The S60 fills the middle range in Volvo's lineup: It's larger than the S40, but not quite as large as the premium-luxury S80.
Its interior is handsome and the available leather has a high-quality look and feel. Notable improvements for '06 include a revised all-wheel-drive system for better performance, newly designed wheels and simplification of the options and packages.
Volvo S60 2.5T ($30,270); 2.5T AWD ($32,045); T5 ($2,045); R ($37,920)
Volvo says the S60 represents the essence of contemporary Scandinavian design. The S60 seems compact at first glance, and there's a hunched-shoulder look to the rear flanks, suggesting a hockey player ready to lead a charge up the ice.
What you can't see is all the engineering designed to protect the people riding in the structure. It's there. Volvo's reputation for safety continues and deservedly so.
The S60R is distinguished from the other models by a smoother, longer nose; a smaller, lower grille; and a larger air dam with bigger intake openings for the big turbo and twin intercoolers.
The dashboard flows in a pleasant shape. Attractive wood trim appears sparingly on the glovebox lid and on all four doors. The quality of the material used to cover other surfaces is good. The gauges are attractive, with their flat gray background, and easy to read, while the switches are intuitive and easy to use.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls are well designed and easy to operate, with big metaphoric controls to direct the airflow. Power window buttons with auto-down are conveniently mounted on the door. Inside door handles are easy to grab.
The innovative radio controls take some familiarization to master. Changing preset channels involves turning a knob, rather than pressing a button, for example. Once understood, it works well. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has controls for the audio system that makes operating it easier while driving.
The center console features a covered storage bin and cup holders that fit all standard sizes of beverage container. There's another mini cup holder on the center of the dash. The manual shift lever has a silver-colored plastic cover at its base that looks like silver-colored plastic.
Getting into the back seat requires a duck of the head. Once back there, the S60 offers good rear headroom, but adult males will find it short of legroom.
To get the S60's swoopy shape, Volvo had to make design concessions that constrict the trunk opening. The trunk itself is roomy and deep; it'll hold a lot of small bags, but big hard-sided bags might be a challenge. The rear seats are split 60/40 and fold down to carry long items. Fold down the right rear seat and front passenger seat, and you can carry something quite long.
Front-wheel-drive models exhibit some torque steer, especially with the more powerful engines such as the T5. Stand on the gas and you'll feel a tug on the steering wheel. It's really no big deal, though, and you get used to it. Still, the S60 definitely engages the driver, because you have to pay attention to the steering when you're driving hard. It's extremely stable at high speeds, however.
The T5 produces prodigious thrust from its high-pressure turbocharger. And Volvo's turbocharged engines get good gas mileage. The T5 rates 21/27 mpg with the five-speed manual transmission.
We found the brakes on the soft side. We didn't feel thrown forward in the seat under hard braking as we have with other sports sedans. But braking was stable and the ABS was very smooth.
The steering is slightly heavier in the S60 AWD because of the weight of the all-wheel-drive system. It also has a more on-center feel (less play, in other words). The ride is firmer on the all-wheel-drive version, which has stiffer shocks to handle the increased weight. Overall, we think the AWD model's improved traction and handling in the rain and snow are worthwhile for anyone who annually faces those conditions.
We drove over gravel roads in the S60 AWD, and found directional stability on loose surfaces excellent. Power in the S60 AWD is distributed between the front and rear wheels using a wet multi-plate clutch controlled by electronics according to driving conditions. With a steady throttle on dry pavement, about 95 percent of the power is transmitted to the front wheels; but up to 70 percent can go to the rear wheels when required. The balance changes seamlessly and instantaneously. Of course other automakers say that, too, but the difference in Volvo's Active-On-Demand system is the degree of instantaneous-ness, particularly with the new Instant Traction system, which pre-charges the AWD system to provide instantly available torque. When one wheel slips, the balance of power shifts away from that wheel, thus replacing the slip with grip. In other words, it's just more secure and better stuck to the road when the weather gets nasty.
The S60R is another animal altogether. It was designed and developed by Hans Nilsson, who's been a Volvo engineer for 26 years and races his own Volvo in 24-hour endurance races. Volvo let him alone to do what he knows how to do, and he did such a bang-up job they now call him the Czar of R. We tested the S60R on the road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and it was a perfect day in a perfect car. The balance is brilliant, the engine train-like, the gearbox bulletproof and the brakes bomb-proof.
The R suspension is what's really special. Volvo says it's the most advanced active chassis on the market. A button on the dash allows three settings, Comfort, Sport and Advanced, which mostly address the shock stiffness and engine management. There is a distinct difference between the three settings, and each performs exactly as defined by the buttons. No more compromises with the ride of your high-performance car. You have a suspension that's soft when you want it to be, and stiff when you need it to be. Up to 500 times a second, sensors measure things like longitudinal, lateral and vertical acceleration of the car relative to road conditions and driving actions, and use this information to constantly adjust the ride. But the real leap with this technology is that sensors from the suspension, wheels, throttle, steering and brakes all communicate with each other before the various instantaneous s
The Volvo S60 rides well and handles well. It feels stable at high speeds. The all-wheel-drive model provides excellent driver control on slippery surfaces. The turbocharged models, designated by a T, offer strong acceleration performance. Volvo is renowned for safety engineering and the S60 is fully equipped with active and passive safety features including a rigid safety cage.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Columbia River Gorge.