If you've been following these reviews for some time, you know Volvos have always gotten high marks, in some small measure for their understated, stealthy appearance. Oh, sure, they've evolved considerably from the giant shoebox look that made their wagons at once distinctive - and, to many, repellent - but they still reflect an inwardly-directed obsession with substance over style.

With its newest model, the S60 sedan, Volvo makes a cautious attempt at exterior design flair, hoping to lure a broader, younger following, to whom being noticed might be more important than being moved. Happily, far from sacrificing puissance to sizzle, they've made the mechanicals uniquely appealing, too.

The S60 replaces the 70-series sedan. It is based on a derivative of the platform that carries the 80-series sedan and the 70-series wagon. The S60 winds up being 5.7 inches shorter than the S70 overall, with a 2-inch trimmer wheelbase, and the wheels are set farther apart laterally, all of these elements making for crisper handling.

With the cheapest series starting at $26,550, the S60 is a viable alternative to more prosaic family sedans like Camry, Accord and Taurus. Even in no-options form, it has a good load of non-essentials - a fine stereo, pollen filter, multitudinous power assists, side air bags and so on.

There's next the middle ground of the 2.4T series, which starts at $30,475, but includes a 5-speed automatic transmission. Choose the "T5' series (base $31,800 with 5-speed manual transmission), and you're in the low-luxury arena, with formidable competitors like the Acura TL, BMW 3 Series, Lexus ES300 and Saab 9-5. And although the car in its most ascetic form still has a luxurious feel, there's an option list that can quickly push it to the $40K mark and beyond.

The car submitted for evaluation was a T5 Series, with an options load that pushed it to $38,000.

The selection of the T configuration elevates the S60 from sporty-sedan ranks to a true sports sedan, with a more potent engine and appropriately more robust suspension.

The base engine is an inline five, which produces 168 hp (@5,900 rpm) and 170 foot-pounds of torque (@4,500). In a 3,200-pound car, that would yield merely adequate performance, I'd judge.

The middle series, the 2.4T, as you may guess, slaps a turbocharger on that engine for an output of 197 hp (@6,000) and 210 foot-pounds of torque (at a very low 1,800 rpm). With that kind of low-end muscle, it can easily break the 8-second barrier in the 0-60 exercise, a good two seconds swifter than the easy breather.

If you espouse the "only go around once" philosophy, opt for the one tested, the T5. This comes with a smaller engine (still an inline five, with four valves per cylinder, variably timed), and a higher-capacity turbocharger. Net result is a kickin' 247 horses (@5,200 rpm) and 243 foot-pounds of torque at a respectably low 2,400. Sounds lik e a page from the book of that other Swedish manufacturer, which offers low-pressure and high-pressure turbos throughout its lines.

The most remarkable thing about the exterior styling is the treatment afforded the rear quarter . . . those stylistic bulges suggest an almost hatchback shape from the rear, a definite departure from the usual ennui-inducing squared-off sedan aspect.

The inside design is a study in no-nonsense, no-frills elegance, with high-quality materials - leather and brushed stainless accents instead of the more conventional wood - tastefully employed. The seats are supportive and comfortable, with a sufficiency of both headroom and legroom for a taller-than-median driver - more room, in fact, than the S70 provided for first class. One suggestion: Relocate the hand brake to the passenger side to give the driver more wiggle room.

The rear compartment suffers from the overall decrease in length, and, not unexpectedly for a compact sedan, re suited to pre-teens than adolescents or adults. The trunk is compact, too: 13.9 cubic feet.

The unusual five-cylinder engine is generally well-behaved, although if you're looking for it, you can pick up some vibration at idle, a consequence of uneven firing pulses. The cure is to stomp on it. The turbocharger quickly comes alive and, as the tachometer needle climbs toward the 6,000-rpm redline, the exhaust growl is at once more bestial and more throaty than one would expect from this displacement.

With the low torque peak that has been designed in, abetted by the variable valve timing, the engine is responsive enough down low to provide a brawny launch feel, even with the five-speed automatic transmission. You can perceive a little power blip as the 4,000-rpm barrier is broken, but on the whole, the power curve seems fairly linear right out to redline.

Porsche gets more licensing fees from this application of its fabulous Tiptronic shift mechanism (made in Japan, curiously). It was a faithful servant left to its own devices, and on those occasions when circumstances demanded, the manual mode was swift and easy to employ. It's especially handy for disengaging overdrive to achieve a modicum of engine braking -- merely moving the lever to the left accomplishes that.

The S60, a front-drive machine, comes with traction and stability control. In burnout tests from a standing stop I noticed a little squirming or torque steer, but it was well-controlled overall. On wet pavement it swiftly interposed its judgment of conditions when I asked more than the tire:road interface had to give.

Ride quality is best described as supple - well-controlled and reassuringly firm. The suspension is up to the task of reasonably sporty maneuvers, but shows some weakness when exerting over uneven surfaces. It's a strut-type affair up front and multilink in the rear.

The Bose stereo system - with a very expensive upgrade on the tester - was awesome. Clarity, sensitivity and presence were well-above average, although, with all those 13 speakers, I wished they had included a digital signal processor so I could play with ambience effects. Bose tunes its units to the specific vehicle, so only bass, midrange and treble tweaking is provided, instead of a multi-band equalizer.

The brakes are antilock-backed, of course, and produced impressively short stops with full control.

EPA estimates are 20 mpg city, 27 highway. I logged 22.6 on premium unleaded, making that turbo work for a living.

Two interesting fillips: The radiator has a PremAir coating which catalyzes airborne ozone into pure oxygen, and the fuel filler door is rigged to a timer which locks it a few minutes after it's closed.

The biggest rap I had was the optional moonroof. When opened at even modest speeds, it produced a most unpleasant thrumming vibration inside the car unless one or both front side windows were lower ed a bit. Others have solved this problem; Volvo should, too.

The government is to crash-test an S60 this month, so no results are available yet. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not tested one either, but it's worth noting that the S80 was rated a "best pick" in the midsize luxury category in terms of occupant protection.

The S60 has two-stage front air bags, as well as side and head-protective bags, to say nothing of the traditionally tank-like Volvo construction.

The sacrificial machine had leather-faced "sport cut" seats, $1,300; cold weather package, $450; power moonroof, $1,200; automatic trans, $1,200; 17-inch "Tethys" alloy wheels, $500; electrically folding rear headrests, $65, and "Audio Max" stereo upgrade, $1,200. Final price of the tester was $38,290, with freight.

"The Gannett News Service"