A sexy Volvo may seem like an oxymoron to some, who may not so fondly recall Volvo's boxy beasts of the 1990s, but the sleek design of the all-new S60 inside and out suggests that style has become paramount at Volvo's global headquarters these days.
The S60 T6 AWD is the first all-new product since Ford sold Volvo to the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group in 2010, making this BMW 3-Series fighter a key beacon of a new era at Volvo, even if much of the design work was done under Ford's stewardship of the safety-focused brand. While high-tech safety is still key in the S60, the more powerful engine, the engaging design and the nicely finished interior are signs that Volvo realizes it had to add some lip-smacking appeal to its good-for-you veggies.
Thus Volvo leaps from style laggard to style leader with the S60, at least to these eyes, although the success of the design is more like a triple than a home run to some eyes, judging from its design scores by a raft of evaluators during the 2011 AJAC Car of The Year competition. The S60 finished tied for second in the race for the 2011 Best New Luxury Car title, behind the larger and pricier BMW 535i, and tied with the Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTec diesel.
In short, right up there with some of the powerhouses of the luxury sedan universe.
The Volvo's enticing design extends to its interior, with lovely available baseball glove-like beechwood leather and finely grained and polished wood accents, as well as Volvo's now-signature waterfall instrument panel that houses storage space just behind it. As usual for Volvos, the S60's front seats are comfortable, although its sporting personality means they hug a touch more than other Volvo perches.
Sure, there are some quibbles: the rear seats are surprisingly tight to get into, and not much roomier once there, thanks to that curvy roofline. The lack of a power-adjustable steering wheel is not a huge deal for most owners, who will adjust it once then leave it, but the lack of a heated steering wheel option surely is, especially at this compact luxury sedan's lofty, as-tested price. Plus with the main screen left in navi mode, the optional rearview camera won't give you a view out the back, requiring the driver to okay the "I will pay attention to the road" lawyer screen first.
There's not much wrong with the engine powering the S60 T6 though, a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline-six that's up there in both power and fuel economy with the best in this class, a touch below the leaders in both areas but one of the best and smoothest compromises around. A less powerful T5 model with a 250-hp five-cylinder has just been added to the S60 lineup, starting at $38,300 compared to the $45,450 starting price tag of the 300-hp T6. But the T5 comes with front-wheel drive compared to the T6's advanced torque vectoring all-wheel-drive, both receiving an unfortunately shift-paddle-free six-speed automatic transmission.
The real party trick of the S60 however comes in the form of its Pedestrian Detection system, which uses high-tech radar and video cameras to scan for people in your path. If the S60 detects that you don't see them (by no braking when there should be), the system will first warn you with a flashing red bar in the windshield. If there's still no braking detected, it will automatically stomp on the brakes - hard. Volvo says the system can stop a vehicle from hitting a pedestrian at up to 35 km/h, and mitigates potential damage and injuries caused at higher speeds.
It's an addition to the City Safety system introduced on the Volvo XC60 crossover last year, which uses similar technology to avoid rear-ending the vehicle in front when baby starts screaming in the back. The good folks at Volvo of Oakville demonstrated both systems with reflective pylons and brave staff members, and it was an eye-opening test.
First up was a row of three rectangular pylons with reflective strips, simulating a stationary rear bumper. Roll along between six and 35 km/h, and if the system detects a stopped vehicle in front, it pounds the brakes. In three tries, I managed to hit the pylons once, when I inadvertently touched the brakes by reflex when faced with the panic beep and flashing red warning at eye level that come on right before the full auto stop. With both the City Safety and the Pedestrian Safety systems, once the driver breathes on the brakes, the car relinquishes full control - for better or worse.
A few low-speed tests with live (and trusting) Volvo folks demonstrated that the pedestrian system was similarly useful, but also not infallible. It saved about half the six passes of our very inattentive pedestrian. The system doesn't work below six km/h, so once or twice we were cautiously below that threshold. Plus there's the same issue with the visual and auditory warning: you almost have to be asleep or having a medical emergency not to react to the not-so-early warnings.
Could this be a case of one warning system too many? Or could our collective mistrust of computers taking over our cars expose us fallible humans as the weakest link in the safety picture of the future? We will find out in the next nine years, as Volvo has set an ambitious goal of no fatalities in its new cars by 2020.
2011 Volvo S60 T6 AWD
Type: Compact luxury sport sedan
Base price: $45,450; as tested: $60,472
Engine: 3.0-litre, turbocharged, DOHC, inline-six
Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/325 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.3 city/7.7 highway; premium recommended
Alternatives: Acura TL, Audi A4/S4, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G37x, Mercedes-Benz C-Class