How Volvo Got Its Groove Back

2011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S60 – Click above for high-res image gallery

During the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show keynote, Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby discussed his plans to shift the Swedish automaker away from the rest of the premium segment. This doesn't mean that the quality of materials or craftsmanship is going to suffer, but instead of creating products that are specifically engineered to compete with the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, Volvo will be working to reaffirm its own unique Swedish brand identity.

The 2011 Volvo S60 points the way forward for the brand's new groundwork. The 'naughty' new sedan is stylish, luxurious and has the guts of a true sporting sedan, but it just doesn't come close to the sort of precision we find in an Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series. Fine, then, that the Volvo has plenty of other impressive qualities to give it a unique edge over the competition. Consider it a premium sport sedan for people who don't want the stereotypical premium sport sedan.

We recently welcomed a Blazing Copper S60 to the Autoblog Garage to see if Volvo's recipe for uniqueness has created a delicious dish of Swedish engineering.

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Related Gallery2011 Volvo S60: Review
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Photos copyright ©2011 Steven J. Ewing / AOL


Volvo's quest to create something unmistakably Swedish begins with the S60's exterior design. So many of the styling attributes found on the Volvo simply wouldn't work on a traditional German sedan – things like the seven-spoke turbine-inspired 18-inch wheels, chunky headlamp design with LED fangs (Volvo's new corporate face) and thin-topped eagle's head taillamps. Even that Blazing Copper paint color ("fluorescent brown," as a friend called it) would seem off on a BMW or Benz, and the end result is a luxury sedan that is sleek and stylish in its own unique way. And it's even better in motion. If this Volvo passes you on the highway, you certainly won't mistake it for anything hailing from Germany or Japan.

Similar things can be said about the S60's interior, where a general theme of Swedish simplicity takes the Volvo in a different direction than most European sedans. There's no funky all-seeing, all-knowing control system like Comand, MMI or iDrive on tap, just a single screen with a vertical row of buttons on the "waterfall" center stack. The gauge cluster is a breath of minimalist fresh air, too, with two small display screens for vital information housed within the large speedometer and tachometer. We certainly wouldn't ask for more pushbuttons or information clusters, and the less-is-more approach to the S60's design is refreshing.

2011 Volvo S60 side view2011 Volvo S60 front view2011 Volvo S60 rear view

As much as it makes us seem like hypocrites to praise the S60's interior layout and then immediately point out its shortcomings, the fact of the matter is that all of this work to minimize switches and knobs has made the car's technology somewhat difficult to use. Control settings for the audio and navigation functions take a moment to completely figure out, and while it's not nearly as complicated as the many layers of iDrive or Comand, the Volvo's interior design would lead you to believe that managing all of the tech functions would be a bit simpler. If we're honest, we'd almost prefer a few more buttons if easier-to-use infotainment was the end result.

The overriding factor, though, is that the S60's cabin is indeed a nice place to spend time, with supportive leather seats placed in an interior made of well-crafted materials. Every touchable surface feels exactly the way you want it to – there are no rough plastics or moments of, "well this could certainly be better." The refinement found in the Volvo is simply soothing without appearing or feeling over-the-top. There are no big surprises inside the S60, and the end result is a cockpit that's genuinely comfortable and pleasantly sedate.

2011 Volvo S60 interior2011 Volvo S60 gauges2011 Volvo S60 multimedia system2011 Volvo S60 intrument panel

A sedate interior may be well and fine for the S60, but we wish things were slightly more energetic under the hood. Our top-end T6 tester is powered by Volvo's 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six, producing 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, running to all four wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. No manual option is available, and while we appreciate the addition of up-and-down gear selectors on the transmission stalk, a set of paddles would be welcomed for when we feel like swapping the cogs ourselves.

First-time S60 drivers will be quick to note the car's power delivery isn't as aggressive as, say, a BMW 335i or Mercedes-Benz C350, but if we look at the Volvo's dynamics in a less sporting light, it's a lovely package. The S60 isn't extremely enthusiastic with its power delivery, mostly due to the fact that the six-speed autobox doesn't like to hold gears all the way up to the 6,500 rpm redline, and when shifts are fired off, the transmission's goal of smoothness means gears aren't changed as quickly as you might like, even when using the +/- option on the shiftgate.

2011 Volvo S60 engine

That sounds like a bad thing, but some people want a premium sport sedan to act less like a performance car and more like a proper luxury vehicle. In this regard, the Volvo is spot on with its more relaxed approache to performance, though don't get us wrong, there's still plenty of power and prowess to keep things interesting if pushed hard. Mid-range thrust is never lacking, with the highest amount of torque being delivered between 2,100 and 4,200 rpm, and off-the-line punch is perfectly adequate. Volvo claims that the S60 T6 AWD will sprint to 60 miles per hour in 5.8 seconds, meaning that if a snobby 3 Series driver pulls up at your side, the drag race will be pretty evenly matched. Stay easy on the throttle and you'll have no problem hitting the EPA-estimated 26 miles per gallon on the highway. In fact, during our week of mostly enthusiastic driving, we averaged 22.4 mpg on a pretty even city/highway mix, which isn't bad for a 3,900-pound vehicle with all-wheel drive.

Volvo's splendid Haldex all-wheel-drive system keeps the car steady and stable through turns, even when you're carrying a good dose of speed upon entry. And even though there's a hefty front-end bias to the Haldex system, there's neither noticeable understeer nor nose-heavy characteristics when dancing through the bends. Our test car's 235/40-series Continental all-season rubber offered plenty of grip when needed, and while the S60 isn't the best-handling sedan we've ever tested – an xDrive 3 Series will certainly teach the S60 a lesson in handling – we enjoyed the Volvo's dynamics. It's easy to drive smoothly, but still offers a dollop of fun when provoked.

2011 Volvo S60 rear 3/4 view2011 Volvo S60 headlight2011 Volvo S60 wheel2011 Volvo S60 taillight

So, why buy an S60?

Let's be honest – premium sport sedan buyers who want the best option for driver engagement will always buy a BMW 335i or Audi A4. Volvo knows this, and that's this approach to create something unique with the S60 really works. Instead of trying to be a Bimmer-beater, Volvo crafted an emminently handsome, luxurious sedan that offers plenty of driving enjoyment for the vast majority of sedan shoppers. People expect you to buy a 3 Series in this segment, but the Volvo's more unique packaging works well for an automaker that's trying to reinforce its one-of-a-kind image.

The price of entry for the S60 T6 AWD is $38,575, including $875 for destination and delivery, and with nearly all the optional trimmings, our test car rang in at a dear $47,675. That's about what you'd pay for a similarly equipped 335i xDrive, and while the BMW is certainly the driver's choice (in case we haven't made that clear enough already), we actually prefer the S60's interior refinement and unique style. If there are enough people in this world willing to sacrifice a bit of behind-the-wheel enthusiasm for a piece of slightly tangier pie (and we think there are), Volvo's objective of creating something special with the S60 will be a recipe for success.


Related Gallery2011 Volvo S60: Review
2011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S602011 Volvo S60

Photos copyright ©2011 Steven J. Ewing / AOL