2011 Volvo S60

Review and photos by
Jil McIntosh, CanadianDriver.com

Having spent my life as little sister to an advertising executive, I know a bit about that industry, including the importance of a catchphrase that will hopefully stick in the minds of consumers. The one a certain Swedish automaker has chosen for its new S60 is that it’s the “Naughty Volvo.” This is just plain silly, because if this all-new sedan belongs on any list, it definitely ends up on the side of “nice.”

2011 Volvo S60

2011 Volvo S60

The S60 was temporarily discontinued for 2010 pending this complete redesign, and it was definitely worth the wait. This is a lovely car, if a little too overbearing when it comes to protecting me from myself.

It comes in a single model, an all-wheel drive four-door sedan that starts at $45,450. Mine was further embellished with a $4,500 “Driver Support Package” of various electronic nannies, along with 18-inch wheels in place of the standard 17-inch rims and a gorgeous coat of Vibrant Copper paint that caught the eye and refused to give it back. No wonder: at an additional $790, it was $190 more than the wheels cost. Other available options, not added to my vehicle, include a navigation system, a “4C” chassis to toggle between sportier or comfort modes, a back-up camera and active headlamps that turn with the wheels on curves.

The single engine choice is a turbocharged inline six-cylinder that makes 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque, but runs on regular-grade gasoline. I was very impressed with its smoothness and ability anywhere along the throttle’s travel, and I’m not the only one: it was named one of Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 2011, a prestigious award and the first time Volvo has made the list. It’s mated to a competent six-speed automatic transmission. There’s manual shift mode on the gearshift lever, but I would have expected a “naughty” car to come with paddle shifters, which the S60 does not, even as an option.

The engine is officially rated at 11.3 L/100 km (25 mpg Imp) in the city and 7.7 (37) on the highway. In combined driving, I averaged 11.6 (24).

The S60’s all-wheel system is a Haldex unit that runs primarily in front-wheel drive, but it’s so well balanced and the system proactive enough that in most conditions, it almost feels more like a rear-wheeler. The steering can be adjusted to one of three programs for steering feel; I found the medium and firm calibrations more engaging than the floppier light setting. The chassis is stiff and the ride is firm in the manner you want for a driver’s car, and being behind the wheel makes all the difference. My husband initially complained about the S60’s ride, saying it wasn’t as pliable as he’d expected in a car that looked so luxurious. “Wait till you drive it,” I said, and I was right (as usual, of course). The overall tightness makes for a nice, confident feel when taking corners.

That said, like most of Volvo’s products, it’s very pleasant, but the execs at BMW and Audi aren’t losing any sleep. For all the S60’s aspirations for naughtiness, the driver feels somewhat disconnected when compared to true sports sedans from German rivals, or even a domestic contender such as the Cadillac CTS. Although the handling and steering feedback are considerably more direct than most other Volvo models, it’s lacking that more visceral – perhaps more naughty? – touch.

Appearance-wise, the S60’s a stunner, with its forward-thrusting nose, LED-bedecked rear end, and the popular “four-door coupe” styling that sacrifices some rear headroom that you gladly give up for how good it looks. The interior is just as gorgeous, especially with my tester’s two-tone leather seats, which sported a particularly elegant and vintage-looking large-grain pattern on the chairs and door trim panels. For some reason, it wasn’t carried over to the steering wheel, which used cream-coloured leather instead of the bronze shade on the seats, and which would have looked spectacular had it matched. Even so, it’s extremely handsome, and it all feels as good as it looks: the seats proved comfortable and supportive even on a long drive. The rear seats are a little firmer, and legroom is best if the front-row passengers haven’t moved their chairs all the way to the back of their travel.

