By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Safety’s not the sell it once was. Because everyone’s selling it. Multiple air bags, ABS, traction control — and much more. It’s common — and it’s a given. Almost everyone has pretty solid crash test scores, too.
So where does that leave Volvo — an automaker whose main selling point for decades was… safety?
Simple: Go sexy — and sporty. Like the new S60.
The minimum you get is 250 hp — and though Volvo’s not admitting it, you actually get more than that (more on this below). 325 hp is available, too. And it’s possible — Volvo has been teasing us for months now — that a Polestar version of the S60 with (hold onto yer helmet) 508 hp may be coming.
If you could time-travel back to 1979 — and show 2013 Volvos like this to the owners of 240 wagons, they’d stroke out.
Thank god for change we can believe in.
WHAT IT IS
The S60 is Volvo’s mid-sized sedan. It slots in between the compact, entry-level S40 and the top-of-the-line S80. Prices start at $31,900 for the T5 with 250 hp five-cylinder turbo engine and FWD. Things top out around $44,100 for a 325 hp, turbo’d, six-cylinder-powered T6 R-Design with all-wheel-drive.
These stats stand up strong against established leaders in this segment like the $36,500 to start — and four-cylinder-powered — BMW 3 Series sedan. Or the also four-cylinder-powered — and $35,350 to start — Mercedes C250.
Other competitors include the new Cadillac ATS and the Audi A4.
Volvo says the ’13 S60’s standard five-cylinder turbo engine makes the same power (250 hp) as last year. But it’s got a higher compression ratio and other improvements sufficient to knock almost half a second off the car’s zero to 60 time. Hilarious. Volvo under-reporting horsepower gains!
This year, AWD is also available with T5 models. Previously, buyers were required to step up to the more expensive T6 if they wanted AWD.
And if we’re really lucky, that Polestar head-kicker will become available sometime later in 2013. It won’t be cheap, but a 508 hp Volvo would be priceless.
Shock ’em and awe ’em with your quick — and fast — Volvo.
As “safe” as ever, in case you’re worried about that.
Best seats in the business.
FWD/AWD layout better in snow than RWD-based BMWs, Benzes and Caddys too.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No manual transmission available with either engine.
“Safety” systems bollix up the operation of radar detectors.
Front seat headrests are really tall — and can really limit visibility.
UNDER THE HOOD
T5s come standard with a small (2.5 liters) in-line five cylinder engine that produces a big horsepower number (250) as well as goodly torque 266 lbs.-ft at 1,800 RPM. It is paired with a six-speed automatic and either FWD or (optionally) AWD.
Volvo is being amusingly coy about the hp of the 2013 version of this engine — which it claims is the same as the hp of last year’s 2.5 liter engine. But this simply cannot be — because the 2013 S60 T5 is a half-second quicker to 60 (6.4 seconds for the FWD model) than the 2013 S60 T5.That doesn’t happen without horsepower. How much is hard to say — but probably at least 10 and possibly 20.
Volvo admits to a higher compression ratio (now 9.5:1 vs. 9.0:1 previously) and “reduction of internal friction.” The bottom line is the new car’s quicker — significantly quicker. Quick enough, in fact, to flat-out walk away from a Benz C250 “Sport” sedan, which crawls (for a $34,800 car) to 60 in 7.4 seconds — easily one full second slower than the just under $32k S60. The 2013 BMW 328i is still quicker (about six seconds flat to 60) but the race is much tighter now.
And the $36,500-to-start 3 Series makes you pay to play.
The new Caddy ATS is a comer in looks and other ways, too. No doubt. But under the hood, the $33,095 to start Caddy is glass-jawed: 2.5 liters, 202 hp and 7.5 seconds to 60. Competitive with the Benz — but shouldn’t even be in the ring with the S60 (or the BMW 3).
You can, of course, get more power — and better performance — in competitors like the ATS and and Benz C. Also the BMW 3. But the point to take from this is that the base model S60 gives you more power — and better performance — for significantly less money — than the base models of these competitors.
The T6, meanwhile, gives you six cylinders, three liters — and 300 hp. 325 in the R-Design. That’ll get you to 60 in just under six seconds; 5.5 seconds in the R Design. To get 300 hp in the BMW 3, you’ve got to spend $42,800 — about $2,200 more than Volvo charges for the T6.
Cadillac wants $43,195 for the performance-equivalent version of the ATS (3.6 liters, zero to 60 in 5.7 seconds).
Again, a bargain.
The Volvo, that is.
T6s — both standard issue and R-Design — also come standard with AWD. Probably necessary to modulate the high horsepower and torque output (325 lbs.-ft at 2,100 RPM for the 300 hp version 3 liter six; 354 lbs.-ft at 3000 RPM for the 325 hp version).
