The last time I drove a Volvo, it was my sister’s unbreakable 242DL sedan that had about 2 million miles on it. The procedure for driving it on the interstate was to floor it at the top of the onramp and pray it was somewhat close to freeway speed by the time you had to merge with cars that could actually go faster than 60mph.
So after slipping into the leather-clad driver’s seat of the 2013 R-Design Volvo S60 T6, I eased the car out of the parking garage and guided it slowly through crowded city streets to a freeway onramp and waited for the light to go green, a small prayer on my lips and my foot poised to mash the accelerator to the floor.
Seemingly caught by surprise by my ham-footed driving tactic, the all-wheel-drive 325hp T6 hesitated for a split second and then shot forward with such ferocity I nearly let go of the steering wheel as I was pressed back into the seat. The turbocharged inline-six and AWD system catapulted the candy-blue sedan to 60 mph not even halfway down the short onramp and I had to immediately ease off the gas lest I join traffic at a triple-digit pace.
My memory of the slug-slow 242 now expunged and replaced by the short terror ride in the T6, I recalibrated by right foot and began a week-long dance with the all-capable Volvo, which never failed to entertain on a number of levels.
A hidden tech heavyweight
The T6 came loaded with tech goodies, from its turbocharged engine, 6-speed automatic with manual shifting to it’s teched-out cabin and the myriad safety systems Volvo is known for.
The R-Design upgrade adds 18-inch alloy wheels, a sportier chassis setup, shiny dual exhaust pipes and some other additional farkles. The “Platinum” package adds navigation, an audio system upgrade and other niceties including heated windshield washer nozzles. How did we ever get along without them? All for a final price tag of just over $48,000.
Once in the driver’s seat, an initial test for me – an admitted tech guy (nerd/geek) – is how fast I can parse the electronics and get my phone synced up so I can make hands-free calls and listen to my favorite music. In the T6, it took about five minutes and I never had to reach for the manual. Steps to pair my phone were simple and included a confirmation. Non-techie drivers may need to consult the manual to get started, but I found the in-car menus and prompts easy to follow.
Once connected, voice prompts and confirmations guide you while making calls and changing other functions without taking your eyes off the road.
Audio controls for volume, sound settings and input sources live on the left of two large knobs placed below the LCD screen. Below them, a horseshoe of buttons surrounds what looks like a phone dial pad (and that’s what it is – and more) which initially threw me off a bit. Heat and AC controls sit below that, astride an icon of a lounging driver split in three segments. Want air towards your head? Push the head. Goofy, but in that IKEA goofy-but-practical way. Once you try it, you can pretty much adjust airflow and temperatures without looking.
Corresponding controls to operate most all the tech features are on the steering wheel and stalks and after a short time driving, I could operate most of the features in the car by voice or with the buttons laid out on the tiller. However, I seemed to hit the voice control activation button fairly often when turning the wheel more than half a turn, which would kill the stereo for a short time. Saying “go faster” at that point did not result in any increase in speed, however.
The T6 has a large central LCD screen – and surprisingly it’s not a touchscreen. It could be argued that omitting a touchscreen is out of date or “low tech,” but I felt I could operate the electronics in the Volvo much faster and with less distraction than having to navigate multiple touchscreen menus. Another nice minimalist feature was that the majority of the screen goes completely blank when you turn the audio system off, further limiting in-car distraction during spirited outings. When it’s on, it shows basic information about your music choice. There is also a disc player and playback includes CD and MP3 tracks – but not DVDs. An AUX input and USB connector can be found in the center cubby.
Two other small displays are nestled inside the analog tach and speedometer while dark panels around the gauges hide standard idiot and warning lights. The small displays show the usual basic data such as gas, miles, tripmeter and a revolving selection of small data points that are selectable using a wheel in the turn signal stalk. But Volvo wisely includes a setting that shows almost nothing besides the time and gas in the tank. At night, with the dimmer set to low and screens turned off, the car’s electronic cockpit was unobtrusive yet still highly functional. Many carmakers could learn from this less-is-safer approach.
The dial pad in the center of the console came in handy and yes, you can dial your phone 1980s-style once the Bluetooth is linked, but using voice dialing was easier, safer and typically glitch-free.
Even better, each number key on the dial pad is a radio station preset. YES! In another car we recently had for review, I had to open the manual to read about how to set a station preset, which took about 5 steps per preset. Really? If you like a station, then pushing and holding a button is still the best way to lock it in. Thanks to Volvo for keeping it simple.
As to be expected, the T6 has a nearly invisible cloak of safety features including the usual suspects: ABS, adaptive cruise control, stability control, rearview camera, numerous airbags and City Safety, Volvo’s pedestrian collision avoidance system that will actually “hard-brake” the car if it senses you’re about to mow someone down (at less than 10mph). We certainly called upon the ABS and stability control during our test drive but the other systems stayed in the wings.
Looking at the car as a complete system, it was great to see most of the technology worked nearly hands-free and with a fair amount of transparency, letting the driver focus on the car’s driving dynamics during spirited romps but also swaddling passengers in comfort and great sound while using the vehicle in Daily Driver mode.
