An automaker becomes defined by its cars, and the longer those cars stay on the road, the harder it is for newer models to change that perception. When people think of Volvo, the boxy 240 wagon comes to mind, as many still trundle down the roads showing off body panels rusted by over 30 years of weather.
But, as the 2011 XC60 makes clear, somewhere along the way Volvo went from a maker of boxy, reliable vehicles to a purveyor of automotive elegance. Where the 240 enjoys popularity among the hipster set for its awkwardness, the XC60 is more the car for family ski weekends.
This five-passenger SUV goes up against the likes of the Lexus RX 350 and the BMW X3, requiring luxury trim materials, all-wheel drive, and technology. And as the premium SUV market is somewhat crowded, it helps to have a gimmick, something that makes a car stand out from the herd.
For the 2011 XC60, that gimmick is safety, a Volvo virtue from day 1. Not only does the XC60 achieve top ratings from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for collision protection, its driver assistance features show an almost obsessive focus on preventing collisions.
Standard on the XC60 is Volvo's City Safety system, which automatically hits the brakes to prevent low-speed collisions. During a test of the system, the car slowly rolled forward at under 20 mph, the top speed for the system. As the system's camera sensed an object up ahead and there was no driver intervention, the car sounded a warning tone, flashed red lights on the windshield, and then slammed on the brakes, bring the car to a complete halt. The system definitely works, but the speed limitation suggests it will mostly prevent bumper taps in stop-and-go traffic.
The XC60 sent to CNET came with an optional Technology package, adding a radar-based collision mitigation system with adaptive cruise control. This system shines a red warning light on the windshield when it thinks you are following the car ahead too closely, and goes into hyper-flashy warning mode if it senses an impending collision.
Adaptive cruise control lets you set the XC60's speed, and the car will slow its pace to match traffic ahead.
But Volvo programmed the system so that the red warning light remains on even when other traffic seems far, far ahead. Whether you leave ample room ahead, or call the car Roxanne and sing that it doesn't need to turn on the red light, nothing seems to keep that light from shining on the windshield. If it truly becomes annoying, you can push a button on the console to turn it off, but that also disables the collision mitigation system.
Other electronic safety systems include lane departure warning, which sounds a tone if you cross a lane line without signaling, and a blind-spot detection system. As part of its Multimedia package the XC60 can also be had with a rearview camera, which shows trajectory lines. Distortion in that camera view makes it hard to judge how close objects are to the sides of the car. And, strangely, the camera does not come on automatically when you put the car into reverse. Rather, you have to push the Cam button on the console.
The XC60's cabin trim gives it a premium feeling, helping to justify the price tag of CNET's test car, a model fitted with an upgraded turbocharged engine and Volvo's R-Design package, topping $50,000. In the middle of the dashboard sits the navigation screen, a newer unit for Volvo using maps stored on Flash memory.
The maps show good resolution, and offer both 2D and perspective views. Usefully, the speed limit for the current road displays in a top corner of the screen, and there's even an option to set a warning if you go over a specific speed in the car.
The car receives traffic data over FM radio, but it does not overlay flow or incident information on the maps. Rather, under route guidance it will offer to recalculate the route if it detects a traffic jam ahead.
Although it's not a touch screen, Volvo makes clever use of the buttons and knobs on the console for entering destinations. For example, when choosing a location on the map, you use keypad buttons to move the maps along eight axes.
Onscreen help for the voice command system explains which commands are available.
The voice command system also works well, although it doesn't offer control over the stereo, only navigation and the Bluetooth phone system. When entering destinations, we found voice command did an excellent job of recognizing street names and showed available commands on its screen. With the phone system, it recognized names from the phone book, although with a paired iPhone it required last name first.
Volvo's unbranded premium audio system in the XC60, with 650 watts and 12 speakers, offers excellent detail and full bass. It gave light percussion instruments a naturalistic quality and broadcast multilayered music well. It includes surround-sound processing and you can adjust the center channel volume, but music sounded better with surround sound disabled.
The stereo incorporates a full array of modern, digital sources, including a USB port for connecting an iPod cable or USB drive. It also has Bluetooth audio streaming, but there is no onboard music library.
The standard engine for the XC60 is a 3.2-liter inline six, but CNET's car came with the more powerful turbocharged 3-liter six-cylinder as part of the XC60's T6 trim. Think 240 versus 300 horsepower. The turbo is also a torquey engine, ringing in at 325 foot pounds. It works out to a more than adequate amount of power for the XC60, which makes hill climbs and freeway merges comfortably.
But stomping on the gas yields a slow reaction, as the six-speed automatic takes its time downshifting and the turbo spools up. The six-speed has a manual shift mode, which is primarily useful for engine braking on a grade. It doesn't shift fast enough for cornering.
The turbocharged engine is a nice upgrade for the XC60, offering good power and fuel economy.
Not that you would attempt hard cornering in the XC60. A premium SUV, it is designed for road trips with the family and general around-town service. As such, it gives a comfortable ride and is an easy driver. The steering tuning is well-balanced, offering some engagement, without requiring weekly weight lifting to turn.
Volvo fits the XC60 with an all-wheel-drive system designed to help the car out in slippery conditions. Given the car's Scandinavian roots, you can trust that the all-wheel drive has had ample testing on snow and ice. This system doesn't offer locking differentials so doesn't qualify as an all-around off-roader.
One of the most impressive things about the XC60's power train is its fuel economy. Although rated at 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, CNET's car never dipped below 20 mpg, even with slow, heavy traffic thrown into its miles. Its final average came in at 22.1 mpg, actually above the EPA range.
The Volvo XC60 sent to CNET came with not only the upgraded turbo engine, but also Volvo's R-Design package. R-Design adds $3,000 to the price, bringing in special wheels and a tighter suspension, which seem extraneous to the XC60's purpose. Its steering tuning, engine, and transmission make it a very easy and comfortable driver, although the transmission does not make full use of the available power.
Volvo scores big on driver assistance systems in the XC60, helping to improve the car's safety. The navigation system is about average compared with the competition, and the car's only connected feature is traffic data. The stereo offers a modern set of sources, and the audio system won't disappoint audiophiles.
|Model||2011 Volvo XC60|
|Power train||Turbocharged 3-liter inline 6, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||22.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Flash-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||12 speaker, 650-watt system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, City Safety collision prevention, distance alert, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$50,100|