Unfortunately, also standard — mandatory, actually — is a six-speed automatic. As in the T5. All versions of the S60 are automatic-only. This is something of a downer. As sport-minded as the S60 is, the absence of a clutch — and its presence in competitor models such as the BMW 3 and the Caddy ATS — is arguably a liability. No matter how quick-shifting and forward thinking an automatic may be — and the S60’s is — it’s just not as fun as shifting for yourself.
The S60 is pretty easy on gas. The FWD version of the T5 rates 21 city, 30 highway (20 city, 29 highway with the optional AWD). For a car with 250 (and probably 260-270) horsepower, this is top-drawer. The much less powerful (201 hp) and far less speedy Benz C250 only gives you 21 city, 31 highway. Ditto the 202 hp base model Caddy ATS: Just 22 city, 33 highway. An unnoticeable difference in real-world mileage (but a very noticeable difference in real-world power/performance). BMW’s 3 is one of the few that gives you comparable power/performance and better gas mileage: 22 city, 34 highway for the 328i with the manual six-speed and RWD.
But the BMW’s mileage advantage is washed out by its much higher MSRP. That $4,600 difference up front will take a long time to work off at 2-3 MPG.
Finally — and subjective — the 2013 BMW (like several new cars, but not the S60) is afflicted with auto-stop. To save some gas, the engine automatically shuts off when the car comes to a stop, then restarts automatically when the driver wants to proceed. There is a slight but noticeable transition as this all plays out — one that doesn’t take place in the S60- because it’s engine stays on until you shut it off.
For once, a Volvo’s less peremptorily naggy than its competition!
ON THE ROAD
Oh what fun it would be to travel back to ’79 in a 2013 T6 R Design. You could smoke Smokey & The Bandit black Trans-Ams… boggle Corvette jockeys. Do great injury to the 55 MPH National Highway Maximum Speed Limit — and get away with it. Because not a cop car on the road back in ’79 could touch this unit.
It’s still fun today, too. Because most people — and that includes most cops — still don’t expect a Volvo to be quick or fast — much less the person behind the wheel. The Mondale For President reputation lingers — but this can serve your purpose. The most effective predators are stealth predators. They blend into the background — and strike suddenly, before the prey has time to react. A BMW 3 is not stealthy. Neither is the flashy new ATS. Might as well register with the local cops — and send your insurance surcharge in now. Ah, but this Volvo. No rep — not yet. No belligerent statement of intent projected by its overall appearance. It is modern, clean-lined, sophisticated — surely. But no gangster-grinning grill or maw of an intake, crouched posture or raspberry exhaust note here. Come closer, kitty… .
Both turbo engines have their own unique sounds, too. Not a bellow, not a scream but a kind of turbine-like whhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrrr as you tach them up. And like most of the new-breed turbo cars, there’s very little in the way of noticeable turbo boosted performance. No matter the throttle angle, the power curve is smooth and direct — a steady build up to the crest. Then a well-timed upshift, followed by a repeat of the tach needle’s climb through its range. It’s all very civilized.
Volvo is clearly aiming to be less birkenstock — and more track shoe. But it double-crosses itself by not offering a manual transmission with this thing. Much less the 300-325 hp version of this thing (the T6/R-Design). Meanwhile, Volvo toys with that 508 hp S60 Polestar. C’mon guys. It’s time to throw the gantlet down. Swedes are quiet people, but that Viking berserker DNA is still there, somewhere. It wants to be let loose. You want to let it loose. You know you do. We want you to let it loose. Please, let it loose!
On handling: It has gotten to the point that performance-minded FWD (and AWD) cars like the S60 take to the corners with as much apparent unflappability as RWD performance cars like the BMW 3 and Caddy ATS. To become aware of any built-in differences (and limitations) you have to drive the car on a race track — or drive it like a race car on the street. I’ve been test driving new cars for more than 20 years. I have track time experience. And take it from me: You won’t be disappointed with the handling capabilities of any new performance-minded car driven at speeds less than felonious on public roads.
All the cars in the S60’s class have built-in capabilities higher than the skill set of nine out of 10 drivers. Capabilities so high, in fact, that the car will make you feel as though you are the 1 out of 10 drivers who could really make use of these capabilities. Especially in the R Design, which comes with an even grippier set of tires and a Four-C adjustable suspension that will give any BMW or ATS not driven by a pro driver a reality check about the supposed handling deficits of “front wheel drive-based” cars, right quick.
The Volvo’s also got a real world handling advantage over RWD-based competitors like the BMW 3, Caddy ATS and Benz C. Unlike them, you won’t face the Hobson’s choice of fearing the snow — or having to spend a few extra thousand on AWD in order to not fear the snow.