I generally have a love-hate relationship with Volvo’s controls, and the S60 didn’t change that much. The waterfall console is still lovely, the little chrome man for the vent settings is as clever as ever and the simplicity of the twin instrument dials is elegant. On the down side, that cascading console eats up potential small-item storage space (there is an open cubby under it, but it’s difficult to access), the centre stack buttons are small, and a few features could be simpler, such as the three-level heated seats. You turn them on and off via buttons on the console, but their indicators are in the LED screen in the centre stack above – which, if navigation is not optioned, works as an information screen for the stereo, climate control and other functions. Indicating the status of the tushie-toasters in this way would be fine if the screen reacted immediately, but there can be a bit of a wait, especially if the car has just been started. It’s a minor quibble, but I like one-stop-shopping when I’m driving, as in I just hit a switch, instantly see the results, and then get back to the task of driving. Lights in the button, as most other manufacturers use, would be much better.

While I’m on that kick, the stereo presets could also be streamlined. If you’re on your favourite FM station but want to go to a preset satellite station, you have to hit the Radio button, scroll the screen to get to Satellite, and then hit the number on the keypad to switch over. Sure, you can set nine presets for each radio band, but I’d prefer fewer presets to playing with buttons and screens when I’m moving. Why can’t preset-one be my classical FM station, preset-two my Sinatra satellite station, and so on? That said, there’s only a slight learning curve to the stereo functions, and if song text is selected, it’s easy to see all the information.

One thing I do like about Volvo is that it gives you a choice of wipers. I’m no fan of the rain-sensing variety, and like all others of the genre, the Volvo’s worked well in heavier rain but was mystified by light drizzle. I know some people like these things despite this fault, though, and so this one works for all of us: it can be set either to the rain sensor, or to my gold standard of variable intermittent wipers.

Of course, this being a Volvo, it’s all about the safety features, and the S60 has a boatload of them. Some I find useful, and others… well, let’s soldier on.

City Safety, first seen on the new XC60, is standard equipment on the S60. It’s intended to prevent or reduce the severity of rear-end collisions at low speeds, such as what you’d experience in a parking lot or stop-and-go traffic. Should you get too close to the car in front, the system sends a warning. Ignore it, and the car will brake hard to a complete stop.

The new Pedestrian Detection, part of my car’s $4,500 Driver Support Package, takes it a step further. While City Safety can only recognize large objects like other vehicles, Pedestrian Detection uses radar and cameras to figure out the two-legged variety, and will send warnings and then stop the car.

The optional Blind Spot Information System warns if another vehicle is alongside, using orange lights in the rear-view mirrors as a warning. I do like it as an extra pair of eyes for lane changes, but the system gave me numerous false warnings on wet roads at dusk.

When all of the systems were on, I felt like I was sitting inside a slot machine with all the bells and lights. The lane departure system beeps loudly should you creep over the line, but it’s nothing compared with the Collision Warning system that keeps track of how close you’re getting to a car in front. I came up behind a car that had started into a turn. I had enough room, but not enough for the Volvo’s liking, and suddenly the dash lit up like Christmas tree and the brakes came on. To say it scared the stuffing out of me is the year’s understatement.

The systems that determine the distance are also part of the adaptive cruise control, which can be set to one of three pre-determined gaps between the car and the one ahead. Usually, I don’t like adaptive cruise, since it can tend to be jerky, but the Volvo’s system is very smooth and it works really well. I was less impressed on a long highway stretch when slush built up on the front sensor. I tried to turn it on once I got on dry roads, but the blocked sensor prevented it from coming on, and Volvo doesn’t also equip the car with the regular type. There are only two choices: let the S60 drive in concert with the car ahead, or work the throttle yourself. It certainly wasn’t safe enough to pull over on the highway and clean it off.

All in all, Volvo’s tag line is hot air. The S60 isn’t naughty, not at all – but it sure is nice. It’s not a hard-driving sports sedan, and it probably wouldn’t let you drive it that way even if it was. But if you want a luxurious interior, smooth performance and one sweet-looking ride, this one is definitely it.

Pricing: 2011 Volvo S60

Base price: $45,450

Options: $5,890 (Driver Support Package of driver alert system, blind spot information system, park assist, adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection with full auto brake, $4,500; metallic paint, $790; 18-inch alloy wheels, $600)

A/C tax: $100

Freight: $1,095

Price as tested: $52,535

Crash test results

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

Jil McIntosh is a freelance writer, a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) and Assistant Editor for CanadianDriver.com. Her personal website can be found at http://www.JilMcIntosh.com

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