride, this all means you can leave the car in its default hybrid mode, letting the computer work out when the engine should be used, and when the battery can manage on its own.
A sportier driving mode is available via a chrome scroll wheel in the center console, along with a mode which uses the engine to fully charge the battery as quickly as possible, then holds that charge until you want to use it (on entering a city's electric vehicle zone, for example). But for the majority of time it's best to leave it in the default mode and let the car decide what's best.
That said, the car's 2.0-petrol engine (driving the front wheels) and 11.8kWh battery (powering the rear wheels) means a combined 400 horsepower and a 0-62mph time of 4.6 seconds. So it can be a proper sports sedan to rival the best of BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Jaguar, if that's what you want.
Hardware and ergonomics
As is always welcome, Volvo has supplemented the touch screen with a handful of physical controls. These include a large volume dial below the screen, with a play/pause button in its middle. This is framed by buttons for skipping music forward or back, and buttons for heating the windshields.
Physical controls include volume, play/pause and windshield heatersGearBrain
There's also a traditional gear lever for switching between drive, neutral and reverse, a button for the parking brake, and a set of conventional stalks for the lights and wipers. I'm pleased to see most manufacturers take a traditional approach to these critical systems, as opposed to Tesla's insistence on a touch screen for everything (wipers and all) with the Model 3.
A home button located centrally and below the screen always takes you back to the same page, which is reassuring to know. If you ever get lost in a menu, or aren't sure where to swipe next, a press of that button returns you to an overview of everything, along with your next navigation instruction.
Something I was less impressed with is the amount of storage space in the center console. The armrest opens as normal to reveal a shallow space for your phone, which also houses a 12V socket and a pair of USB ports. But where other vehicles would have a second, deeper stowage area beneath this, the Volvo does not — because that's where the battery is located. This means there is precious little space for your personal items, and meant my wallet and the large key fob were relegated to the driver's door.
There isn't much space for a smartphone by the USB portsGearBrain
I also found my iPhone X would only just fit under the armrest when plugged into the USB port. I think a larger handset would struggle to fit, especially while plugged into the system. To partially solve this, there is a slot for sitting your phone upright, around which the armrest closes. But my phone also only just fitted here, and I'd rather not have my phone screen visible while driving, especially as CarPlay now lets you (or rather, a passenger) interact with the phone while it's plugged into a car. It's just too distracting, and I'd rather my phone was hidden from sight.
Another oddity in the Volvo's cabin is its ignition switch. This chrome controller turns the car on when rotated clockwise a quarter-turn, which seems logical enough, but you turn the car off by making the exact same movement. It's fine after you have realized what to do, but just felt a bit strange after years of turning a key one way for on, then the opposite way for off. A button like most others would surely have made more sense.
Finally, I'd like to praise the excellent $3,200 Bowers & Wilkins sound system fitted to this particular car. The 15 speakers look great behind their stainless steel grills (apart from the one atop the dashboard, which I kept mistaking for a clock) and the sound they produce is superb. And while it might look out of place, the central speaker on the dashboard is to minimize acoustic reflections from the windshield — a sign B&W has really thought about this system.
A phone can sit in a slot in the armrestGearBrain
The quality sound is aided by the use of Kevlar speaker cones which, according to Volvo, feature unique break-up characteristics that help prevent distortion, and improve off-axis sound. This is particularly helpful in a car, as you are usually sat off to the side of a speaker, rather than with your ears directly in front of it.
Overall, the Volvo's infotainment system is far better than I was expecting it to be. I can't quite put my finger on why I thought it would be a disappointment, but the way it looked just didn't grab me in the way other systems do. But I'm glad I gave it some time to get under my skin, because now I'm a fan. It is very fast, simple and intuitive to use, and has all the features most drivers realistically need - that said, if you want Netflix and video games, Tesla is still the company for you.
For the rest of us, Volvo has done a solid job, and the integration of CarPlay (and Android Auto) is really nicely done, with Apple/Google's and Volvo's software sitting neatly side-by-side. All of this is particularly impressive, given the system's foundations and general look come from 2017, yet still feel new as we head into 2020.