Scandinavian slick

Sirish Chandran Updated: May 22, 2013, 10:14 PM IST

Volvo S60 D5

Boomerang tail lamps make for a distinctive rump. Seats not just attractive but very comfortable. D5 diesel makes 205PS and makes S60 one of the fastest in the segment. Floating centre console frees up space behind it. Interiors too are stylish and loaded though 'inspired by a race track' is stretching things too far.

What do we make of Volvo? It's a pertinent question to ask before we delve into the S60: is it a rival to German luxury brands or just a step up from VW and Skoda? Where do Volvo cars fit? What's their brand image? And most importantly why should you be seen in a Volvo – after all when all's said and done the over-riding attraction of these cars is to be 'seen' in them.
Five years since Volvo began Indian operations we still don't have clear answers. I've always got the sense that Volvo has been stuck in a wait and watch mode – first its parent, Ford, wasn't too keen on making the required investments to build the brand in India. Then there was the limbo period while the company was up for sale and suitors being evaluated. Finally with the Chinese taking control nobody really knew what the future would hold. It's an attitude exemplified by its dealers who, in some cities, have been operating for nearly a year without so much as a showroom.

Credit where credit's due – instead of chasing its tail trying to answer a million questions, Volvo is now getting its products to do the talking. The XC60 SUV has impressed us no end (we're actually astonished) and now there's the S60, Volvo's big volume driver, game changer if you will and one that will, once and forever, boot those images of boxy Volvo estates out of your head.

I don't know about being seen in an S60 (and what it will do for your image) but just seeing the S60 is a joy. It manages to be everything – smart, sexy, distinctive – without being scowly, aggro and offensive. Scandinavian design has always been effortlessly stylish and Volvo's new styling direction is very much in that mould, stylish without trying too hard. The nose is soft, happy and friendly – it doesn't bark at you and in that welcome lack of aggression lies the S60's charm and appeal. Not everybody wants, nor needs to be an aggressive nutter on the road. On that crucial point the S60 (actually Volvo's in general) hangs a hard left away from the Germans, heralding a return of sleek, feline grace and a generally happy face that had gone missing in recent times. And on top of everything it's definitely a Volvo retaining a strong family link with the XC60 while not falling into the trap of every vehicle looking like a xerox copy of the other.

There are hints of sportiness in the sleek coupe-like roofline and the boomerang shaped tail lamps make for a unique rear. And here's what could be its unique selling point: with the rear badging being individual letters, petty crims might be put off from plunging screwdrivers into the S60 rump.

I also must point out that Volvo has got its colours spot on. You are probably wondering how difficult can that possibly be but you just have to see, in the metal, the copper hue of our test car or the even better flamenco red shade to know what I mean. We never notice or talk about colours but on the S60 you notice these things and it turns heads everywhere. Maybe we've seen too much of its competitors but stood alongside them the S60 will drawn the most oohs and aahs.

That sense of style also carries over to the interiors that also have the best looking (particularly in Beechwood brown, a shade of leather upholstery that traces its roots to classic Volvo models) and most comfy front seats in this class. There's also the trademark Volvo floating centre console which, I admit, serves no real function but it is a cool thing to have and gives a distinctive touch to the attractive cabin. Volvo claims the design of the interior has been inspired by the dynamic character of the race track but that's clearly too much time spent with the Absolut. It is also loaded with equipment but in terms of usability it is not as intuitive as we'd have hoped. For instance there is no button for disengaging ESP – you need to trawl through the menus to find it – and that trawl through the menus isn't as easy as BMW's iDrive or Audi's MMI. The interface too isn't as sophisticated and that's when you realise that Volvo doesn't have the kind of cash, nor volumes, to spend on developing these things.

There has of course been no skimping on quality of materials or the build quality and there is nothing but a premium air to the S60's cabin. Like all other cars in this class the rear seat is snug at best and the coupe roofline makes head room just about adequate. An A4 might have a smidgen more knee room but the soft and supportive seats enhance the impression of comfortable and relaxed environs. And that's backed up by the best ride quality in this class.

It really is lovely, the way the S60 rides over bumps, wafts over undulating road surfaces and isolates harsh surfaces. Even on rough patches the suspension never becomes noisy and it takes particularly bad roads for thumps and thuds to filter into the cabin. Our roads being what they are, it does gets tiring driving a stiffly sprung car over long distances (which most of the German cars are) but the S60 is the complete opposite and is fantastically comfortable. The ride in fact borders on E-Class levels and that's despite riding on 17-inch rims.

