Safety has been the hallmark of the Volvo brand for many years, not a bad quality for an automaker. But here and there little bouts of sporting madness have arisen in the Volvo lineup. Consider the Bertone-designed 262C, or the turbocharged 850 T5-R. It's as if Pelle Petterson, the designer of the P1800, sneaks into the plant occasionally to add his own model plans.
But he probably didn't have much to do with the 2012 Volvo S60 R-Design. Although the R-Design label is inherited from the 850 T5-R, it doesn't turn the S60 into anything particularly special. Oh, sure, there are a few performance mods, but the S60 R-Design won't go down in history as a sleeper Volvo, surprising everyone at track days as it blows the doors off M3s and C63 AMGs.
When we reviewed the 2011 Volvo S60, we found a well-mannered premium sedan that felt like a good competitor to the BMW 3 Series. It offered decent power, good driving characteristics, and a comfortably refined cabin, making it an enjoyable car in which to commute or make weekend runs into the mountains.
Engine programming gets an extra 25 hp out of this turbocharged 6-cylinder engine.
For the S60 R-Design, Volvo eked 25 more horsepower and 29 more pound-feet of torque out of the turbocharged 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine over the standard S60. That makes a total of 325 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque, the extra boost coming thanks to a reprogrammed engine control module.
And you certainly feel that power when you put the accelerator on the floor. The S60 R-Design takes off easily, then continues to build speed as the turbo winds up. At 60 mph, it feels like it will keep up the acceleration well past the point of Volvo's vaunted safety.
Volvo does not appear to have sacrificed any fuel economy for this extra power, as both the R-Design and the standard S60 with the turbocharged six-cylinder get 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway in EPA testing. Our average, with some long freeway trips, came out to 19.5 mpg.
Aero elements of the S60 R-Design, such as a front spoiler and rear diffuser, help keep the car planted at speed. That stability can be felt as it drives forward. Likewise, a lowered, more rigid suspension helps keep the tires in contact with the pavement.
But in the turns this car's shortcomings become apparent. The suspension may be screwed down tighter than on the standard S60, but it doesn't keep the car particularly flat. Volvo did not upgrade the brakes on the S60 R-Design, so stopping power is not improved. As the forces of inertia attempt to keep the car moving in a straight line, it doesn't feel any more capable than a typical premium sedan.
These 18-inch alloys, with turbine blade spokes, come as part of the R-Design trim.
But what really puts the kibosh on sport performance is the six-speed automatic transmission. Its sport mode only raises the engine speed slightly compared with the drive mode, and it will not aggressively downshift when you brake before a turn. Accelerating out of a turn, it lags in finding a lower gear, leading to a disappointing, low-power exit.
Even in manual mode, gear changes occur with the usual hesitation of a torque-converter-based automatic transmission. Fitting this car with a manual transmission might have saved it, but its automatic transmission consigns it to poseurville.
However, Volvo's torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system gives the S60 R-Design a slight edge. In slamming the car through turn after turn, we weren't impressed by the suspension, but we never lost traction. Over a gravel road, the all-wheel-drive system proved its mettle, digging in with front or rear wheels to keep the power useful.
But given that the all-wheel-drive system is the same as found on the standard S60, which also can be had with an adaptive suspension system, the S60 R-Design does not make a great case for itself.
Standard City Safety
Volvo safety does not disappear with the R-Design label. Like the standard S60, the R-Design model comes standard with City Safety, an innovative feature that uses a camera to look for stopped traffic and pedestrians in front of the car, automatically slamming on the brakes if the vehicle speed is under 20 mph. Other features such as blind-spot detection and adaptive cruise control are available.
The knob on the upper right handles a wide variety of infotainment tasks.
Rather than use a specially designed interface controller for the S60 R-Design's full cabin tech suite, Volvo makes do with two knobs and a keypad. Keeping the controls familiar, the left knob handles volume while the right does everything from radio tuning to navigation address entry to selecting music from an iPod. Volvo was quite clever in making this knob versatile.
The only strikes against it are that entering alphanumeric characters from an onscreen keyboard is tedious with the rotary dial, and it is easy to mix it up with the passenger-side temperature knob, as both are about the same size. The system seemed a little sluggish, too, not always responding rapidly to control inputs.
But voice command is a good substitute for the first problem, ably recognizing street and city names. It also works with the phone system, letting you place calls by contact name.
The maps on the non-touch LCD are well-defined, bright, and colorful. And we found route guidance was very aggressive about avoiding traffic problems, offering a detour when it detected trouble ahead. More impressive was its ability to give lane guidance even on city streets, recommending, for instance, a left lane when there was a left turn coming up.
The sound stage can't be optimized for all seats.
Volvo's Premium Sound option brought in 12 speakers and a 650-watt amp. The sound comes through as very clean and well-balanced, although Volvo offers a high degree of tuning capability. Along with the usual bass and treble controls, there is a five-band equalizer buried in the cabin tech interface that lets you tweak sound production very precisely.
The drawback to this system is that you can use its digital signal processing to focus audio on the driver, front passengers, or rear passengers, but there is no setting to focus on all seats.
Although a bit more powerful than the standard S60, the 2012 Volvo S60 R-Design offers few other sporting capabilities to justify the $4,500 premium over its humbler sibling. And the lack of the adaptive suspension option, which is available on the standard S60, potentially makes it worse in overall performance.
Despite not offering a real performance gain, the S60 R-Design embodies most of what makes the standard S60 an excellent car, such as an efficient and powerful engine and torque-vectoring all-wheel drive. The comfortable cabin houses solid and well-integrated electronics, with a very simple and clever interface.
|Model||2012 Volvo S60|
|Power train||Turbocharged 3-liter inline 6-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/26 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||23.8 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional DVD-based navigation with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with phonebook support|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||650-watt, 12-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, collision warning, low-speed collision prevention, lane-departure warning, drowsy driving warning, backup camera|
|Price as tested||$46,875|