2011 Volvo S60

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The 2011 Volvo S60 – just redesigned – doesn’t want me to use my radar detector. More accurately, it won’t let me use it. The car’s built-in laser pulsing “safety” equipment triggers my Valentine 1 detector’s laser warnings – in traffic, every 10-15 seconds or so. That means I have to turn off the audible warnings or be driven nuts by the incessant beeping – of both my detector and the Volvo, which also blinks (there’s a series of LED lights embedded in the dashboard that light up in addition to the defibrillating beep! beep! beeps! that hit you if you dare to change lanes with signaling first. Even if there’s no one around for miles… . )

I like the car a lot – but man, I hate all this suffocating busybody “safety” stuff. Especially that you can’t turn it off. Not without a ball peen hammer, anyhow. And who is going to do that to a nearly $40,000 car?

Volvo’s built its reputation on safety, I know. People who buy Volvos like safety.

But maybe it’s getting to be a bit much?

WHAT IT IS

The S60 is Volvo’s mid-sized lux-sport sedan. Prices starts at $30,975 for the front-wheel-drive, 250 hp T5 (technically an early 2012 model) and run to $37,700 for the high-performance, 300 hp and all-wheel-drive T6.

As an “almost prestige” brand, Volvo hopes to draw customers away from the definitely prestige brand players in this segment – including BMW, Audi, Cadillac and Lexus.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The S60 is completely redesigned for 2011. The front-wheel-drive T5 trim – just coming out as this review was written – is being sold as a “2012” even though it’s still just the first quarter of 2011.

WHAT’S GOOD

Forget about Volvos being boring-looking – or boring driving. This one’s not either.

Beautifully executed interior.

Turbo boost in both trims.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Aggravating “safety” features that pre-empt you and distract you.

Price of T6 can sail to nearly $50k if you check a few major options.

Volvos are very nice cars but not yet fully accredited prestige cars.

UNDER THE HOOD

The T5 version of the S60 is powered by a turbocharged 2.5 liter, 250 hp inline five-cylinder engine. In the high-performance T6, you get one more cylinder, three full liters and 300 hp.

Both engines are paired with six-speed automatics but the T5 is front-wheel-drive while the T6 is all-wheel-drive.

The T5 does 0-60 in just under 7 seconds and delivers 20 city, 30 highway.

The more powerful T6 cuts about a second off that time.

Your penalty for the extra performance is that gas mileage drops to a pretty thirsty 18 city, 26 highway. (A BMW 335i with the same 300 hp rating gets 28 highway, 19 city. The Audi A4 can deliver 30 on the highway – same as the T5.)

ON THE ROAD

Close your eyes and forget you ever saw that Austin Powers symbol on the grille.

The S60 snaps to attention as eagerly as other sport sedans in the $30,000-$40,000 range. Having turbos – and the high-torque, seat-of-the-pants thrust forward at low RPMs the turbo provides, even in the T5 – is a definite selling point.

The ride is supple, the steering tactile and nicely weighted. Like the BMW 3 or Caddy CTS, the S60 is a car that you can feel good about driving much faster than you’re supposed to – a very naughty, non-Volvo sensation! It would have been even naughtier if Volvo had let the turbo’d engines whistle a little more noticeably than they do in this car. In fact, the only way to know there is a turbo is to read the specification sheet. There’s no audible turbo whistle, no boost gauge either. Too bad. There should be. Why hide what you’ve got? It’s like putting Charlize Theron in Granny Panties.

The AWD-equipped T6 doesn’t feel heavy-set, which some AWD cars do because of the extra weight they’re carrying and also because the drive wheels don’t roll as freely due to all four of them being connected to the driveline.

The T6 is about 264 lbs. heavier than the FWD T5 (3,812 lbs. vs. 3,548 lbs.) but the 50 extra hp and – even more importantly – the T6 engine’s 59 additional lbs.-ft of torque (325 lbs.-ft vs. 266 lbs.-ft. in the T5) cancel out the extra bulk.

Probably the main disappointment for the enthusiast-minded drivers Volvo is clearly hoping to court with this car is the mandatory six-speed automatic – in both versions of the S60, even the ostensibly high-performance T6. Manuals are increasingly common in luxury sport sedans (even Cadillac now offers them) and though there’s no reason to dislike the Volvo’s excellent six-speed automatic, there are still drivers who prefer to shift for themselves. Volvo may have made a mistake by not giving them the option to do so.

The T6’s AWD system is capable of diverting power to individual wheels – not just front to back. This provides a handling advantage when driving fast on dry, paved roads – in addition to a traction advantage when the car’s trying to claw its way up a slippery incline in the winter.

