The Volvo S60 compact sedan, the model its maker calls "the naughty Volvo," actually turns out to be quite nice — though it has some naughty habits that hold it back.
After taking off the 2010 model year, the S60 returns as a redesigned 2011 in the T6 AWD trim level, named for its turbocharged six-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive. The 2012 model year starts early with the more affordable T5 trim level, which has a five-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. (See them compared.) We tested the 2011 T6.
The Sportiest Volvo
In performance terms, the S60 reminds me of the sportiest Volvo of all time, the S60 R, sold from 2003 to 2007. The 2011 T6 offers many of the features that made the R stand out, including 300 horsepower, but in this case it comes from a turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder rather than a 2.5-liter five-cylinder. The manual transmission is but a memory, leaving in its place a competent six-speed automatic.
The S60 is in a class known as luxury sport sedans, whose performance often rivals sports cars. While it's definitely knocking on the doors of the Audi A4/S4, BMW 3 Series and Infiniti G37, the S60 still has a ways to go before it can bust in. The S60 has plenty of oomph off the line, thanks to 30 more pounds-feet of torque than the S60 R had, available at a low, 2,100 rpm (a total of 325 pounds-feet). All-wheel drive is standard on the T6 trim level, so all that power finds its way to the street with no slippage. Its zero-to-60 time is well below 6 seconds, and that puts it in league with compact luxury competitors.
It also has much better steering feedback than we've come to expect (but definitely not respect) from past Volvos. The ride is firm but livable, and the dynamics are quite good, too.
The T6's all-wheel drive handles snowy roads effortlessly, but the same can be said of most all-wheel drive these days. Dry pavement is where the car shows its chops. When pushed hard into corners, it behaves admirably. Where earlier all-wheel-drive Volvos would first lose their composure and then recover, the S60 stays in line. It indicates good, quick communication among the all-wheel drive, the traction control and the electronic stability system. You can even get the car to rotate on its axis sometimes, which belies the car's typical nose-heavy weight distribution.
All the same, weight transfer is the one area where some competitors have the edge. The Audi, BMW and Infiniti cars send more torque to their rear wheels, which gives them a more natural balance leading into a corner, transitioning and then powering out of it. To be clear, the current S60's all-wheel drive feels pretty close to the Audi Quattro system of just a few years ago, but it could use a little improvement to keep up with the Joneses.
Buyers who want the most in performance and versatility might opt for the Four-C (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept) package, which is basically an adaptive suspension offered as a $750 stand-alone option. Though our test car didn't include it, it should tighten up the car's reflexes, tame the moderate body roll and possibly provide a softer ride in Comfort mode than does the regular suspension.
The base T6 should provide more than enough performance for the casual driver, and I suspect the average Volvo shopper is more casual than most. Even casual drivers, and especially safety-conscious ones, are likely to find a surprising number of other faults with the S60.
Inside the car, positives include high-quality materials. The metal accents all seem to be genuine, including the rings around the speedometer and tachometer. On the downside, the monochrome displays in the center of these gauges are so crude and blocky, I feared a game of "Space Invaders" would break out on my instrument panel. I thought the front seats were among the most supportive and comfortable I've experienced, but one of our shorter editors found the bottom cushion a bit long — a rarity. It wasn't a deal-breaker for her, though. Visibility is pretty good all around, and there's even a button on the dashboard to release the backseat's head restraints, which flip forward to clear the driver's view if no one's in the seat. A backup camera is also available in the Multimedia Package ($2,700), along with a navigation system and premium stereo.
In light of the recent redesign, the backseat is a disappointment because it's rather snug for adults. Though it has gained a couple inches of legroom over the previous generation, it still trails competitors by full inches. Its rear headroom is generous, though. (See a comparison of all-wheel-drive luxury sedans.)
The electronics and controls are where things get dicey. The rotary knobs for the ventilation and stereo would benefit from some knurling or a soft rubber coating to improve grip. I also found the inset buttons awkward to use because a peninsula from the silver ring around them extends into the button space. It's especially tricky when wearing gloves. Perhaps most frustrating was the Menu/OK/Exit button that controlled our test car's optional navigation system, audio system and "My S60," a menu that controls many features. The first problem is that it's a bit out of reach, on the passenger side. Perhaps this is intentional, because the functions are repeated for the driver on the steering wheel. Still, I found the operation awkward, and even after I'd learned it, I found quirks. The most irritating was the navigation map's habit of first zooming out a step before it starts to zoom in when you turn the thumbwheel. Likewise, it would zoom in one level before stepping back.
