It can't be easy being Volvo right now. By the time the 2011 Volvo S60 reaches the U.S. this summer, Volvo might be Chinese, Swedish, American or none of the above. This car could be a final fling for Ford, a brave new dawn for the Chinese Geely or the last gasp of a Swedish giant.
But whoever wins the paternity suit will look to the S60 as the car to reestablish Volvo as a genuine, premium alternative to the German Big Three. Quirky and emotive, the S60 is targeted squarely at the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class.
In Europe, the 2011 Volvo S60 will be offered with a broad range of engines, but only the Volvo S60 T6 AWD will be crossing the pond. Equipped with a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 and all-wheel drive, it will battle the BMW 335i for a piece of the market.
It's a lot to ask. Volvo is already in a fight for its life, and now it finds itself going up against the automotive equivalent of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
European, Not German
The 2011 Volvo S60 had a rather strange conception. Designed in an interregnum between Peter Horbury's first and second stints at the helm as Volvo's design director, the S60 actually was penned by Steve Mattin, the British designer responsible for the original Mercedes A-Class and the pre-face-lift version of the current-generation Mercedes SL.
Horbury was busy running Ford's North American design team at the time, but returned to Volvo after Mattin left last summer. This game of musical chairs has left the S60 in a strange position. It is supposed to establish a new design vocabulary for the brand, but some of those cues might be garbled as Horbury reasserts his authority and his own mastery of Volvo's style language.
The 2011 Volvo S60 clearly takes its inspiration from the current Horbury-designed S60, yet it is much more flamboyant. The headlights are now cut extravagantly into the hood and the Volvo-signature chamfered shoulder line is less pronounced. The taut, coupelike roofline featured on the original S60 has also been exaggerated. And while the car is clearly a sedan, its rear perspective makes you think of a fastback coupe.
Whether all this glamour runs counter to the traditional principles of simple, restrained Swedish design is a matter of conjecture, but at least the S60 clearly is distinctive. Like Jaguar, Volvo has come to the conclusion that it needs to present a positive, unusual alternative to the default German marques. It needs to offer, as the company executives remind us, "a reason to buy."
Volvo has also set aside its corporate strategy of offering models sized to slot in between the cars of its competition (something Audi used to do as well) and instead takes on competing models with a direct matchup in every dimension. All future cars will be sized to match the class norm, and the S60 makes its statement with an overall length of 182.2 inches versus 178.2 inches for the 3 Series.
Come Home to Sweden
If the outside is extrovert, the cabin is familiar Volvo fair. The now-traditional Volvo floating centerstack is present and correct, but this time it's angled slightly toward the driver to emphasize the 2011 Volvo S60's dynamic ambitions. An armada of buttons is then mounted in the center of this stack, surrounded by four rotary knobs that control the cabin temperature and the infotainment screen that's mounted high in the dash. It's ergonomically suspect — downright baffling, to be fair — but at least it's different and the quality is good.
Volvo reckons that the new S60 has 1.2 inches more rear legroom than the old model, but while this dimension makes the S60 competitive with its class rivals (at last!), the rear accommodation is still not what you'd call generous. Those in the front have a much better time. The driving position is excellent and the leather-wrapped front seats prove supremely comfortable on the highway, although keen drivers might wish for a more lateral support if they start to enjoy the S60's newfound dynamic prowess.
Scandinavian Road Work
Volvo is quick to claim the 2011 S60 as the most dynamically gifted car it has ever produced. "We've crossed into territory where we've never been before," says Stefan Sällqvist, the engineer in charge of chassis development. While the suspension configuration remains the same, with struts in front and a multilink setup in the rear, everything has been thoroughly upgraded, including a stiffer front subframe, firmer bushings and strut mounts and stronger damper rods.
A Volvo that aspires to serious road manners is an intriguing development, but also one that has caused some concern at Volvo's headquarters in Gothenburg, as the executives are hedging their bets. In the U.S. the "Dynamic" chassis calibration will be standard, but a "Touring" calibration will be a no-cost option for those interested in more comfort. In addition, the car will be available in a "Four C" version that features three-mode active dampers.
Transverse Engine, All-Wheel Drive
Equipped with a twin-scroll turbocharger, Volvo's 2,953cc inline-6 still can be found sitting transversely under the hood of the S60, but subtle modifications designed to reduce internal friction have increased peak power to 300 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and peak torque to 325 pound-feet at 2,100-4,200 rpm. Volvo's six-speed Geartronic automatic transmission is standard equipment and every S60 brought to America will feature Volvo's all-wheel drive.
This is a fine engine that offers easily accessible torque and a surprisingly strident exhaust note. It is genuinely rapid and the Aisin-built automatic Geartronic does a decent job of exploiting its potential. There are standard and sport modes and you can select gears sequentially using the gearshifter. There are no shift paddles on the steering wheel, though; perhaps Volvo thinks its customers aren't quite ready for such a level of sportiness. Volvo claims acceleration to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph, plus a reduction in fuel consumption compared to the previous S60.
Volvo's engineers have put a lot of work into improving the steering response, which was a big failing of the old car. The combination of a 100 percent improvement in the structural rigidity of the chassis and a steering ratio that's 10 percent faster makes a big difference. As we drove the roads of Portugal, where we were introduced to the car, the T6 displayed a level of agility and precision not previously available to S60 drivers.
We're not talking BMW levels of chassis poise and driver engagement, yet we'd warn drivers of the Audi A4 to not be smug. The fourth-generation Haldex all-wheel-drive system with its electrically triggered center differential responds quickly to variations in traction, while the rear electronic limited-slip differential can split the drive to the rear wheels to reduce understeer during hard cornering. The 2011 Volvo S60 T6 AWD feels like an all-wheel-drive car rather than a front-driver with a bit of extra help, and some miles in the European-spec front-wheel-drive S60 confirmed our impression.
This newfound control also benefits the ride quality, at least in the performance chassis of the S60 T6 that we drove. The float of old has been replaced by greater control, but it's by no means uncomfortably stiff, even on the cobbled streets of our test route. The ride is certainly no firmer than an A4 or a 3 Series, so perhaps the comfort setup is meant to keep previous Volvo owners in the family.
The People Who Brought You the 3-Point Seatbelt
A new Volvo wouldn't be complete without a newfangled safety gadget, so the S60 incorporates a pedestrian-detection system that supplements the vehicle-avoidance system introduced to the U.S. by the 2010 Volvo XC60. A camera mounted in front of the rearview mirror automatically detects pedestrians in the road ahead, warns the driver and then automatically applies full braking power if you fail to respond. Volvo claims that the system can avoid a collision completely at speeds up to 35 km/h (22 mph). Above that, it limits the impact speed, reducing the risk of fatalities.
The new system joins others that warn you if you're falling asleep, straying out of your lane or are about to total the car in front. There's certainly no shortage of beeps or flashing lights, and while some might find all this unnecessarily nannying, they can be switched off at least.
The Price of Success
The 2011 Volvo S60 T6 AWD will cost from $38,550, which is a significant leap over the $31,000 starting price of the old model. Its predecessor, though, offered just 208 hp as well as less standard equipment.
The exact parameters of Volvo's ownership might still be in doubt, but out of an adversity has come a surprisingly accomplished car. The S60 is a well-judged attempt to add some emotive appeal without compromising Volvo's core values. Any owner of a BMW 335i is unlikely to look at this car with lust, but those Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class shoppers have another option to consider. Quirky but capable, the new S60 puts Volvo back in the game.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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