Fans of the boxy Volvo wagons and sedans from the 1970s will look at the 2011 S60 and assume it is a new Lexus. When they notice the Volvo badge, said fans will shake their heads mournfully, the same way they did when Dylan went electric.
The new S60 represents the ongoing transformation of Volvo into a modern car company. And as such, it has also been through a couple of ownership changes, most recently ending up in the hands of Chinese automaker Geely. But the S60 was developed and built under the auspices of Ford, which largely let Volvo be Volvo.
The direction represented by the S60 should surprise fans of the earlier Volvo cars, as this vehicle is nothing short of a BMW 3-series competitor. Its turbocharged straight six delivers an abundance of power, its suspension gives the car nimble handling, and all-wheel drive increases grip. The main area where it falls short is the fact that it cannot be had with a manual transmission.
The S60 is a very good-looking car, with a strong beltline and curved roof. The designers sculpted out areas in the front to house the headlight casings and unique marker lights. The grille juts forward, almost aggressively.
And in futuristic fashion, a pod on the grille houses a radar antenna, and cameras sit in a larger case at the top of the windshield. These sensors give the S60 21st-century safety technologies, such as the ability to see pedestrians and slam on the brakes.
This array of cameras behind the rearview mirror watches for traffic and pedestrians.
The S60's Technology package brings in Volvo's City Safety feature, something we tested earlier in an XC60. City Safety looks for vehicles or people, and slams on the brakes if the driver doesn't touch the brake pedal. The main problem with this system is that it only works at speeds below 20 mph. During cruising on city streets, we typically had the car going between 25 and 35 mph, and could think of few instances where we would be creeping along under 20 mph.
For those faster speeds, the S60 still has collision warning. While driving in traffic, the S60 projects a red light on the windshield when it thinks you are following too closely. It comes on at a pretty conservative distance, so its red glow became quite familiar to us. If traffic stops ahead and there is no brake input, the S60 flashes the light and sounds a warning tone, a feature that should prove useful for perpetually distracted drivers.
This being a Volvo, there is yet more on the safety front. The Technology package includes adaptive cruise control, which lets the driver set a speed just like normal cruise control. When the car's radar senses slower traffic ahead, it matches speed, following at a distance set by the driver. The S60's adaptive cruise control will actually bring the car to full halt if traffic stops ahead, but it won't start moving forward again as the traffic picks up, leaving that up to the driver.
The S60 projects this red light on the windshield when it thinks you are following other cars too closely.
A couple of other safety features include headlights that turn into corners with the wheels and drowsiness prevention. This latter feature monitors driving behavior, and if it thinks the driver is falling asleep, will sound an alert. On a similar front is the lane-departure warning, which sounds a warning tone if the car crosses over lane lines without the driver hitting a turn signal.
The backup camera is also nicely done in the S60, with an overlay that shows distance and the trajectory of the car based on steering input. Oddly missing, and not even available as an option, is blind-spot detection, a technology Volvo developed a few years back under the name BLIS, or Blind Spot Information System.
Volvo also used the 2011 S60 to debut an entirely new cabin tech system, featuring a new integrated interface on the car's LCD. This new system looks good, with a high-resolution 7-inch screen in the dashboard and fixed buttons on the central stack for accessing navigation, phone, and audio. But the interface is a little sluggish, responding slower that we would like to inputs.
The nav system's maps show few street names.
The car's navigation system also remains DVD-based, strangely old map storage media for a completely new model. However, the navigation system never seemed to have a problem keeping up with the car, and route calculation happened quickly enough. In the driver's choice of 2D or 3D, these maps offer bright colors and clear resolution, but annoyingly only show a few street names. Volvo may have limited street name display as a safety measure, to keep drivers looking at the road, not the map.
The maps do show traffic flow and incidents, and route guidance warns about traffic jams, letting the driver request a detour. The rotary input for making alphanumeric inputs is a little tedious, although the car does a good job with predictive text. But the control knob for the whole system is a little problematic.
This knob sits on the right side of the stack, opposite the stereo volume knob. The dial action of the knob, and its two inset buttons labeled OK and Exit, control all infotainment inputs. The limited nature of this interface makes it less than intuitive, although quite a bit can be done with voice command, at least for the phone and navigation systems.
The four knobs control climate, volume, and the infotainment system.
One issue that cropped up is that, with the interface controller and the passenger side climate control knob the same size, it is easy to blindly reach over and turn up the heat instead of tuning in a radio station.
The S60 offers a very good Bluetooth phone system, with the keypad on the stack making numeric inputs quick and easy. It also copies over the contact list from a paired phone, making it available onscreen and through voice command.
