D. John Booth, Contributor
If you have to absolutely, positively hurtle through the Paul Ricard race circuit's tricky double-apex, 180-degree turn at more than 120 miles an hour blinded by a veil of fog in the pouring rain, it might as well be in a Volvo.
After all, the Swedish company is practically synonymous with automotive safety, so all of its models come with active safety items such as antilock brakes and traction control as well as one of those newfangled electronic nannies, otherwise known as a vehicle stability control system, that help prevent spins when the driver's enthusiasm overcomes his talent. And, if it all goes horribly awry into a guardrail, what better automobile to crash than one from the company that invented the three-point seatbelt and whose engineers consider airbags a religious calling.
Truth be told, Paul Ricard's test track, located in Marseilles, France, is a thoroughly modern facility with incredible runoff areas, making a close encounter of the Armco kind an unlikely occurrence. But the question remains as to what a Volvo is doing on a race circuit in the first place.
The answer is simple: Although the company enjoys a reputation for Fort Knox-safe, if somewhat boring, cars on this side of the Atlantic, it has a more sporting reputation in Europe. Having won the prestigious British Touring Car Championship in 1998, it is seen as something more than a manufacturer of boxes on wheels. And, just in case you have not noticed the slippery shapes of its new V70 and S60, Volvo wants North Americans to get the same message; hence the new R version of both its topline wagon and midsize sedan.
Actually, we have seen this before in T5 variants of the now-defunct 850. But as powerful as those turbocharged monsters were, they lacked the sophistication required to do battle with the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Not so with the new S60R. Using the same basic formula as the T5 i.e., raise the boost level on Volvo's trademark five-cylinder engine and then add sticky rubber the S60R also sees an incredible array of chassis technology as well as four-wheel drive to make the new performance sedan even more powerful, and more capable, than its tire-spinning predecessor.
It is certainly easy to appreciate the former attribute. Paul Ricard's Mistral Straight is long enough to gobble up a stock S60's relatively meager horsepower. But the R's 300 horsepower, the most ever for a production Volvo, makes pushing the loud pedal much more entertaining. Basically an XC90 SUV engine (itself Volvo's ubiquitous five-cylinder inline engine bored and stroked to 2.5-liter displacement) with a larger turbocharger and numerous strengthening additions like reinforced pistons, enlarged piston pins and more robust connecting rods, the new motor is healthy in most regards.
Low-end torque is prodigious and acceleration remains strong almost all the way to its 6,800 rpm redline. It is not quite in the same league as Mercedes' C32 AMG and BMW's M3, but it's closer than we ever thought Volvo would get. And thanks to the continuously variable valve timing (CVVT), efficient KKK turbocharger and the intake charge cooling twin intercoolers, throttle response is excellent with the dreaded "turbo lag" all but banished. Complaints about a lack of performance, even from fans of extreme cars, are unlikely.
Some might prefer a little more sporting engine note, however. Standing in the pit lane of Bernie Ecclestone's new play toy (the F1 Grand Pubah owns Paul Ricard, the new adjoining four-star hotel and the all-new private airport big enough to land a 727), the R cars sound healthy enough as they blast by in a cloud of spray. But inside, they sound far weedier than the acceleration they are producing.
The same exemplary performance, with one minor exception, applies to the handling. Volvo takes pride in its new Four-C (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept) system, which combines an electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system with a semiactive, continuously adjustable suspension system. Four-C is comprised of an impressive array of sensors (longitudinal and lateral acceleration, roll and pitch, wheel position, steering wheel position, engine output and brakeforce), new shocks and a powerful microcomputer to process all the information. The heart of the system, though, is a new valve made by Öhlins (a Swedish suspension manufacturer) that lets the shocks change their damping up to 500 times each second.
That rapidity, says Volvo, lets the same shock deliver the race track-friendly firmness and limited body roll around chez Ecclestone, yet provides all the cosseting comfort that have made Volvos the choice of conservative soccer parents and Wall Street brokers. The S60R even offers three suspensions settings comfort, sport and advanced but since the impressively quick-acting shocks are plush enough even in the sportiest mode, I just left it there for most of the test.
It is impressive stuff, even if the R's 235/40R18 performance rubber does not offer the ultimate grip of an M3. There is more than enough control for the most spirited of street squids (a descriptor I never thought I would use in a Volvo road test) especially since the engine's 295 pound-feet of torque (in the new six-speed manual guise anyway; 258 with the five-speed Geartronic automatic) are transmitted through all four of the S60R's tires. More sophisticated than the XC70's system, the S60 can transfer almost 70 percent of its power to the rear wheels, reducing the understeer that plagues lesser Volvos when they are pushed around fast corners.
Volvo engineers even (deep breath now) talk of the S60R's ability to oversteer. They have incorporated a sportier version of the dynamic stability and traction control system (DSTC) that the company says allows sportier driving. Push the DSTC button once and Volvo says its vehicle stability control system allows a little more slip from the rear wheels than normal, allowing you to hang the back end out like a true road warrior. To hear the engineers tell it, one would think the modification turns the R into a lurid, Corvettelike, tail-slewing terror. In fact, the modified DSTC allows but a smidgen of oversteer: A safety-indoctrinated Swede's interpretation of fun is just a little less liberal than my own. Obviously, Volvo engineers are the types who wear sensible shoes even when they go disco dancing (still a popular activity in Sweden, I'm told).
That said, the vehicle stability control system can be shut down completely by pushing the same button five times (Swedish for insuring that you really want to be that foolish). For once, I did not feel the need to test Volvo's claims, as the driving rain was making the electric nanny an appreciated companion considering the poor traction on the water-soaked track. I valued it even more the next day when spiriting the V70R wagon around the twisty roads surrounding Paul Ricard. Essentially one of Volvo's ubiquitous full-size wagons with all the S60R's go-faster goodies, all those traction enhancements were a welcome companion on the still rain-soaked roads.
The V70R is a plenty rapid car, its extra 120 pounds hardly blunting the engine's progress (Volvo claims a zero-to-60 time of 5.6 seconds, just 0.2 seconds slower than the S60R). In fact, the wagon may prove even more of a standout than the sedan. While the S60R faces stiff competition though, at an expected sticker in the $40,000 range, not at the same price point performance all-wheel-drive wagons are a rarity.
There are, of course, some cosmetic changes to the two cars. The front grilles are new and slightly more aggressive. The 18-inch alloy rims are also more distinctive than the Volvo norm. Ditto the new gauge set. But the best addition is a new tan-colored leather interior Volvo calls Atacama. It is warm, inviting and as close as the Swedish company will ever get to Jaguar's coziness. There are also dark blue and ivory versions.
These are, by far, the best Volvos I have tested. Sporty enough for latent speed demons, they offer all the safety and comfort traditional Volvo owners demand. I'd prefer a more mellifluous engine note and I dearly wish the vehicle stability control system's "sporty" mode was as tail happy as its Swedish designers claim it is, but I would be plenty pleased to see an R in my driveway especially the V70R. After all, why not get all the practicality of a Volvo along with all this fun?
Besides, it would be more of a surprise for unwary M3 owners.
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