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Luxury carmakers focus intently on small sport sedans not only because they're the biggest sellers in their stable, but also because they often serve as an introduction to the brand for shoppers moving up the luxury-car ladder. Volvo has made recent gains with its SUVs, namely the XC60, while its sedan sales had floundered.
The 2013 Volvo S60 sedan is an understandable top seller for Volvo thanks to stylish looks, a contemporary interior and a price that takes some of the sting out of its monthly payment.
For 2013, Volvo has added optional all-wheel drive to the base T5 model, which is what I tested for this review. The all-wheel-drive T5 delivered on value and style, with a driving experience that had both highs and lows.
For automobiles, "Swedish style" used to be an oxymoron. Volvos were boxy and Saabs only stopped looking bland right before the company went bankrupt.
The S60 is stylish in the same way an Ikea kitchen is stylish. With some intriguing curves around the headlights and aggressive angles around the "r"-shaped taillights, the car's aesthetic is unlike anything from German brands like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. For the sizable contingent of people who view owning a German luxury car as a stigma they don't want to be associated with, the S60 could be an alluring alternative.
Brushed metal gauges and liberal use of metallic trim throughout the cabin add an expensive feel.
The dark tan leather seats in my test car were supple and supportive, and they looked great. Interior room is comparable to the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4.
Interior materials are nearly at BMW levels in most respects. The padding around the doors and dashboard is a bit behind the German sedans, but touch points like the center controls, the steering wheel and the armrests are right on par with the A4, 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
The S60 has a turbocharged five-cylinder engine — yes, five — putting out 250 horsepower.
That's 10 hp more than the new turbocharged four-cylinder in the BMW 328i, but the BMW weighs less and gets 10 percent better gas mileage. And in real-world driving, this S60 was really thirsty — I got roughly 20 mpg in mixed driving. It's rated 20/29/23 mpg city/highway/combined. The front-wheel-drive model is not much better, at 21/30/24 mpg.
Acceleration is sluggish, mainly due to the six-speed automatic transmission that drew harsh criticism from nearly every editor who drove it. Taking off from a stop and even at low speeds were where I most noticed problems. At higher speeds, the transmission still has issues kicking down to pass.
While the cabin was really quiet, the T5 engine itself makes a horrible gurgling sound under even light acceleration.
There's a more powerful, turbocharged six-cylinder model called the T6. It comes only with all-wheel drive and costs $41,345 (all prices include destination charges).
I was also surprised at how heavy the Volvo's steering is. While the new 328 has lighter steering than you'd expect from BMW — to appeal to a broader group of shoppers — Volvo has gone the other way. It's heavy for seemingly no reason at all. Handling is good, but even with all-wheel drive it doesn't carve corners exceptionally well. And at slow speeds the large steering wheel takes a fair amount of effort to turn, which will irk anyone navigating parking lots.
Luckily, the ride is relatively smooth; one editor praised its comfort level versus the rest of the segment. I found the ride to be smooth in daily driving except over the sharpest bumps, where I got a pronounced jolt. Otherwise, this attribute may smooth over the rest of the issues for shoppers more concerned with style and value.
Interior & Cargo
The S60's interior dimensions are so similar to the new 3 Series it's a bit eerie. The headroom and legroom differences are often less than an inch. As in the 3 Series, I found the S60 to be roomy for my family, with both child-safety seats and adult passengers having plenty of space in the rear seats.
Rear passengers also appreciated the air vents placed high in the door pillar instead of behind the front armrest, as they are in most cars.
I found myself unusually impressed with the tiered cupholders in front that perfectly gripped soda cans, skinny water bottles and Starbucks coffee — grande or venti. Normally, a cupholder is a cupholder, but these are well done.
While the S60's interior room is on par with the 3 Series, the 12.0-cubic-foot trunk is far behind the BMW's 17 cubic feet. The Audi A4's trunk is 12.4 cubic feet. Compare the three models here.
Features & Pricing
The S60 T5 without all-wheel drive starts at $32,645. It's relatively well equipped for this class, with standard Bluetooth for phone and audio, a USB port, a 5-inch display screen and Volvo's T-Tec upholstery, which feels a bit like a wetsuit.
It's a similar suite of equipment to the 328i, but that car starts at $37,395. To get a 3 Series equipped similarly to my test model, the gap in price was almost $6,000.
There's a list of a la carte options, as well as a number of option packages starting at $2,100 that add features like leather seats and a moonroof. Compare the trim levels here.
The S60 earned top scores in crash tests from both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, garnering Top Safety Pick and overall five-star awards, respectively, as did the new BMW 3 Series.
Surprisingly for Volvo, there isn't a bevy of standard safety features on the S60 to set it apart. A backup camera isn't standard, and non-luxury brands like Honda have that across the lineup. Mazda is putting safety features like blind spot monitoring into some of its vehicles, yet it remains an option on the S60.
Our test car was equipped with a $2,100 Technology Package, which for Volvo means a suite of safety features including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and something the company calls Collision Warning & Pedestrian Detection With Full Auto Brake. That "full auto brake" part drove our editors crazy every time we pulled into our parking garage. The closed gate set off the system and slammed us to a stop well before our pass signaled the gate to raise. Otherwise, the system proved unobtrusive, if not forgettable. But that one jarring moment always made getting to work feel like I'd almost missed a fatal accident.
See the S60's standard safety features here.
S60 in the Market
The S60 isn't a performance machine, at least not with its base T5 engine, but it delivers value in an extremely stylish and comfortable wrapper.
Car shoppers will definitely be swayed by the attractive pricing versus the competition, but in the end I think the S60 will wind up in the driveways of people who mostly don't want to buy a German sports sedan, or be seen in one.
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