On the road, again
Around town, the Volvo is pretty much what you’d expect: capable family hauler, accomplished grocery getter, friend to pedestrians and mother nature. But when daddy duties were done, I found any excuse possible to switch the transmission to Sport Mode and get the T6 back out on a twisty road. Honey, it’s for work…
Popping the transmission into Sport Mode immediately makes the car downshift and puts the engine in it’s happy zone, where the prodigious torque, horsepower and turbo assist converge. Driven hard on any one of the many twisting test roads on the outskirts of town, the all-wheel-drive system works brilliantly and features torque vectoring that moves power around to counter understeer and aid drive out of corners.
The T6 tracked flat and true through brutal hairpins and S-sections, some of which had some gravel in the lanes, further complicating matters of traction, but grip was never a problem and the car always felt planted and confidence-inspiring. I could find no fault with the T6’s AWD system, even when driven with vigor in the rain. The 354 pounds of torque from the turbo six had no trouble shooting the T6 forward at fun-filled velocities and everyone I gave a ride to said essentially the same thing: “I had no idea Volvo made a car this fast.”
But there were a few things that distracted from the fun: a touchy throttle, slightly delayed engine response and what the hell, Volvo, where are the paddle shifters on this car? I suppose I’m a bit of an old-school purist when it comes to sporting carriages, but one modern development I’ve come to appreciate is paddle shifters. And if there was ever a car that needed it but didn’t have them, it’s this one. Changing gears “manually” on the T6 requires rowing the shift lever up or down, which is pretty standard stuff – for the 1990s.
During aggressive driving, smooth application of the throttle is required. Simply crushing the accelerator certainly makes the car go fast, but it seemed like it needed just a moment to gather its thoughts before abruptly rocketing forward. Call it turbo lag or what have you, the interval was just enough for me to lift my foot as I thought “now what the heck has gone wrong…”, which then caught the Volvo in mid-launch. The result was a bit of a stutter-start to some of the shenanigans, from which the T6 always recovered nicely, but it took some getting used to and modification of my admittedly finesse-free pedal-to-the-metal WFO acceleration technique.
Applying the throttle with some progression and smoothness is rewarded with predictable, linear thrust and the most fun seemed to happen above 3,000 rpm.
As the Volvo clawed for traction around tight curves, two hands on the wheel seemed like the best way to keep the T6 in between the narrow lane markers. Dropping one hand to hit the shift lever seemed like a good way send the car into ditch, a row of hedges or into the oncoming traffic lane, so after several attempts to shift it like a true manual went badly, I just gave up and left it in Sport Mode and let the system pick the shift points.
That wasn’t such a bad idea as Sport Mode lets the engine rev nearly to redline before shifting, but I missed being able to downshift and use engine braking during corner approaches rather than relying on the T6’s admittedly powerful brakes. Perhaps on a less-technical road or a race track, where you can plan your shifts a bit earlier, the shift knob approach works better. But I doubt this sedan is ever going to see much track time. Paddles, please.
Fit and finish
The build quality of the Volvo was impeccable. The car felt buttoned-down and extremely well thought out. The interior of our test car featured heated black leather seats with three presets for drivers. The driver’s gauges feature a perfect mix of analog speedometer and tachometer along with the aforementioned electronic displays that were truly useful and free of gimmickry. The trunk was roomy and features a pass-through for skis.
The 8-speaker “Volvo Premium Sound System” featured a solid, rearview mirror-rattling bass punch for music that needed it and passed my torture test (Muse, Mozart, Massive Attack, Macy Gray). I’d say it sounded as good as many “branded” systems and was simple to use as well, even when using Bluetooth from my iPhone 5.
The car abounds with smart touches: the rear headrests flop down at the touch of a button to give a better rearward view (or to clock passengers who may be dozing off). Air vents in the B-pillars let each rear seat rider control their comfort level. The keyless e-fob slots into a snug cubby hole below the Start/Stop Engine button (why doesn’t everyone do this?). And again, the control layout for the electronics was simple to learn and their operation was minimally distracting.
It’s a track star, not a prom queen
The true beauty of the T6 R-Design is under the skin, in the hot-rod engine, the faultless all-wheel-drive system, and the stout build quality. The cohesive and seemingly transparent nature of the technology package and safety systems – which is actually very complex – is testament to the engineers’ progress at Volvo.
On the outside, the T6 doesn’t swivel many heads. Our test car did, but that was mostly due to the color. It was very, very blue. I got asked why I stole Papa Smurf’s car more than once, and how I liked driving a big M&M. Ha ha. I think the car would look great in… any less-scorching color, even white. Or black. It’s not an ugly car by any stretch, with the rakish rear section and aggressive front grill, but no one ran up asking what it was, while a few people were generally surprised when I said it was a Volvo.
Otherwise, outside of the swank wheels and front LED accent lights, it was just another sport sedan – albeit a very blue one – making its way through rush hour traffic. Which is a shame because under the conservative lines lies a truly fun car, one that I found every excuse possible to go drive, and drive quickly if possible.
- Tech works with you, not against you
- True turbo power, big torque
- Impeccable AWD system
- Top-shelf build quality
- Great-sounding audio system
- Engine behavior takes some getting used to
- No paddle shifters!
- Fairly unremarkable styling
- Increased chance of getting speeding tickets
- Volvo plans to face the future without sacrificing its identity
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