► New Volvo midliner takes on 3-Series, A4, C-Class
► Petrol and hybrid only – no diesel versions
► Topped by new 400bhp Polestar Engineered version
Volvo really is on a roll, posting company sales records and relentlessly rolling out new models – six in less than four years. Here comes the seventh, the all-new S60.
In common with its XC90, S90, V90, XC60 and V60 siblings, the new saloon utilises Volvo's Scalable Product Architecture (SPA). This BMW 3-series/Mercedes C-class rival is the last to market, which reflects the importance of SUVs to Volvo for their sales success and revenues. Does that mean that Volvo’s taking the saloon market a whole lot less seriously than before?
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Diesel gets scrapped
Hardly – despite the S60 barely making much of an impact to date, Volvo is much more bullish about this generation. It's talking about disrupting the compact executive market with its handsome, US-built saloon. The big news is that the S60 will only be available in petrol or hybrid forms, and as far as the architect of Scandi-cool is concerned, diesel is yesterday’s news. Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz will no doubt be interested in how this strategy plays out.
Although Volvo is optimistic about the S60’s chances, it also knows it’s unlikely to challenge the market hegemony of the A4, 3-Series and C-Class. They’re too well established, too ingrained. Instead, it’s targeting more cerebral buyers, turned on by the S60’s stunning interior and exterior design, class-leading suite of safety and driver-assistance systems, and slightly disestablishment image.
What other engines can we get?
Although European specs are yet to be finalised, the initial launch engine for the UK market will be limited to the of 245bhp T5. Later, it will be joined by 187bhp T4, and T6 Twin Engine and T8 Twin Engine plug-ins (plus Polestar Engineered version). Given Volvo emphasizes the S60’s sporting credentials, the 400bhp of the range-topping T8 Polestar Engineered is where it needs to be. These numbers will also help add showroom appeal – the outgoing S60 has been largely forgotten by buyers, with just 1250 sold in the UK in 2017.
It looks good…
Based on looks alone, the S60 should seriously outperform that. Although, there’s much design commonality with the rest of the Volvo range, the S60’s flowing flanks and almost Jaguar-like haunches are a real departure for the company that’s nailed its SUV and estate car styling so effectively. These curves might be un-Volvo like, but the headlight signatures, grille and rear lights bring it all back into line – so as not too scare the traditionalists too much. It’s a well-judged effort.
We’ve driven two models – the T6 AWD, which won’t be in the initial UK launch line-up, and the T8 Polestar Engineered. This car is set to become the S60’s halo model, and once on stream, the Polestar Engineered model franchise will be rolled out to its V60 and XC60 sister cars.
Driving Impressions: Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design
Although the T6 AWD isn’t part of the launch model lineup, Volvo says that this model ‘should’ make it to the UK later. Inside, it’s business as usual. Cool use of wood, light interior shades, and that polarising 9.0-inch all-encompassing portrait-format Sensus infotainment and command system lock the S60 into Volvo’s current school of design. It looks good, and once you’re up to speed with operating the screen, it’s a comfortable and restful place to spend time in.
On the road, it’s reassuringly familiar. From the console mounted twist starter to the TFT display that’s an object lesson in clarity, Volvo knows its customers and has built a car to meet their needs.
Performance is where you’d expect it to be with 312bhp, a turbo and an electric supercharger: quick but never ballistic, which you can put down to its 1680kg kerbweight. A 0-62mph time of 5.3 seconds and a limited maximum speed of 155mph are competitive for its class.
But it isn’t all about numbers. Even in the most sporting drive mode, the gearchange can be slow to respond, leaving keen drivers almost obliged to use paddleshifters when overtaking. And when it does change down and rev, you’ll be left disappointed by an anodyne engine note that’s not quite muted enough.
On the basis of our first outing in the T6 petrol version, a few nervous glances from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz could be cast in Gothenburg’s direction, too, because it’s genuinely capable. Volvo is keen to play up to the saloon’s differences from the V60 and XC60. The car’s SPA platform comes with a sophisticated suspension set-up, incorporating double wishbones at the front, and an integral link rear axle, which promises much. And it largely delivers.
What you get is a car that rides pretty well. But more interestingly, it also demonstrates well-judged damping that endows it with good body control as speeds rise. Body roll is kept reasonably in check, although like the V60 it’s so closely related too, it doesn’t corner as flatly as a 3-Series or an A4, and you’re always aware that there’s a lot of inertia to overcome.
As for handling balance, most of the time it remains neutral, only suggesting understeer when you’re really pushing in tight bends. So, although it’ll do the B-road thing without disgracing itself, the S60 is more suited to sweeping A-road and motorway cruising, where it feels flat, planted and very comfortable.
Another plus point is that at speed it’s particularly hushed. This aspect alone will make it perfect for the market it’s aimed at – and this overall sense of calm and low levels of wind noise, combined with the excellent front seats makes the S60 an exceptionally accomplished car for covering huge distances.
The is steering well-weighted and geared, but a little too inert to bracket the S60 in the performance car sector convincingly. If you’re running it in series with the Pilot Assist semi-autonomous drive system, you’ll find it corrupted by the car’s need to sit in the centre of your lane. The latest updates to this system introduced in the S60 have toned down the system’s tendency to nibble its way through long sweeping bends, and it feels more natural than before.