AT THE CURB

Volvo has fixed the severe-austere countenance that some of its previous models had. The S60 is slick and modern, but not cold-looking. My test car was painted a cheery saffron orange color with matching two-tone interior, set off with baseball leather and brushed nickel trim around the chronograph-style gauge facings. The center stack has a “floating” lower section that’s only about an inch thick, like an iPad. Behind it there’s a hidden storage area that’s ideal for tucking important items out of sight but still within easy reach, if you need them while driving. It is also canted to the left slightly – toward the driver – which both looks good and also helps eliminate glare that might otherwise make it harder to read the LCD display for the GPS/audio/telematics.

Headroom up front (38.3 inches) is a bit less than in competitors like the Audi A4 (40 inches) but virtually identical to the noggin room in the BMW 3 (38.5 inches) and Cadillac CTS (38.8). Front seat legroom – 41.9 inches – is more generous (by about half an inch) than in the A4 and BMW 3 but less than in the CTS, which leads with 42.4 inches.

The main area where the S60 falls short relative to others in this segment is backseat legroom, which at 33.5 inches is almost three inches less legroom than you’d get in the compact-sized Toyota Corolla (just for some perspective) and about an inch less than in the BMW 3 , about two inches less than in the A4 and about three inches less than in the CTS. Still, there’s enough leg and head room for a six-footer (me) to sit back there without his head scraping the roof or his knees bunching up against the front seatbacks.

The problem isn’t so much the space that’s there, it’s getting into and out of the space that’s there. The rear door opening is fairly awkward because on either side there’s a mass of metal (B pillar or the the C pillar) winnowing down to a very narrow “window” that you must step into, through and then down to climb onboard. I’m in good shape and flexible and it wasn’t easy for me. People who aren’t very flexible may find it difficult to climb in and out of the S60’s back seats.

Trunk space in all these cars is pretty puny – the “largest” being the Cadillac’s 13.6 cubic footer. The S60 comes in at 12 cubes – same as the A4 and BMW 3. However, there’s more useful space there than the raw numbers indicate. For example, I was able to easily carry home six large bags of decorative stones from Lowes, along with a new garden hose, electric wiring and a bunch of other stuff besides. The trunk lid opens low, too – which helps maximize the space you do have, as well as making it easier to get things in an out of there.

THE REST

The main grip I have with the S60 is the over-aggressive roster of “safety” stuff that comes with this car. For example, the Lane Departure Warning thing. If you don’t turn it off every time you start the car, it will beep – very loudly and sometimes startlingly – at you if you change lanes without signaling. Yes, I know you should signal before you change lanes. But when there is no traffic around and you don’t signal, you shouldn’t be wrapped on the knuckles for it by an electronic safety nag. Plus, you have to turn it off every single time you drive off. There should be a way to turn it off permanently.

Next up is the City Safe anti-collision warning system, which uses lasers to detect objects and other cars within the S60’s orbit. It will actually slow and even stop the car automatically if you fail to brake in time on your own. Lovely, except for two things. One, if you use a radar detector with the ability to detect police laser the S60’s regular bursts (about every 5-10 seconds or so, according to my count) of laser energy will drive your detector nuts – which will drive you nuts. Ok, maybe you don’t have a radar detector – or think they’re for lawbreakers. Still doesn’t address the issue of the flashing LED light bar on the top left of the S60’s dash that goes off whenever the anti-collision system “sees” an object or another car near your car. This part of the system can be turned off at least, but it’s still super annoying – and can be super distracting – and thus, arguably unsafe. You can see the laser projector in the left side of the grille (photo).

In addition to  all this is an optional (thank god) Pedestrian Detector that also stops the car for you if you don’t notice that someone just decided to play in traffic.  All this gear makes the S60 perhaps the most “active” safety technology-equipped car on the road.

But pre-cell Gen X old schooler that I am, this Band-Aid approach to bad/inattentive driving doesn’t strike me as the right way to play. If you’re paying attention to the road instead of yarping on your sail fawn or diddling with your iPod, maybe you’d notice with your eyes that traffic ahead was slowing down, without having to rely on a computerized wet nurse to do it for you.  All this “active” safety technology is arguably encouraging more passive driving.

Finally, the S60 has eye-searingly bright DRLs. And you can’t turn them off, either.

THE BOTTOM LINE

I like that Volvo is taking a sportier turn and putting fun back into its cars. I just wish they’d realize that driving fun and over-the-top “safety” technology are not exactly birds of a feather.

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