Volvo S60 - more rewarding by degree

With the launch of the new Volvo S60, the Swedish manufacturer clearly has two messages it wants to get across to potential buyers. Well known for safety, they want to tell the world that they now produce stylish cars. They also want to persuade us that the S60 is a real driver’s car.

On the first point I was not in any real doubt. For some time now, Volvos have featured more organic shapes and curvy lines, while remaining unmistakably Volvo. With the new S60, Volvo are very keen to point out the currently fashionable coupé style roof line. It certainly does look sleek, but I’m not sure I would go quite as far as Volvo design director Peter Horbury who said: “You are almost surprised to see that it has rear doors”.

Volvo S60

Volvo say they have complemented the more stylish exterior by putting in a huge effort to the interior. It, too, looks good and I would also not dispute Volvo’s claim of best-ever build quality, even on these early cars. I can even see (once the idea was planted in my head) that it projects Swedish style. IKEA anyone?

However, given the apparent effort in designing this car, it is disappointing to find what I see as a significant ergonomic flaw. I’m never a fan of electronic parking brakes, especially not with manual transmissions. They are bad enough at a finger-tip reach, but, to mount the switch on the lower recesses of the dashboard seems just plain silly.

Volvo has also followed the herd by ditching the time-honoured ‘one touch’ ignition key. The slot-in keys on the test cars were fitted with metal key fobs, which constantly rattled against the centre console surround. Memo to potential owners: fit a soft key fob! Returning to the positives, despite that swooping roof line, space in the back is greater than before. So the new S60 is a genuine four, or five, seater.

Volvo S60 interior

Volvo has gone out of their way to project the impression that the Volvo S60 is a real driver’s car with a sporting pedigree. At the launch there were plentiful name-droppings of former British Touring Car Champion John Cleland as having had a hand in fine tuning the handling. This was complemented by regular mentions that much of the chassis development was carried out on British B-roads.

In a show of confidence, Volvo’s test route took us across some pretty unforgiving Aberdeenshire roads around Donside and Deeside, including the infamous Cockbridge to Tomintoul road known for its starring role on winter road reports.

The S60 certainly tackled the hill roads without drama. There is no doubt that the steering is sharper and transmits more feedback than at the launch of a previous S60. At that time Volvo had not long joined the Ford stable and I remember animated discussions continuing long into the evening about how Ford needed work its magic to tune the steering.

Is it a case of “job done” with the new S60? Sadly, I don’t think so.

While this is a more rewarding car to drive it is by a matter of degree. I found the steering, clutch and accelerator all felt rather dead, killing my hopes of sharp responses and rewarding feedback. Indeed, on a gentle hill start, I managed to stall the engine thanks to the rather wooden responses of the pedals, perhaps exacerbated by that difficult-to-reach parking brake.

Volvo S60

Don’t get the impression that the Volvo S60 doesn’t have good performance. The test cars I drove were all diesels, yet the two-litre, five-cylinder S60 D3, in which I spent the most time, takes just 8.7 seconds to accelerate from 0-60 mph. The D5, with its bigger 2.4-litre, five cylinder diesel is even quicker at 7.4 seconds. The automatic (or Geartronic in Volvo parlance) D5, is quite notably more lively in its sports settings.

At the end of the most testing section of the route over the mountain roads, I got out of the driver’s seat feeling a sense of disappointment that the expectations of a more sporting, responsive style had not been delivered. Had Volvo not made such a song and dance about the new car’s more sporty style, I might have been more willing to accept that this was simply a comfortable, quiet and undramatic way to eat up the miles.

Joining the D3 and D5 diesels at launch, is the performance flagship ow the range – the four-wheel-drive Volvo S60 T6. Next year, the line-up will expand to include the 115 PS diesel DRIVe model (which has achieved a preliminary figure of 65.7 mpg on EU combined cycle), plus three petrol engines – 240 PS T5, 180 PS T4 and 150 PS T3. It seems incredible, but having checked several times, the D3 and D5, apparently, return identical combined mpg figures of 53.3 mpg and also level peg on CO2 emissions of 139 g/km.

The technology headlines for the S60 focus, not surprisingly, on safety. The big news is the pedestrian detection system that comes as part of the optional £1,250 Driver Support Pack. It uses a digital camera mounted in a box in front of the rear-view mirror along with the radar system mounted in the front grille. If they sense a pedestrian moving into the path of the car, and the driver fails to respond to warnings, the car will brake itself.

Volvo pedestrian detection system

The £1250 Driver Support Pack includes the pedestrian detection system

Volvo set up a demonstration of this at the tiny circuit behind the Grampian Transport Museum at Alford. Two dummies were propped up on the circuit to act as targets. It was difficult to conquer an involuntary lift on the throttle pedal, or dab on the brakes (both of which suggest to the car’s computing systems that you have spotted the pedestrian and are reacting).

But, on the second attempt, I managed to keep my eyes off the road and my foot on the pedal at a steady 22 mph. As we approached the hapless dummy, the car recognised it as a human shape and automatically braked to a stop.

In addition the City Safety technology (standard on all models on sale in the UK) is designed to avoid or at least reduce the impact in traffic collisions at speeds up to 19 mph. Additionally the S60 has Driver Alert Control (DAC) to alert drivers who have become tired or distracted.

Although I had my wits about me, the system was triggered once when it detected an Armco barrier on a tight bend in Dufftown. I can tell you, this driver was well and truly alerted!

The new Volvo S60 range starts at £23,2950, with the test Volvo D3 SE Premium coming in at £27,295. The D5 SE Lux Premium costs £31,045.
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