AT THE CURB
It’s no easy thing retaining your iconic looks while also updating them to reflect changing tastes. The transition from 240D to this is remarkable. Not so much because of the dramatic changeover, but because of the fact that this car still looks very much “Volvo”.
Just a different kind of Volvo.
The venerable Austin Powers Oh, Behave! swinging ’70s male symbol is still there in the grille — and some of the shapes echo the familiar. But the new shape is as up-to-date and slick-looking as an IKEA kitchen set.
The only thing I don’t like about it — the thing I don’t like about pretty much all the new cars — is not so much aesthetic as functional: The ever-rising belt line (done for reasons of side-impact resistance) and the ever-thickening B pillars (done for reasons of resistance to roof crush) and the ever-rising-in-the-air rear end (done to improve your odds of surviving a someone else pile-driving into you from behind). Well and good — except it makes you feel as though you’re sitting in a bathtub — which you are — and also restricts your view of the world around you.
At least, the world to either side you — and behind you.
In the S60’s case, it’s not so much the B pillars as it is the front seat headrests — which extend almost to the roof. Good for whiplash. Not so good for side visibility.
This conflict between making the car more crashworthy — and making it more likely you’ll crash — is coming to a head. Volvo actually has it sort-of covered, too. The S60 offers what amounts to passive impact detection and avoidance: If you’re about to hit something (or someone) and you don’t see it coming, the car does — and stops itself. Of course, this doesn’t do a thing about someone else hitting you.
In terms of size — and space — the S60 is bigger/roomier than some — and smaller/less roomy than others. At 182.2 inches long overall, it is a slightly bigger car on the outside than the Benz C250 (180.8 inches) but interior room is virtually the same: 41.9 inches of front seat legroom, 38.3 inches of front seat headroom; 33.5 inches of backseat legroom and 37.4 inches of backseat headroom — vs. 41.7 inches of front seat legroom and 37.1 inches of front seat headroom; 33.4 inches of backseat legroom and 36.9 inches backseat headroom in the Benz. The BMW 3 is almost exactly the same size overall (182.5 inches) but gives you noticeably more interior real estate in a few key areas, such as 40.3 inches of front seat headroom and 35.5 inches of backseat legroom (other stats are pretty close).
The new kid on the block — Caddy’s ATS — is slightly larger on the outside than both the S60 and the C250 — and the BMW 3 — but has about the same space inside as the S60.
Though the BMW 3 is the leader in terms of real estate, neither it nor any other car in this class can touch the Volvo’s seats. They are like those “just right” mattresses you sometimes find in really good hotels. They seem perhaps a bit firm at first, but as the hours pass — and your legs haven’t fallen asleep and your back doesn’t hurt — you realize how yin-yang perfect they are.
The seats can be had with heaters — including the rear seats — but you can’t get coolers to go with the heaters.
I’d love a manual, but the shifter for the six-speed automatic is gorgeous. It’s clear topped — and LED backlit. A glow emanates from it at night, like moonlight glinting off a glacier.
This car has no real flaws — just a few small things I’d change if I could.
The first has already been discussed — the absence of a manual transmission option. The sportiest cars in this segment — the BMW 3 and the Caddy ATS — offer manuals. Volvo ought to, too. If it wants to compete more directly with these cars, anyhow. Which it seems to want to. The demographic sweet spot — the 40-ish Gen X demographic that grew up riding in 240Ds — wants a Volvo more like the S60. And probably, would want them even more if they had a clutch to play with.
The second thing has to do with the S60’s automatic collision avoidance features (City Safe, etc.). It uses laser/radar signals to sense the presence of objects in the car’s path. But these signals also false trigger radar detectors — rendering them next-to-useless, especially in traffic. Every time the car sends out a signal, the detector sends out an alarm — but not because of a looming radar trap.
The S60 is not unique as far as this goes. Several new higher-end cars I’ve tested lately do the same thing. Audis, Infinitis, BMWs. It is a rapidly growing problem — if you want to use a radar detector. And when you own a car like the S60 — or any powerful car — a radar detector is a must-have. Otherwise, you will either be ticketed into the poorhouse — or forced to drive the car as if it were a ’96 Geo with 223,000 miles on it.
In which case, why not just drive the Geo?
What’s needed here is an off switch. If technologies such as City Safe have to be included in the roster of features, give the owners the ability to turn them off. So they can turn their radar detectors on.
And drive the damn car as it was built to be driven.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The S60 is a sweet package — and a stealthy package. It’s also a less expensive package than most of the cars in this segment. With a six-speed manual (and an off switch for the City Safe) this car would be even sweeter still.