2015 Volvo S60: Almost Makes the Grade
by Dan Frio, Automotive Editor on February 5, 2016
We didn't add the 2015 Volvo S60 to our fleet just to compare it to a BMW 3-Series.
Boring. Cliché. Overcooked. Been there, done it.
Instead we were more interested in its new four-cylinder engine that incorporates a supercharger and turbocharger and promises the best of both worlds: low-end bursts of power from the former, boosts of highway-passing speed from the latter, and hopefully pretty good fuel economy from both.
I'm still going to compare it to the 3-Series.
You could use 3 Series or C-Class almost interchangeably if you're talking about benchmarks for the no longer so compact luxury class. Audi A4 is climbing up there, too. Probably needs another decade of unblemished performance and innovation to muscle into that conversation. And the traditional thought is that the 3 Series is for driving enthusiasts and the C-Class for men and women of luxury and leisure.
These are pretty typical archetypes encouraged by the marketing wings of each organization, with varying incursions into each other's perceptions (no one would argue that a C63 is aimed at, and only at, the driving enthusiast).
So maybe no one except Volvo itself is expecting the S60, traditionally an also-ran in this segment, to truly match up to those franchise players. That's not a bad thing. Volvo once staked its reputation on innovative safety, but those features are now common among most automakers. Volvo still has an icy modernist cool about it, however. Even if the product doesn't hit all the points on the competitor's star charts, it has enough of its own mojo for a compelling alternative (witness the brisk sales of the new XC90).
As always, price helps here.
To near the S60's engine performance (302 horsepower, 295 pound-feet of torque), you'll need the new 340i's six-cylinder (320 hp) or an older 335i (300 hp). Our S60 as optioned lists at around $47,000. A similarly-equipped 340i runs almost $56,000. Shop around and you can find a recent 335i for high-$30k/low-$40k.
Your money buys a lot of S60.
What it doesn't buy is the handling. While I love pegging the throttle in the S60 from a standstill, I don't love its squirming front-end torque-steer. It's pretty well-controlled when dealing with 300 horsepower, but it's still unavoidable. Front-wheel-drive platform, loads of power through small engine, squirmy front end. None of the tail-dragging fun you can have with a 3 Series. No surprise there, but also a clear example of what you sacrifice in the cost savings.
Nor is the S60's engine nearly as refined as the BMW's six- or even four-cylinder engines. Innovative, sure. Fuel-efficient, not so much. Butterly, linearly smooth with a side of exhaust growl? No. BMW's been doing it well a long time. Natural advantage there.
It sounds like faint praise, but the S60 is the sensible alternative. Dynamically it doesn't reach the 3 Series bar, but you'd have to go in craving that for it to matter. Our opinions vary on the S60's comfort and ride quality. The S60 isn't a car that inspires me personally (I'd buy a Challenger instead), but if I were shopping for a premium small sedan and not fixated on badge or perception, I'd strongly consider it. It makes a strong case for itself with value, style, performance and daily drivability.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor @ 19,512 miles