"It's...the sportiest safe-feeling sedan, or the safest-feeling sporty sedan, you can buy."
Good: cushy seats, safety features
Bad: five-cylinder engine, confusing clutch

 

The S60, Volvo's new, mid-sized sedan, is put up against the likes of the BMW 3 Series, the Audi A4 and Volkswagen Passat. It combines Volvo's traditional safety and firm luxury with a new element (at least for Volvo): Style. The S60 takes the place of the S70 (which replaced the 850) in the middle of Volvo's lineup. But it's closer to the more expensive and larger S80 in styling and performance than to the smaller, entry level Volvo S40.

There are four versions of the S60, all with five cylinder engines: The base model, without a turbo; the 2.4T, with a low-pressure turbo; the T5, with a powerful, high-pressure turbo; and a new all-wheel drive edition that gets the low-pressure engine. Got all that? Good. We drove the S60 T5 with front-wheel drive. It's got a cars.com target price of $30,400 before options. The 2.4T is about $1,000 less, and the base model S60 is about $5,000 less than the T5.


Driving Experience

The T5 presents something of a paradox. Its five-cylinder engine, with a high-pressure turbo, puts out 247 horsepower. That's about fifty percent more power than the base version. In other words, it's very powerful.

And yet, with all that power, this car feels heavy and sluggish, especially at low speeds. The reason for this is the high-pressure turbo, which doesn't kick in until the engine gets well up into the revs (or until the exhaust manifold is producing high pressure). So during normal, everyday driving around town, the S60 gives the impression of being sluggish. As a result, you'll find yourself downshifting more than you might expect. When you push it a little harder, or get out on the highway, the power becomes apparent. But too much of the time, it's not there for the asking. It feels like a heavy car, even though at 3,377 pounds, the S60 is within a hundred pounds of a Toyota Camry.

By the way, we've also driven the 2.4T low-pressure turbo in an all-wheel drive version of the S60. And that's a much better engine for this car. Its power is available across a much broader range of engine speeds. So we'd definitely recommend the 2.4T low-pressure turbo engine.

The S60 has very good handling, with a firm, sporty suspension. Those of you expecting to be coddled might find it too firm, especially the T5. But, as usual, the Volvo seats are spectacular, making for a comfortable, if not always, cushy ride. The base model and the 2.4T have slightly softer, more comfortable rides -- another reason to favor them over the T5.

The S60 we tested had a five-speed, manual transmission, but a very good five-speed automatic is available, too. Antilock brakes are standard. Stability control is a $1,000 option on the T5 and 2.4T. An all-wheel drive version of the S60 is now available, too, for those who need exceptional traction.

One note of concern: We hated the clutch in the S60. The engagement point was nebulous, resulting in frequent stalling. We felt as if we were learning to drive for the first time. To be fair to Volvo, we have no idea if this problem was isolated to our test vehicle or if it is a symptom that'll be found in all S60s.


Interior

This is a car in which we felt very safe. The doors appear to be three inches thick (actual width unknown). Volvo has certainly developed an image as a builder of worst-case-scenario cars, and the S60 is no exception. It feels like there's a lot of Swedish steel sheltering you from the cell-phone-using, latte-sipping Ford Expedition drivers of the world. This car feels solid.

Head room is good up front, but it feels cramped in the back because of the sloping roof line. The styling results in a smallish trunk, too, although you can flip the rear, seat-backs forward to extend the storage space. Who would ever have thought we'd see Volvo putting styling ahead of function? Not us.

There's no breaking with tradition when it comes to the seats. Volvo is known for its comfortable, supportive, orthopedic seats, and the seats in the S60 are all that. Think of them as free-range earth shoes for your tuchus.

There are good-sized bins in the front doors and between the seats for stashing your stuff, and an elegant cupholder for your hot cocoa. Other standard features include side air bags, air conditioning, adjustable rear-head restraints, power locks, windows and mirrors, speed control, a tilt-telescope steering wheel, and, for the mechanically inclined, a tool kit.


Ergonomics

We really liked the climate controls. Even we could figure out how to use the two big temperature dials and the human shape with arrows pointing where you want the air to go.

The stereo was a little less intuitive. It uses a knob to select sources like AM, FM, CD, and who knows what else. It requires some getting used to after being accustomed to the myriad of little buttons most radios use for the same functions. The radio sounded great, by the way. (Even after Ray tuned in Bert Bachrach on the AM dial.)

Anyone who's ever run down their car's battery by leaving the headlights on will appreciate Volvo's thoughtful touch of having the lights shut off when the ignition switch is turned off. Not only do the lights go out but all the accessories get switched off, so you're less likely to have to seek out some sympathetic soul with jumper cables in his trunk. Why doesn't everybody do this?


Styling

We thought Volvo did a good job with the S60's styling. It's distinctive and sleek, and the tapered roof line makes it look more like a coupe than a sedan. The car's aerodynamics, however, do allow rainwater to pool up on the back window -- and there's no wiper to sweep it away. It looks like a slightly smaller version of the S80, with its unique, sloping rear shoulders, Woody Allen expression, tail lights. All in all, a distinctive and very nice looking car.


Reliability

We would expect the Volvo S60 to have Volvo's typical level of reliability, which is to say, it should be very good. We wouldn't expect much to go wrong while the car is still under warranty. Then, when parts do start to break at around 100,000 miles... be prepared to pay top dollar for replacement components.


Maintenance

Because of the small engine compartment, the S60 is going to be a challenging car to service. Many knuckles will be scraped, so expect to pay more for any kind of service or maintenance. We'd recommend taking the S60 to a dealer for anything beyond routine tune-ups and belt replacements.


Overall comments

Remember, not so long ago, when Volvos looked as if they had been styled with a cheese slicer? Well, the folks at Volvo have been letting their hair down, so to speak, and cars like the S60 are the result. It's pretty clearly meant to be either the sportiest safe-feeling sedan, or the safest-feeling sporty sedan, youcan buy.

If you're looking for a $30,000 sports sedan, there are some pretty good choices. There's the Audi A4, the BMW 3 Series, the fully loaded VW Passat, and the new Lexus IS 300 -- each of which we liked. If you're looking for an especially safe car in this category, however, you may find the S60 well worth considering. The addition of an all-wheel drive version makes it especially appealing to those in the great frozen North. And if you do buy this car, the 2.4T engine is the power plant of choice.


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