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2012 Volvo S60 (Volvo)
2012 Volvo S60 (Volvo)

2012 Volvo S60

Safe, stylish car - but where's the attention to detail? Add to ...

Safe? Of course. This is Volvo, right?

We’re talking about the 2012 S60 T5 for $39,950, complete with the $1,650 Level II package. This Volvo is a Top Safety Pick and all that, and it’s loaded with airbags, whiplash-preventing seats, bending headlights and electronic stability control.

What’s more, for $4,500, you can add lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control and a distance alert, along with something fancy called Pedestrian Detection, which alerts you to crossing pedestrians in the daytime, but oddly not at night. Much of it is merely annoying, but fortunately you can turn it all off with a button on the console.

Okay, what about stylish? Love it.

This front-drive mid-size sedan has a dynamic, crafted and handsome shape. It sits well on the road, a mix of sharp lines and smooth shapes. The design is handsomely understated and, in an automotive world filled with increasingly in-your-face shapes and badges, the S60 comes close to understated elegance. I like the coupe-like arch of the roof and the sprinter’s haunches at the rear, in particular.

If you knew the old, now-replaced, 10-year-old S60, you will understand why the extra rear legroom is welcome, too. The back seat in that car was tight. Yet Volvo didn’t have the good sense to make the trunk bigger. Instead, it’s smaller and now is tied with the BMW 3-Series for the smallest trunk in this class.

Entertaining to drive? Not bad at all, though my tester is definitely not the sexier all-wheel-drive T6 sport sedan ($45,450) with its BMW-challenging, 300-horsepower, turbocharged six-cylinder engine: 0-100 km/h in around six seconds. The five-cylinder turbo T5 is no slouch at 250 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque, however, and the fuel economy – 11.7 litres/100 km city/7.8 – is more than decent. Alas, premium fuel is recommended for the best performance.

Reliable? Volvo has some work to do here. The Swedish brand finished below average in the latest J.D. Power and Associates long-term Vehicle Dependability Study, with exactly one Volvo model, the XC70, ranked among the top three of any individual category. A ditto performance for the Volvo brand in the short-term Initial Quality Study, though both the XC70 and XC70, two crossovers, were among the leaders in their respective categories.

On the other hand, Consumer Reports quality research shows that Volvo is the only European make with an above-average reliability score. Volvo was ranked fourth overall in the magazine’s 2011 auto maker scorecard. But the S60 is not rated for reliability; it’s a new model and there isn’t enough data. In summary, I think it’s fair to say Volvo has room for improvement on the quality front, overall.

Perhaps the new owners will put more emphasis there. Ford sold Volvo in 2010 to Chinese-owned Geely and the S60 is the first new model under the new ownership. But make no mistake, the S60 was developed when the Americans were running the show.

Your scorecard, then, should read: Volvo is a Swedish brand based in Gothenburg, owned by a Chinese conglomerate with significant government connections and the past ownership – Ford ran the show for better than a decade – was an American car company based in Michigan. Oh, and the S60 is built in Ghent, Belgium, not Sweden. “Volvo” is Latin for “I roll” and that seems appropriate. If you’re a Volvo person, you gotta roll with endless change.

On the theme of change, I have to say those made to the S60’s cabin are not all welcome. The instruments and centre stack may be usefully angled toward the driver, but try to work that compact control array. Not intuitive in the slightest.

The former Volvo control setup was not entirely a seat-of-the-pants plaything either, but this is time around Volvo has made things so complicated – piled so many functions into the controls, layer on layer – that you might just as well start thumbing the manual, rather than waste time and zoom your blood pressure trying to figure things out without help. Memo to interior car designers: simple is always better.

Moreover, for a test car with sticker price north of $50,000 all in, the workmanship was merely okay and the materials so-so. The Ibsen design ethic has gone a little too far here. The grey-faced gauges look like a Gothenburg sky in January and the plastics seem harder than a car in this class should have. And so on.

Then there is the navigation system. For $2,625, buyers deserve readouts with properly labelled city and street names, but that’s not the case here. Entering a destination is not an entirely obvious process, either. This system needs to be simplified and, once in use, deliver more useful information on the screen.

Volvo has also forgotten steering-wheel paddle shifters. They’re available on a Ford Fiesta at about a third the price. Come on, Volvo, this is a sport sedan! That means someone might want to drive in a sporty way, shifting quickly without taking hands off the wheel.

They’ll be tempted, too, because the S60 is a sweet ride overall. The power comes on quickly and dynamically, the chassis is tight without being punishing and the steering generally allows you to point and go with decent feedback all along the way. Yes, I’d like crisper shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission, but they’ll do as is.

In the end, I like the S60’s looks, the seats and the overall drive. Some of the details need work, though. Something for the new owners to sort out.

Tech specs

2012 Volvo S60 T5 Level II

Type: Sport sedan

Price: $39,950 ($1,095 freight)

Engine: 2.5-litre, five-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque: 250 hp/266 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.7 city/7.8 highway; premium gas

Alternatives: BMW 328i, Audi A4 2.0T, Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G37, Acura TL, Mercedes-Benz C300, Lexus IS 350, Lincoln MKZ


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