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Published: 08/25/2011 - by Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
If we're testing a car's ABS threshold and stability-control system effectiveness during a First Drive, it usually means we're doing something wrong. Not this time, however, because our hosts invited us to "Go as fast as you feel comfortable" in a 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design. We should also report that we were on a racetrack Volvo rented for the exercise.
Thunderhill Raceway Park is a fast, undulating, deceptively technical track that rewards precision and poise as much as it punishes brakes and tires. Besides the blind corners that lurk atop manmade and natural hills, the 3-mile 15-turn track features fast sweepers, off-camber corners, and a front straight that measures nearly a half-mile. Combined, this track proved to be an excellent lab to demonstrate where the nearly superb 2012 S60 T6 R-Design diverges from the merely admirable 2011 S60 T6.
The most obvious difference between the 2012 Volvo S60 T6 and S60 T6 R-Design (let's just call it "T6 R") is in the turbocharged 3.0-liter engine's tuning. While an 8 percent horsepower and 9 percent torque increase don't seem like much of an upgrade, it's how and where those increases manifest themselves that matters. Volvo partnered with Polestar, a Swedish racing and performance parts company, to increase both air and fuel flow to the combustion chambers. They also remapped the ECU to advance spark timing. The result is an impressive 325 horsepower without the aid of premium fuel — something most cars in the class require.
Where the standard T6's smooth-revving inline-6 engine feels sometimes elastic, the T6 R's engine feels immediate and linear. The midrange punch in the T6 R (courtesy 354 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm) is prodigious, and despite the very same gear ratios in the also-shared six-speed automatic transmission, the T6 R's power delivery better suits engine speed in each of those gears — especially 3rd, which we used most on the track.
There's enough snort for 100-plus mph on that long, long front straight and T6 R will run up to its electronically limited 130 mph with just a little more real estate. Volvo says the car is 0.3 second quicker to 60 mph than the T6, which means it should hit that milestone between 5.4 and 5.6 seconds (depending on rollout), but Volvo also reports it will achieve the same EPA fuel economy as a standard T6: 18 city/26 highway/21 combined. We'll see about all this when we get one for a full test shortly.
You won't find the T6's driver-selectable Four-C Active Chassis option among those that are available on the 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R. Instead, Volvo went old school and lowered the T6 R with 15mm-shorter springs (that are also 15 percent firmer), fitted monotube dampers, a front strut-tower brace and much firmer bushings all around. Steering remains the same, which means electric-assisted power rack-and-pinion with three distinct, driver-selectable levels of effort — we like "medium." Steering response is indeed sharper without being nervous, and the car tracks beautifully and resolutely around Thunderhill's on- and off-camber corners.
All these chassis upgrades don't so much make the car feel stiff-legged or raw, but come across as a refined system that allows it to keep all four driven wheels in contact with the pavement. The Haldex-sourced all-wheel-drive system utilizes a viscous center differential plus two electronically controlled differentials in the front and rear, which are overseen by a sophisticated algorithm.
Even after we were taught the unpublished disable-protocol for the car's otherwise nondefeat dynamic stability/traction control (DTSC) system, we were hard-pressed to make it put a wheel off line. Only when the 3,900-pounder was purposely driven too deep into corners did it begin to understeer mildly — a usual malady for relatively heavy, all-wheel-drive cars. But after using the time-honored lift-to-rotate, whack-to-go AWD technique, one of the Volvo-hired ride-along instructors remarked, "You've driven an all-wheel-drive car before, huh?"
"Sure have. And we're glad this one works like it should."
Now we're midcorner with the transmission in Sport (automatic) mode and begin to roll on the throttle, but the gear selection is one too high. "Hmm, mental note: Try manual shifting on the next corner." A few moments later, we go for the shift paddle on the steering wheel and discover... there isn't one. Well, that seems like an oversight — especially on an R-Design S60.
Sure, the manual gate is available on the console shifter; however, it's oriented forward for upshifts and rearward for downshifts. And as with the standard T6, the transmission programming doesn't include matched-rev downshifts. Bummer. We're driving a street car on a racetrack, but even a Chevrolet Suburban offers matched-rev downshifts these days and the hardly sporty Kia Optima SX Turbo has shift paddles.
Laps Three and Four
By now, we've put one "recce" lap in to learn the track and one to familiarize ourselves with the all-wheel drive and manual shifting requirements, and now it's time to put it all together for a couple scorchers. The engine revs so freely that it seems like it should spin beyond the 6,500-rpm redline as we approach the end of the straight. We wish it was even louder, though. Hard on the brakes and pulling for a downshift, we detect a little bit of a shudder. The brake pedal is still firm, yet effectiveness has diminished slightly. Still, we're having fun and press on anyway.
Over the 100-foot mound of earth that is Turn 5, down the backside and the tires are still clinging to the pavement. Flat(ish) through 6, 7 and 8 before we forget where the blind-line for Turn 9 is. We brush the brakes to make sure we aren't remembered as "that guy" at a track event and continue flat out all the way down to Turn 10 before going back to the brakes again. This time, though, there's serious vibration in the pedal and even less effectiveness. We use the rest of the lap to cool the brakes and opt out of another hot lap.
We pull into the pits and the unmistakable odor of hot pads wafts into the cabin. We're directed to the assemblage of identical T6 Rs parked beneath an infield canopy and find most of the other cars with similarly hot brakes. The R's vented rotors, measuring 12.4 inches up front and 11.9 inches in the rear, are the same size as those on the standard T6. They are also smaller than a BMW 335i's rotors (13.7 inches front, 13.2 inches rear). And they're not up to more than a couple laps on a fast racetrack. The car is sent out again with another driver when they cool down.
Not all First Drives are held on a racetrack (we wish they were), and we applaud Volvo for having the confidence in the 2012 S60 T6 R-Design (and us) to do so. We'll give the brakes a Mulligan because a track, especially Thunderhill, is really hard on them.
Regardless, we learn plenty about the S60 T6 R. It's got a great engine that irons out any previous flat spots in the rev range. The all-wheel drive behaves intelligently and proactively without waiting to lose traction before doing something. The steering is light and precise through its meaty wheel and the Continental ContiSportContact3 tires provide more grip than a Volvo has ever experienced. We like this car a whole lot.
The scenic two-hour drive from the track in an identical 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R was far more representative of the sort of demands it will face in the real world. There were cattle crossings, potholes, seams in the pavement in the middle of corners and choppy freeways. From beginning to end, we never thought the ride, brakes or steering were anything other than supple, substantial and spot-on.
Volvo is quick to point out that the 2012 S60 T6 R-Design (at $43,375) isn't intended to take on a Mercedes-Benz C63 or BMW M3. Rather, it should be considered a competitor to an Audi S4 with the sport rear differential (at $50,675) or BMW 335i xDrive with the M Sport package (at $48,675). Viewed in this light, each is not quite an all-out top-dog sport sedan, but all represent a significant force-fed, all-wheel-drive step above their base versions. Fair enough.
It looks as if Volvo just lined up a sport sedan comparison test for us. Do you suppose they could rent that track for us, too?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 Volvo S60 in VA is:
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