Anyone interested in buying a compact executive sedan is spoiled for choice.
Just about every major automaker has one, and the cars aren’t just good; there is something special about each of them.
The BMW 3 Series remains the ultimate drivers car. The all-new Mercedes-Benz C-Class is beautiful inside and out, and has stunning tech to boot. Lexus’ IS offers one of the best ownership experiences money can buy. And the list goes on: Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, Acura, and even Lincoln – yes, Lincoln still exists; I checked – all offer excellent cars.
So why would anyone pass over these offerings to lay down as much as $50,000 for a Volvo S60?
The answer is simple: Not only is Volvo still the safest automaker out there, but the S60 is one of the finest examples of Scandinavian design I have ever seen … sorry IKEA’s Fnörd.
Best of all, thanks to an $11-billion investment, Volvo now boasts one of the finest powertrains in the business.
Form follows function
The S60 has been a handsome beast since the latest generation came along in 2010, but for 2015 Volvo has really outdone itself.
Other cars shout their performance pedigrees with massive grilles and spoilers. Volvo, on the other hand, has adopted a characteristically Scandinavian minimalism. After all, these are the people who have slowly been stealing all the knobs off of furniture.
Volvo is still the safest automaker out there.
The hood runs back from the simple new grille and menacing headlights in one smooth line. The only deviations are the slight bulges on the hood, which hint at the power that dwells beneath.
But, the car gets even better from there. The steeply raked windshield and long swooping rear end look like they could come off of a coupe.
With the R-Design suspension and the Platinum trim level, the car looks positively sexy. The slight lowering, combined with the awesome 19-inch diamond-cut wheels give the S60 a slightly sinister cast, particularly when you can see the big rectangular exhausts. Tastes may differ, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this is the best-looking car in the segment.
But all of those curves aren’t just there to look nice; they are also there to keep people safe, inside and out. In fact, that gently sloping hood is designed to protect any pedestrians who might walk in front of your car.
The S60 is tops in just about every safety category, but the Volvo obsession with getting drivers home in piece goes past this.
A Volvo engineer told me that Volvo responds to every traffic accident involving a Volvo within 30 miles of Stockholm. Engineers take this data and use it to evaluate crash worthiness in the real world. That’s why Volvos can ace crash tests that weren’t invented when the car was designed, and run into a pile of dinosaurs hopped up on bath salts without leaving a scratch on the driver’s body.
‘E’ is for excellent
All the looks and safety in the world don’t mean anything in this segment, if the car doesn’t have the performance to back it up.
Thankfully, Volvo has just invested $11 billion in its new Drive-E powertrains, and the T6 powerplant in the S60 is a doozey. All of the Drive-E engines will share the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder block. But what makes the T6, well, a T6 is a turbocharger … and a supercharger. The last time I heard of this combination it was on a P-51 Mustang.
Rarely will I rhapsodize about an engine, but this thing is just amazing.
The result of this massive barrage of forced induction is 302 silky smooth horsepower and its maximum torque of 295 pound-feet from 1,800 rpm all the way to 5,500 rpm. Thanks to the eight-speed automatic that sends power to the front wheels, the max torque is available all the time. That means 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds.
Rarely will I rhapsodize about an engine, but this thing is just amazing. With the transmission in sport mode, the S60 will take off effortlessly at a moment’s notice, leaving not just Audis and BMWs, but the howl of a supercharger behind.
The sensation is that of a much bigger displacement inline six-cylinder. Throw in the fact that the T6 only needs regular gas – and is good for a fuel economy of 24 city and 35 highway – and I can’t think of a better engine in the segment.
Has Volvo actually made a sports sedan?
Volvo has never really made a true sports sedan. I own one of its early attempts — an 850 Turbo — but the S60 with the R-Design suspension is knocking on the door of sports sedan greatness; the ride is surprisingly firm and communicative.
On the creatively paved roads of Portland, the S60 not only cornered flat and level, it also communicated the amount of grip through the wheel. This gave me the confidence to actually put the T6 engine to work.
Where things fall down a bit is at the edges. The steering is precise and direct, but with a very linear feel. By contrast, an Audi’s steering is light steering at low speeds and heavier as the speeds increase.
The S60 provides a similar amount of power assist at all speeds, giving a fairly light touch at highway speeds. Delving into the MyCar settings and dialing up the steering force helps matters, but drivers accustomed to German cars might be disconcerted.
Unlike most of its competitors, the S60 is FWD, and that means when pushed to the limit there is both torque-steer and understeer. It’s not terrible, and no one driving like a semi-reasonable person will even notice it. But, considering the brakes can’t hold up to long stretches of hard driving without overheating, I can’t quite call it a white-knuckle sports sedan.
I can say that it is a hoot to drive, but more in the way of a grand tourer.
The most relaxing car in the world
What the S60 lacks in white-knuckle performance driving it makes up for in elegance and comfort.
My first trip in the S60 came immediately after I had driven from Seattle to Portland in a Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid. Thanks to traffic and a lack of sleep, I was feeling pretty beat up. Slipping into the S60’s buttery leather seat was so instantly relaxing; it was like easing into a hot tub. These are seriously the best seats I have felt on a car that costs less than $90,000.
The controls follow this same function design aesthetic. Everything that isn’t on the Steering wheel or column is neatly arranged on the floating center stack. This set up not only ensures that the controls are easy to find, but also avoids the visual clutter common in the tech obsessed luxury segment.
The controls themselves are obvious and useful. No one riding in the back? At the touch of a button the rear headrests drop to provide an unobstructed view. Want to turn the rearview camera on without backing up, press the button that says “CAM”. Compared to what Mercedes or Audi has to offer, the Volvo might seem a little old fashioned. But the S60 has the virtue of being intuitive to operate and visually appealing to look at.
The only real problem in the interior is in the rear of the car. The rear legroom just isn’t that good. That is partly made up for by the remarkably deep seats, but adults above six feet tall won’t be happy for long journeys.
Is the S60 worth it?
If I owned an S60, I don’t think I would ever regret that choice. But I could say the same of a Mercedes C-Class or Cadillac ATS.
At the end of a day, nearly $50,000 for a fully loaded S60 is a lot to ask. And many people will ignore the S60 for that reason. But, for those who are brave enough to walk past the more obvious choices and take the S60 for a test drive, there is a lot in store.
The car’s subtle beauty and sublime interior – really, try those seats – should hold up well over time. And if I am any judge, the Drive-E T6 is an engine for the ages. These things more than make up for the warts. After all, how many people are really buying a car in this segment for its ragged-edge performance, rather than the everyday experience of owning it?
There is one other thing, too. Only one automaker – that I know of – has a club devoted to people whose lives have been saved by its cars … and that’s Volvo.
The S60 is a car that will take care of you body and soul.
- Powerful and efficient new Drive-E engine
- Responsive eight-speed transmission
- Excellent interior and exterior design
- World-class seats
- Industry-leading safety
- Small back seat
- Mediocre brakes
- Price tag that puts it on the same plane as BMW and Mercedes