Editor's note: This review was written in May 2013 about the 2013 Volvo S60. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Volvo used to be known as the safe luxury brand, but with models like the S60, it's making a name for itself as the practical luxury brand — and the automaker should wave that banner proudly.
The S60 plays in a class with the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and in a rigorous comparison test we conducted recently (check out the $46,000 Sport Sedan Challenge here), Volvo finished in second place out of six, behind only the 328i. That S60, which was a T5, featured the base turbocharged five-cylinder engine that I reviewed earlier. We follow up that test with this evaluation of the up-level T6 R-Design trim level, which packs a more powerful turbocharged six-cylinder.
This is one of those circumstances where less is more; the unassuming T5 version of the 2013 Volvo S60 delivers just what you need while the T6 is truly too much of a good thing.
The T5 and T6 aren't exactly night and day in terms of overall performance. In the T5, you get plenty of power from the turbocharged five-cylinder's 250 horses. It was second to the BMW 328i in acceleration — especially in real-world driving scenarios — but the turbo is refined and delivers power smoothly.
There is also a 300-horsepower, turbocharged six-cylinder available for standard T6 models, as well as a 325-hp version for the T6 R-Design I tested. Both versions of the T6 are available only with all-wheel drive. The T5 comes with front- or optional all-wheel drive.
Move all the way up to that R-Design and the twitchy accelerator pedal will have you jumping from a stop with a blast and otherwise feeling uncivilized. It's fun to drive, of course, but it costs a hefty premium over the T5.
The T5 didn't deliver confidence on the track during our comparison test, and the T6 R-Design doesn't improve handling greatly. The T6 does have a much firmer ride, however, thanks to a sport-tuned suspension that also lowers the car more than a half-inch. The firmer ride turned off other editors, but I didn't find it bone-crushing by any means. It will likely be an acceptable tradeoff for shoppers looking for that extra oomph under foot.
Perhaps the reason some of our drivers objected to the T6 R-Design's ride was the fact that the tamer T5's comfortable ride stood out in our contest against the 328i M Sport, Mercedes C250 Sport, Audi A4 2.0T Quattro, Cadillac ATS 2.0T Performance and Acura TL 3.7. One editor said the T5 "rode marvelously." So if your idea of luxury means comfort rather than a sports-car feel, the R-Design version is not the way to go.
Braking was not a strength for the S60 during our tests, where the T5 came in second to last in 60 to zero mph runs. That was evident on the road, too. The brakes don't sap confidence, but they're clearly not on par with the 3 Series. The R-Design does get larger brakes for 2013, but I didn't find them to be aggressive enough to match the added power under the hood.
At this price, the S60's interior is right where it should be in terms of luxury amenities, including comfortable leather seats and upscale finishes, like the metal door handles and thick steering wheel. The black-on-black interior was standard fare for the T6, while the T5 in our Challenge had optional Beachwood leather seats that were a deep tan color. The contrast with the rest of the black interior was an elegant look that impressed not only me, but was also a wow factor for the two consumers we selected to help us evaluate the competitors.
The backseat was also surprisingly comfortable and had a bit more room than others in this segment.
While most editors found the S60 interior on par for the class, there are a few areas that need improving. The most glaring is the shifter. It features a clear plastic top that illuminates green at night for a dramatic effect. In the daytime, the result is less dramatic and more ugly.
The ergonomics were hit and miss. I liked the simplicity of the controls for climate, navigation and stereo functions, but many of the buttons and knobs were quite small. In an odd switch, the controls on the steering wheel were oversized when compared with most cars we test.
At 12 cubic feet, the S60's trunk is just behind the A4 and C-Class, at 12.4, and the 3 Series, at 13 cubic feet. In practical use, it gives up little to any of those.
Features & Pricing
The Volvo also excelled in our Challenge on the value front. You don't often think "value" when shopping this class, but the S60 we tested came with all-wheel drive and the T5 powertrain, along with a competitive suite of features, for thousands of dollars less than the competition.
Front-wheel-drive models start at $32,795 including an $895 destination charge. That beats the A4 and ATS by roughly $1,000 and the 328i and C250 by almost $5,000. You can compare the Volvo with the A4, 328i and C250 here. The S60 T5 that came in second in our comparison was $38,170 and featured all-wheel drive and an array of popular features.
Volvo has come a long way in terms of the operation of its multimedia system. A simple knob, located in the traditional spot for a car stereo's tuner knob, controls the 7-inch LCD screen. The outer ring cycles through selections, and one button inside the ring confirms choices and another backs you up if you make a mistake.
The S60 earned the highest — and newly created — designation of Top Safety Pick+ from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That means it earned the top score of Good in front, side, rear and roof-strength tests, as well as in a new small-overlap frontal crash test.
The S60 also earned a five-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The S60 has a number of standard and optional safety systems that go beyond what many cars in the class offer. Not all of these have met with raves from our editors.
City Safety is a standard feature on all S60s that uses sensors to tell you if you're approaching an obstacle or another car too quickly. It will actively pre-charge the brakes and apply them if it senses a collision is imminent. However, we've experienced the full force of the system activating when we pull into the parking garage outside our office. The single-bar gate has been enough to set off City Safety multiple times in every S60 we've tested since the feature came along.
Collision Warning with pedestrian detection is a separate feature that's optional. It uses radar and cameras instead of sensors to operate not only the adaptive cruise control, but also a braking system that can sense pedestrians walking in front of the car and apply the brakes automatically, much like City Safety.
See all the safety features listed on the Specifications page.
Volvo S60 in the Market
After enjoying the mass-market-friendly S60 T5, testing the T6 R-Design felt like over-indulgence. The S60 is an excellent all-around performer at an excellent price in the segment. It does so much right that, even though the R-Design doesn't make that many missteps, we wonder to whom it will really speak.
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