The national character infused in a car is one of the more endearing traits enthusiasts tout when discussing automobiles. Traditionally, American cars, with their big V8s, soft suspensions and non-existent handling, were made for Interstate highway cruising. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Alfas and Fiats of Italy are compact, nimble and zippy, the better to navigate the autostradas with their sharp corners and treacherous elevation changes.
1. The Volvo S60 is currently available with just one engine, a 300-hp turbocharged inline six-cylinder with an 18/26-mpg fuel economy rating.
2. Safety features include a Blind Spot Information System, a Driver Alert System, front and rear parking sensors and Volvo’s City Safe system with Pedestrian Detection.
3. Pricing for the T6 is set at $37,700 with a T5 model set to arrive soon, priced closer to the $30,000 mark.
So what of Sweden, and its oddball automobiles? Once upon a time, they were durable, strong like oxen, but austere in a way that could only be engineered within the confines of a socialist welfare state, which subjugates individuality in the name of the collective good.
‘SPORTY’ AND ‘VOLVO’ NO LONGER MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
Eventually the “box on wheels” thing got old, and Volvos got a little more interesting. Along the way there were turbocharged variants of the 850, which were varying degrees of arousing, as well as the S60 and V70R, laden with goodies like turbochargers and adjustable shocks, but ineffectual in their quest to make a dent in the German heavyweights.
The eternal problem with sporty Volvos has been their resemblance to the well-known IKEA breakfast. Less expensive than its continental counterpart, it’s also not particularly flavorful and much of its appeal comes from sheer novelty. But if the old S60 was like the mealy, grey meatballs served by the flat pack furniture chain, the new 2011 model is like the Carl Gustaf anti-tank weapon – a simple looking grey metal tube that is capable of destroying far superior weaponry.
Volvo’s marketing department has managed to obnoxiously insert the tagline “Naughty” into all of the S60’s marketing material. Obviously, this is a misnomer, as the S60 is so conservative looking that it makes a Brooks Brothers blazer look like an S&M gimp outfit. That’s not to say the S60 is an unattractive car, you just might have a hard time picking it out of a lineup.
INTERIOR: LUXURIOUS MATERIALS, UNIQUE DESIGN
Once you’re inside the generously proportioned but well bolstered driver’s seat, it becomes evident where Volvo chose to spend its money. The cabin is a couple steps short of Audi in terms of materials and design, but it’s unquestionably ahead of Infiniti and BMW, who seem to have been resting on their laurels for some time when it comes to interior design.
Our test car didn’t have the tobacco brown leather seen in the promotional photos, but its grey and black trim was never dour, and the lovely dark wood made the center stack look like something that went missing from the deck of a very expensive yacht.
SIX-CYLINDERS OF TURBOCHARGED POWER, PLUS AWD
The S60 we tested is the top dog T6 AWD, which uses a transverse mounted Inline-6 engine with a turbocharger to put out 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque through a 6-speed automatic. This year, a front wheel drive T5 will be available, and retail for just over $30,000 but our car is a more significant to $37,700 to start.
The T6 was recently named one of Ward’s Auto’s 10 Best Engines, and we’re going to stick with our projectile-weapon comparison to describe the power. Response is about as instant as one can expect for a turbocharged motor, with a brief pause laying the groundwork for extremely rapid acceleration that will have you violating local traffic ordinances in to time at all. Fuel economy is a 18/26-mpg, which is a solid number for a 300-hp car.
What sets the S60 apart from its ancestors is the competence with which it takes corners. With its Haldex AWD system and Four C adjustable shock absorbers, the S60 becomes a joy to pilot through turns, with reflexes that dumbfounded us.
A VOLVO BUILT FOR DRIVERS
Ok, so the S60 is not as sharp as a BMW 3-Series. The steering still lacks some of the BMW’s heft, not to mention the tactile magic that lets you feel the road through your fingertips, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from trying to push the car where no Volvo has gone before. The smooth power delivery of the inline-6 complements the willing chassis nicely, and anyone driving an S60 will never wish for the power to be sent solely to the back wheels.
The typical Volvo customer isn’t interested in that sort of driving, and in the grind of city traffic, the S60 can be transformed into a comfortable commuter by turning the shocks down and navigating a few slightly complex menus to reset the steering to its most slack setting. The S60 never punishes you with a hard ride that other “sports suspension” equipped cars do, and with everything dialed down, you may as well be in a Lexus.
In one sense though, the S60 is truly a driver’s car, in that its back seat and trunk are not that generous – North Americans have come to expect a spacious expanse aft of the B-pillar and the S60 doesn’t quite deliver on that front.
SAFETY INNOVATIONS COME IN HANDY, BUT CAN BE INTRUSIVE
Where Volvo really expended its energy was on the plethora of safety systems. Our test car came with a Blind Spot Information System, a Driver Alert System, front and rear parking sensors and spookiest of all, Volvo’s City Safe system with Pedestrian Detection. We’re all for anything that makes cars safer, as well as anything that improves the safety of pedestrians, but pay attention to your surroundings and the systems can quickly become redundant.
Passengers unaware of the advances in modern safety systems often panicked when the Driver Alert System beeped incessantly at even minor intrusions such as a car changing lanes, or even braking slightly late when coming to a traffic light or stop sign. The system is certainly doing its job, but we found it more of a hindrance to the driving experience. Fortunately, we never had the opportunity to try out the CitySafe feature – if we did, we likely would have had some ‘splainin to do when returning the car to Volvo.
On the other hand, the Blind Spot system may come in handy for some, and the Park Assist sensors located at all four corners are great for squeezing into tight spots that we normally may have doubted. The backup camera that also came with the car let us squeeze into virtually any spot without fear of touching bumpers.
With the S60, Volvo has finally built the car they should have been building all along – a competent luxury sedan that’s moved to the German side of the spectrum without losing any of its distinct character. While not as hardcore as a BMW 3-Series or Infiniti G37, the S60 is far ahead of the rest of the pack in driving dynamics, has a first class interior and tech features that should bring a younger crowd into what’s traditionally been a pretty conservative model range. The biggest struggle for the brand will be getting the word out to the general public that this is a very different Volvo that what’s been offered in the past, and a much better one at that.
Auto journalists and brand loyalists will love this car, but both groups are notoriously poor barometers of what will resonate with the marketplace. We have absolutely no reservations about showering this car with accolades, but for a lot of people, the badge on the hood matters a lot more than a myriad of good qualities, and Volvo faces an uphill battle in this respect. Fortunately, the rest of the work has been done for the brand, but the marketing side of the equation will be about as difficult as putting together that IKEA wardrobe set without the instruction sheet.