Volvo's Multimedia package, which brings in navigation, also includes an upgraded audio system. This one uses 12 speakers and a five-channel 650-watt amp to produce finely detailed audio. Along with typical bass and treble controls, Volvo includes a five-band equalizer for more exact control over levels.
The sound quality from this premium option is stupendous, enhancing music considerably by bringing out detail at all frequencies. Some of that detail is because of Audyssey Laboratories MultEQ technology, a digital signal processor that is supposed to account for the shape of the car's cabin.
The audio system includes this five-band equalizer for serious fine tuning.
Helping audio quality for broadcast music is the S60's HD Radio tuner, which complements the car's satellite radio. A USB port in the console reads USB drives and can also be used for an iPod cable. The iPod music library interface is nice-looking and offers the usual categories, but getting to it can be a bit tedious.
From the navigation screen, you first have to hit the Media button on the stack, then turn the controller knob we mentioned earlier to highlight iPod, hit the OK button, then scroll through the music library categories, hit OK again, find an album, artist, or genre, hit OK, then hit OK yet again once the correct track is highlighted. Volvo's legendary safety engineers didn't seem to be on the job for the iPod interface.
Where, surprisingly, the S60 really shines is its driving character, offering nimble handling and plenty of power. Volvo equips the S60, in T6 AWD trim, with a turbocharged 3-liter straight six-cylinder engine making 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. Volvo's sense of subtlety keeps the exhaust from roaring, but the car charges easily forward, hitting 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to Volvo.
The S60's engine is very good, making a lot of horsepower out of 3 liters.
The car responds well to its gas pedal, with no obvious turbo lag. Acceleration is easy to modulate, whether driving at low speeds or bounding through corners with the tachometer pushing toward redline. It makes for confident passing and merging on the freeway.
Volvo calls the S60's standard suspension a "dynamic chassis," although that does not mean it uses an air or magnetic system to enhance stability. Volvo is referring to the electronic stability systems the car uses, such as traction control. But one unique feature is a corner-braking system, which brakes the inside wheel when going around a corner, causing the car to rotate a little.
On twisty mountain roads, the S60 felt very composed, staying flat in hard cornering and showing little sign of wheel slip, even on wet roads. Of course, its all-wheel drive contributes to road-holding ability. From behind the wheel, the car feels light and easy to maneuver. The front end responds well to wheel input, with little understeer.
The S60's engine gives it power equal to that of a BMW 335i, but the two cars show very different handling characters. Where the BMW allows a little tail sliding, the S60 sticks resolutely to the road. In that sense, it feels more like the Audi S4.
In more-typical driving, the S60 never quite loses its taut character. The suspension is rigid, never soft, which can lead to a bumpy ride over some surfaces.
Volvo also offers an active chassis system for the S60, although it was not present on our test car. This system uses sensors to monitor the ride, with a suspension that can react to the inputs, further enhancing stability. With this chassis option, drivers can select from Comfort, Sport, or Advance modes.
This six-speed automatic transmission is the only option, but its manual gate is not bad.
Suspension and engine both make for a dynamic driving experience, but the limitation of the S60's six-speed automatic transmission keeps it from being a more dedicated sports car. It is not a bad transmission, but in drive mode shifts are typically slow. It does not have a sport mode, but does allow manual gear selection. In this mode, shifts are a little snappier than with most automatics. Third gear proved to offer a wide enough power band for a lot of fast cornering.
Volvo's EPA numbers for the S60 are 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, not bad considering its horsepower. Over a week spent driving the S60 in city traffic, on freeways, and on mountain roads, we saw an average of 18.8 mpg. Breaking the 20 mpg mark would take some careful driving.
The new cabin tech in the 2011 Volvo S60 is, overall, an excellent addition. But there are good and bad points. For example, the navigation system suffers from a couple of issues. The audio quality from the premium stereo is a major plus to the car, as are the available music sources. And all of the driver assistance features are a big bonus.
The car also earns points for its performance tech. The cornering braking is intriguing technology, as is the available active suspension. The engine is very good, using a turbo to crank out satisfying power. Direct injection would make a nice addition to its tech. The S60 earns bonus points for its all-wheel-drive system.
Volvo also did a nice job designing the car, giving it a unique look with an aesthetic appeal that helps justify its premium status. But the cabin tech interface is more problematic, suffering from unintuitive controls.
|Model||2011 Volvo S60|
|Power train||Turbocharged 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/26 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||18.8 mpg|
|Navigation||DVD-based navigation system with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD player|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||12-speaker 650-watt system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, collision warning, pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, drowsy driving warning, backup camera|
|Price as tested||$46,200|