So, a very capable, but not quite class-leading dynamic effort, relaxed and semi-sporting in its demeanour, although we’ll reserve final judgement on its handling and ride for when we drive European-spec cars.
Driving Impressions: Volvo S60 T8 Polestar Engineered
The main interest in the S60 for performance car fans is the T8 Polestar Engineered version, which continues the tradition of offering low key, but menacing looks, great performance, and an under-the-radar image. Volvo says it’s not trying to build an M3-baiting fast saloon, but with 400bhp to play with, those inevitable comparisons are going to be made anyway. (The price and specs you'll find below correlate to the Polestar Engineered model.)
It’s based on the T8 TwinEngine plug-in hybrid, but it’s the upgrades that make this performance version a most interesting proposition. The biggest deal, aside from the stealthy visual updates, are to the suspension – the include Öhlins adjustable dampers (which have 22 user-adjustable settings), under-bonnet strut brace, 12mm drop in ride height (compared with non-R-Design models) and 5-10% increase in spring rate.
There are other upgrades, too, such as a the 14bhp jump in power, and a recalibrated ‘Power’ driving mode, which gives you sharper throttle response, a quicker gear shift, and more driver-focused gearchange settings. Do these small changes add up to create a desirable sports saloon worth what’s anticipated to be around £52,000 when it hits the UK?
It’s usefully quicker than the T6 AWD we drove beforehand, with a 0-62mph time of 4.4 seconds, and a maximum speed limited to 155mph. Although like that car, it disguises its acceleration a little too well, never feeling electrifyingly fast. Nor does it have an interesting soundtrack, again sounding like an – albeit muted – undistinguished hybrid four-pot. So, don’t expect a spiritual successor to the legendary 850 T5-R, it’s too subtle for that.
The plug-in hybrid might pack give the Polestar 21 miles of EV-only power, but its main benefit it to give this 1900kg (ish – there are no official kerbweight figures yet) saloon, instant and devastating throttle response in the mid-range. And that helps make it an excellent means of covering ground quickly and without fuss. All the transmission loss and lag that you get in the T6 AWD seem to have been eradicated.
But the biggest gains are reserved for the way this car handles. The ride is firm, but thanks to those sublime dampers, it seldom gets ruffled by what rough roads throw at it. Yes, it can pitter-patter on motorway expansion joints, but such is the excellence of its damping and body control, all major irregularities are rounded off impressively.
When you start driving it hard as the roads get twistier, it hangs together so much more effectively than the standard S60, giving the driver real confidence to push on and lean on it. Turn-in is progressive, and understeer is tamed to an impressive degree, and it’s very difficult to get things out of shape without severe and unnatural provocation. It still feels a heavy car, with some inertia issues, but far less leaden than the standard S60.
The six-pot Brembos are worth a mention, as they have great stopping power when you’re driving hard, and a curiously inconsistent feel when you’re not. When slowing to a stop, you’ll sometimes be surprised by a grabbiness, which really should have been calibrated out. But the transmission’s ‘B’ mode is a nice addition, offering limited EV-style regenerative braking.
Overall, an interesting and characterful performance saloon, and one that’s a little bit confusing. On the one hand it’s not fast or focused enough to seriously challenge the BMW M3, nor is it as charismatic to drive as the six-cylinder Mercedes-AMG C43. It’s probably not as accomplished all-rounder as an Audi S5 either. But what the S60 Polestar Engineered does do well is cover ground quickly, quietly and without fuss. It’s also good beyond expectations, carving out an interesting new niche for itself, which is good news for fast car buyers looking for a left-field alterative.
Volvo S60: verdict
We like the S60. And we can’t help but admire today’s Volvo. Any company that continues focus on safety, saying that its Vision 2020 strategy will mean that no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020, clearly has lofty ambitions. But is that enough to allow the S60 to go toe-to-toe with its premium rivals?
The saloon as a format might be on the wane, but the continued success of the 3-Series, A4 and C-Class proves that buyers still lap them up if there’s a premium badge nailed to them. But they also need to be very, very good. Volvo is keen to crash that particular party, and it has found success with the S60’s platform sisters, but is this car good enough to complete the story in this particularly hard-fought market sector?
On the basis of our early drive of the S60 T6 AWD, it’s there or thereabouts, and can sit in the premium saloon sector with its head held high. It’s a lovely looking thing, with a particularly well-judged interior, and we can see many people choosing it over a 3-Series, A4 or C-Class on looks alone.
The T8 Polestar Engineered brings something new and a little different to the fast car party, and we admire it for that. It’s not perfect, and suffers from the brilliance of its rivals. But we love the throttle response and sheer majesty of its damping, as well as those stealthy, bad-ass, looks.
Throw in impressive crash-avoidance technology, which will help it move on significantly from the old one, and we can see the S60 moving on Volvo’s game – and premium market ambitions – significantly. But the lack of that last degree of dynamic brilliance expected at this level will ultimately stop it from disrupting this market despite Volvo’s ambitions to the contrary. For now.