Volvo has been having something of a renaissance in recent years. Gone are the boxy gymkhana specials, replaced by a range full of Swedish design influence and excellent ergonomics. But is the transformation complete? Can Volvo win any best-in-class rosettes in the company car park challenge, or will they be left pining for the fjords?
The S60 is Volvo’s best stab at the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-Class. That’s the aspirational executive heartland, and entry is generally governed by the badge on your conk. There’s no doubting the improvement made by Peter Horbury and others, but there’s still something very crash-test-dummy about the Volvo brand, and not quite enough Ikea. It’s down to the car itself, then.
At close range, there are lots of interesting features in the S60’s styling. There’s the prominent shoulder line that runs the length of the car, dictating the shape of the rear light clusters. The trademark protruding snout with Volvo diagonal and egg-crate grille (replaced with a new-style mesh as part of a recent face-lift). There’s a definite concave shape to the doors, too.
Taken individually, these styling devices are clever and interesting. Yet it all becomes very familiar when they’re combined into one shape. It’s instantly recognisable as a Volvo, even after the merest of glances, but it doesn’t serve to quicken the pulse. In fact, it’s a little forgettable. Let’s hope the driving experience is more memorable.
We’ve chosen the D5 SE, the pick of the bunch in our opinion. Volvo’s five-cylinder diesel engine is a winner and while the hot T5 versions are fun for five minutes, frankly, the power overwhelms the chassis and, as we’ll see later, just doesn’t suit the car.
The D5 thumps out 163bhp, with the five-cylinder layout providing a very un-diesel-like growl that makes a welcome change from the usual taxi clatter. Better, though, is the low-down torque – 250lb/ft delivered between 1,750 and 3,000rpm – that lends the S60 a relaxed gait. Pushing the engine towards the red zone doesn’t yield any greater return, and serves only to reinforce its preference for slower-spinning work. It’s an attitude that suits the automatic gearbox of our test car perfectly.
The S60 has a decent spec as standard, featuring central locking, ABS, air conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, cruise control, etc, but we added the SE package to include an electric driver’s seat, 17″ alloy wheels, CD player and Volvo’s Information Centre. There’s still a bewildering array of options available, and things can quickly become expensive if you stray too far from the suggested packages.
High-mileage reps will be able to sell their wares from Guildford to Glasgow without inducing back pain or a bout of DVT. The Swedes still make some of the best automotive seats in the business, each benefiting from such a healthy degree of adjustment in most directions that even the tallest and shortest of drivers won’t fail to find a comfortable position. Some might still prefer the seat base to lower a little more, though; no doubt this is a restriction forced by the electric seat motors.
The dashboard is clearly laid out. The central console is angled towards the driver, and the controls themselves look like something from Legoland. Every function is immediately obvious, conveniently placed (with the possible exception of a couple of minor controls that are hard to get to with the transmission in Park) and there are even some aspects that are a delight to use: the optional satellite navigation rises slowly from the top of the dashboard in a movement that’s fascinating to watch, and the climate controls, based on an illustration of the human form, are a masterstroke of simplicity and clarity.
There’s sensible and logical usage of steering wheel-mounted controls (Mercedes could learn a thing or two, here) with buttons for volume, track/station change, telephone and cruise control. The stereo, incidentally, is superb even without the optional Dolby upgrades. The plastics look a little dull, though, especially in the OAP grey of our test car, but there’s a feeling of quality and thickness of materials.
Out on the road, the S60 reveals its nature in greater colour. The suspension quietly does its job, and works well to isolate the cabin from the bumping and jarring going on beneath (unless you opt for the sports suspension). It’s a little stodgy, with sensations muted seemingly for your own benefit. The steering, while quite capable of placing the vehicle where you want, does little to confirm what the wheels are up to, and tyre-squealing understeer arrives quickly in an attempt to discourage you from getting too excited. The body doesn’t respond well to rapid changes of direction; piling into a tight corner and quickly winding on lock will have the suspension use its full reserves of travel sooner than you might have anticipated.
The S60 just wants to cruise. Lollop along on the D5’s torque reserves, smoothly piloting around corners in a graceful arc, and you’ll arrive at your destination soothed and relaxed. Charge around with gritted teeth and you’ll quickly become frustrated. There’s a sense the stereo ought to gently play Radio 4 as you climb aboard, to remind you of the car’s natural tempo.
The performance figures back this up. Overtaking manoeuvres are quick and worry-free, but the 0-60mph dash isn’t something the S60 enjoys and takes a shade under 10 seconds. Top speed, for the record, is 130mph.
It’s all very competent, but won’t stand for being rushed. The engine doesn’t need or want to rev. The gearbox changes smoothly but isn’t too keen to select a lower ratio unless you really mean it. The suspension works well within the parameters of its confidence. The steering aims the car well enough but tries not to bother you with the experience of feedback.
In truth, as a driving experience it’s all rather forgettable. As transport for a long trip you’d rather not be doing, it’s perfect. But as transport to enjoy a journey for the sake of it, it’s soulless.
It’s pricey, too. The S60 D5 starts at £20,893. Our test car came in at a wallet-wilting £27,743 once we’d added automatic transmission (£1,250), SE Pack (£2,200), satellite navigation (£2,200), ‘phone (£700) and metallic paint (£500).
Other costs aren’t the best, either. Residuals are softer than its rivals (that’ll be the badge again) at around 43% after three years, fuel economy is pegged at 37.2mpg on the combined cycle, and insurance is group 14.
It’s difficult to know where the S60 wants to be in the pecking order. Volvo seem to want it to compete with the Germans. Dynamically, it feels like a car for those that aren’t interested in driving, softening the experience and isolating you from it until it all goes away. And in this price bracket, most buyers will expect something sharper.
Overpriced and undertalented. If you’re not interested in driving and just want the journey to be over as quickly as possible, it’s the car for you. If you prefer a little more involvement for your money, you’d better look elsewhere.