A decade in the automotive industry is like the passing of the Mesozoic era; a lot changes. In 2001, Hyundais were questionable and Toyota was infallible. Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Plymouth existed. Scion did not. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that it's been 10 years since Volvo pulled an all-new S60 out of the oven.
With the exception of an ornery transmission and navigation system, the 2011 S60 was worth the wait.
Volvos have always been long on safety and (with a few exceptions) short on sporty. The company knew that if it was intent on positioning the S60 as competitive against the segment's leading performers like the Audi A4 and BMW 3 series, engineers were going to have to channel their inner Emeril Lagasse and "kick it up a notch."
To wit, the engine in the S60 T6 all-wheel drive I tested (base price is $38,550) was a three-liter, turbo-charged six-cylinder gem that pumps out 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. The power comes on smooth, the turbo lag is minimal and Volvo estimates a zero-to-60 time of 5.8 seconds, which frankly seems conservative.
Power is routed to the standard AWD system through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode (but no paddle shifters.)
This transmission is clearly the weak link in the car's performance, especially when you push it. In full-automatic mode, the S60 avoids the red line like a frightened turtle and instead upshifts too eagerly. Thinking you're clever by kicking the transmission into manual mode only nets you slow shifts in either direction.
The rest of the S60's character is indeed sporty, though it doesn't quite have the dance moves to vault it to the top of the segment. There is minor body roll and understeer, but overall it's a very balanced, solid ride.
The sport mode affords the driver a bit more leeway in tossing the car around turns before engaging the stability and traction control.
The steering feel is excellent, and drivers can choose from three levels of power assistance, though this feature is ultimately superfluous as "normal" mode is the best choice.
Those who think the S60 T6 is too powerful or too expensive should consider the T5. A starting price of $32,300 gets buyers a front-wheel drive car with a 2.5-liter, five-cylinder turbocharged engine good for 250 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque.
The only thing better than the T6's engine is the car's interior.
Everything you touch has a satisfying feel to it that tells you the Swedish hands that put the cabin together are probably very good at massages too.
The leathers, plastics and metals are first rate and belie this Volvo's price tag. Same for fit and finish. The seats are comfortable and supportive.
The presentation of the S60's controls and instrument panel is simple and clean without being austere. Volvo fans will appreciate the familiar font in the jeweled speedometer and tachometer, which carry over the floating gauges from Volvo's XC60 sport utility vehicle.
Things get ugly, figuratively speaking, when you turn to the navigation system.
After some 500 miles in the car, I found myself more eager to assemble a particle-board dresser from Ikea — drunk and blindfolded — than I was to use the system.
Entering a simple destination or finding a point of interest is maddeningly slow and counter-intuitive. Other rote tasks such as adding a stop or changing your destination mid-route are equally infuriating. Using a navigation system's voice commands is usually foolproof, yet even this was an onerous task that required excessive repetition to get a desired result.
Any navigation system today should be able to master these fundamental tasks. How do you say "anger management" in Swedish?
The only other downside to the S60's interior is the snug rear legroom. If everyone in your travelling party is tall, prepare to fight for the front seats.
The rest of the S60 is more spacious than its seems, both inside and out. All other dimensions are about the same as an Audi A4 or BMW 3 series. The exterior casts forward the avant-garde look that saw its genesis in the original S60. The look is sophisticated and urbane, especially at the front of the car, where a futuristic collage of geometric shapes converge.
Protecting all this style (and occupants) is something Volvos have always excelled at, and this S60 continues that legacy. All S60s come standard with a host of airbags including side and side curtain, as well as traction and stability control, anti-lock brakes with brake assist and what Volvo calls City Safety.
This system works at speeds up to 18 mph and uses an infrared laser to monitor the car in front of you. If it senses that the leading car has slowed down or stopped and you have neglected to hit the brakes, the S60 will brake for you.
Optional safety systems come in the Technology Package and include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and a collision warning system that takes the City Safety one step further. It operates at any speed and first warns a driver with a flashing red light and alarm, and then brakes if the driver fails to do so.
Yet all of this technology doesn't come at the exorbitant cost you might see on other cars. The S60, in any trim line, is a bit of a bargain. The loaded 300-horsepower T6 AWD I tested came in at $46,200, and that includes the $2,100 technology system, a $2,700 multimedia package with a premium sound system, a moon roof and a backup camera. The same power and content in an Audi or BMW would cost thousands more.
If this new S60 is any indication, it was a productive decade for the people at Volvo. Shoppers would be wise to add it to their list. But if you buy one, be prepared to ask for directions.