Ultimately this became irrelevant when I determined the map had no street labels. I know it seems unlikely, and we always complain that navigation systems need more street labels, but this one truly has next to none. I played with every setting before contacting Volvo and confirming I was getting all it has to give. What's maddening is that it has street data, because it calculates routes and even displays the road you're currently on, just not the others. You can zoom in, zoom out, say a prayer, whatever, and you get almost nothing. Occasionally you'll see a street name for an upcoming artery or interstate, but you're just as likely to see one for a parallel street four blocks to the side that's of zero consequence. It's simply preposterous.
Volvo says it's aware of the shortcoming and is upgrading the navigation system for vehicles as soon as the 2012 model year. If we see any improvements, we'll revise this report.
If I seem fixated on the technology, it's only after being forced in this direction. I used to question if the operation of electronics were enough to sell a car or disqualify it from shoppers' consideration, but that's now clearly the case. The German luxury brands' poor reliability ratings over the past decade were influenced highly by their multifunction controllers. A steep learning curve and poor overall ergonomics — not just glitches and bugs — were a problem. (They have since improved.) Consumer Reports recently revoked recommendations for the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX specifically because of their MyFord and MyLincoln Touch electronics.
The S60 has yet to be tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The S60's passive safety features include active head restraints, frontal airbags, side-impact airbags for the front seats and curtains that cover the side windows along the front and rear seats.
The S60 offers a slew of active safety features, starting with standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. City Safety, which operates at speeds up to 18 mph, uses a laser scanner to determine if the car is closing too quickly on another vehicle. It can activate the brakes to prevent or diminish a collision. A Blind Spot Information System ($700) is a stand-alone option.
The optional Technology Package ($2,100) adds additional measures. Lane departure warning is teamed with Drive Alert Control, which suggests you take a break if your driving indicates that you're sleepy or distracted. Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake uses the adaptive cruise control's radar sensor to achieve similar ends as City Safety, at any speed. It first alerts the driver of an impending crash audibly and by reflecting a red light off the windshield. The Distance Alert feature illuminates the light when you get too close to another vehicle; you can set the distance you prefer, or turn it off entirely. I found it effective because it's a wide LED bar, similar to a car's center brake light. It starts out dim and grows in intensity as you get still closer.
Pedestrian Protection uses radar and a camera to detect people in the car's path and trigger alerts or, if necessary, apply full braking.
Is This Really Safe?
Though these features sound terrific, and some have been around for years on Volvos and other brands, our experience with City Safety and Pedestrian Detection has been disappointing across the board. At an event where Volvo invited drivers to coast headlong into an inflatable pedestrian, one of our editors plowed right over it, trapping it under the car. The explanation? The driver was stepping on the brake, which defeats the feature.
That doesn't explain why nearly every time I attempted to leave our parking garage, the car's sensors caught sight of the gate before it raised, or perhaps the structure to which it's hinged, and triggered full-on panic braking. Each time, I was indeed on the brake pedal, slowing down so the transponder on the windshield would raise the arm. The first time this happened, I thought I had run into something, so violent was the braking. I neglected to warn a co-worker (oops), and he took the car out and had the same experience.
In theory, I'm in favor of this type of safety feature, and I reject the frequent objection that drivers will become more careless, relying on the computer to do all the work. In practice, though, I can't abide false activations. I could easily have been rear-ended by an anxious driver behind me. Might the same thing happen at a toll booth? Even something less dire, like heaving a beverage all over the dashboard, can be justified if it prevents an accident, but if it happens due to a false alarm, you'll be much less forgiving.
Fortunately, I was able to turn off City Safety by means of the My S60 menu on the LCD screen. But was that really fortunate? Turning off such a high-profile feature is like buying an expensive dessert and not eating it. Actually, it's more like buying the latest in airbag technology and disabling it.
S60 in the Market
The S60 is surprising in good ways and bad ways: Its driving performance isn't what you'd expect from a Volvo, and that's good. Its degree of computerization and the effect of some of its safety features are also not what you'd expect from this brand, and I think that's bad. In the S60, the controls' ergonomic shortfalls, inexplicable operational quirks and a map with practically no street names don't inspire confidence or do much to alleviate driver distraction. While I appreciate Volvo's need to stay competitive in the market with hands-free telephony, voice activation, a multisystem controller and enough gee-whiz safety technology to put a Cold-War-era attack helicopter to shame, these features don't seem to be executed with the company's usual eye toward safety — or even the average brand's. Ironically, it was a safety feature itself that gave me a fight-or-flight reaction.
I suppose if I'd driven an S60 without the Technology Package or navigation system, and with the City Safety and Pedestrian Detection features turned off, I'd have a better overall impression, driven by this Volvo's unprecedented performance. Unfortunately, buyers do want these features, and the majority are more attuned to how they work than they are to things like roadholding and steering feedback. This might give shoppers pause.
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