Of course the downside is the S60 has no hope of keeping up with any of the German cars when the going gets twisty. The S60 is basedon the Ford Mondeo platform and as far as front-wheel-drive platforms go this is among the best. The S60 can be pushed hard in corners, grip levels are high and fun is there to be had. Compared to cars like the Superb or Accord, this is quite a bit superior even though in the S60 there evidently is body roll. There is also the option of 4C active chassis (stiffens the suspension in sport mode and cuts body roll) and Volvo's version of torque vectoring that brakes the inside rear wheel when it senses the limits are being breached (simulating the effect of a limited slip rear differential) thus sending more torque to the outside wheel and tightening the cornering line. But at the end of the day front-wheel-drive will never be as good as rear-wheel-drive and that'll be evident when a 3 Series or even C-Class steams past round the outside of the S60 looking more planted and in shape. Even compared to the front-wheel-driven A4, the S60 doesn't have the chassis sophistication to keep up.

Having to both steer and drive the wheels robs the S60 steering of purity and feel and when driven hard the 'wheel tends to jiggle as small bumps knock it off-line. And there is never any hope of adjusting her line with the throttle or even enjoying a bit of power oversteer as you would in a 3 Series.

But who drives at ten-tenths? Calm down and the S60 will prove to be hugely fast and more importantly hugely comfortable. And that matters a hell of a lot more in India.

The engine too prefers not to be whipped into a frenzy. However with 205PS of power and 420Nm of torque from the 2.4-litre twin-turbo five-cylinder diesel there is always enough grunt on tap to make the going quick and relaxed. Whip it though and it is quick with 0-100kmph taking 8.84 seconds which is only a bit slower than the 320d's 8.4 seconds (C220 takes 9.48 seconds and A4 2.0 takes 10.9 seconds). However the engine does get noisy and unrefined when revved to the limit in each gear. It is mated to a six-speed auto which also has a manual mode (no paddles behind the steering wheel) but the gearbox isn't as quick to respond as other cars in this segment. With the diesel particulate filter (needs occasional full throttle blasts so that it doesn't get clogged) the CO2 figure is 189g/km and it has an ARAI certified fuel efficiency of 14.1kmpl.

The engine I am keen to drive (watch out for it in the next issue) is the T6 six-cylinder turbo-petrol with 304PS of power and 440Nm of torque (almost as much torque as the S80's V8 petrol!) which is the most powerful engine in this segment and thanks to full time all-wheel-drive should do the 0-100kmph sprint in under seven seconds. But all that makes the car expensive – ` 34 lakh – and what I'd like to see instead is the 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol offered in Europe, making 203PS mated to a dual-clutch transmission. That'll make it cheaper, undercutting every other car in this segment and make the S60 really attractive.

Ultimately though what Volvo is all about is safety. Today all cars in this segment score full five stars in Euro-NCAP crash safety tests and have stability control systems and more airbags than you can count. So Volvo have moved the game on and has loaded the S60 with a whole suite of systems to make it almost impossible to get into an accident. City Safety automatically brakes the car if it detects a collision is imminent and, up to speeds of 35kmph, can completely prevent a collision with the car in front. This we've already seen (and experienced) in the XC60, now the S60 adds Pedestrian Detection. Using a radar in the grille, a camera behind the rear-view mirror and a control unit, the system will detect if a pedestrian has walked into the path of the car and if the driver takes no avoidance maneuvers, it will slam the brakes completely preventing an accident at speeds up to 35kmph. The system works up to 80kmph (at that speed there will be a collision but the intensity will be reduced) and there's no denying this is something that will be very useful in India. However it does not work at night or in low light situations.

Collision Warning blares an audible warning when the closing speed to the vehicle in front is very high and it also automatically applies the brakes to prevent an accident. I experienced this while weaving between trucks on the highway, even felt the brakes being applied, but it never unsettles the car or gets you into (more) trouble. I did switch off the distance warning though because in our traffic it is constantly flashing and can become irritating after a while.

Adaptive cruise control works from rest all the way to 200kmph which means, based on what the car in front is doing, the system can bring the car to a complete halt and accelerate away to the set speed without driver intervention (except on the steering wheel). The system can also work in traffic jams so you never have to brake or accelerate while in a traffic snarl, only steer (though in India it doesn't work so well because if you leave even half an inch to the car in front another idiot squeezes his nose in). There's also lane detection warning that audibly alerts if the car is straying out of the lane and of course there's also drowsiness alert.

That's a humongously comprehensive list of safety features and all of it is standard on the S60 Summum variant which costs Rs 32 lakh. That's just incredible value-for-money, and if you don't want collision warning or adaptive cruise control there's the Kinetic version for Rs 27 lakh. If you are looking for bargain alternatives to the 3 Series, C-Class and A4 the S60 is not it. It is way more – it's stylish enough to carve its own path, is incredibly comfortable and so safe that it not only will keep you and your family alive in a crash but will actively prevent you from getting into one. That's your justification, if ever one was needed, for buying a Volvo.

Price (Ex-Delhi)
Max Power(ps)
Max Torque(Nm)
14.1 Kmpl