If you've been following the Swedish auxiliary of the premium-sedan game, you may remember a certain banana-yellow 1995 Volvo sedan called the 850 T-5R. It was the oddest of doctors--a rigidly creased, evidently safe sedan with lurid add-ons and stagecoach wheels. Intended as a marketing stunt, the T-5R seemed more like an act of consumer contempt, an attempt to embarrass Volvo's tote-bag-clutching, soy-milk-drinking, bluegrass-festival-picnicking clientele. Strangely enough, people liked it. The T-5R tapped into some hidden vein of pragmatic nuttiness theretofore unmined and sold 7500 copies instead of the allotted 3500.
The spring 2003 arrival of "R" sport versions of Volvo's S60 sedan and V70 wagon means the lessons of the previous R cars didn't go unheeded. Unlike the mostly cosmetic T-5R, though, these new cars have performance bona fides, including 300 horses, intercoolers, and semi-active suspensions. Still, they pose the question: Can maximal sportiness and safety coexist in one entity? Examples from other disciplines suggest that they can't. The motion picture Jackass, for one. Also, notice how helmets and padding have dealt blows to many a pastime, taking most of the head injuries and yuks out of hockey and football.
Things are less clear-cut in the car realm. As the scope and sales volumes of the sport-sedan category widen, so does its definition. Now there is a place for cars other than BMW and BMW-poseurs in this burgeoning class. And the R cars avoid any comparison to the BMW by dint of their front-wheel-drive-based all-wheel-drive systems, turbo powerplants, and haute design. But not, alas, to Audi, which offers the same values in mildly different form.
The S60R and the V70R will fall somewhere in price and performance between the top-line A4 3.0 and the forthcoming S4/S4 Avant. In terms of content and execution, they are fully competitive with the Ingolstadters. The R cars have been designed, in the words of Volvo designer Steve Harper, "to be subtle. They're for somebody who appreciates an individual statement, somebody who appreciates the little details, the extra pleasures." Just like an Audi, in fact. The R cars are similarly awash in careful touches. Harper reports thirty changes to S/V body and interior, for a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing effect: "You can still see the claws, or wheels, the teeth in the grille, and the exhaust peeking out like a tail," Harper notes. The claws are something: big Brembos lurking in seventeen- or eighteen-inch five-spoke wheels. The braking system's four-piston calipers clamp down on thirteen-inch ventilated discs. As a fetishistic touch, the calipers have an italicized R stamped on their sides.
The grille has been moved down a bit to lower the center of oncoming air pressure, and the entire front end has grown longer to make room for two turbo intercoolers. The Volvo design boys enlarged the central air intake, too, pulling it square and forward la BMW's M5. Flanking the grille are bi-xenon headlights in new, squinty satin-silver frames.
Harper's inspiration for the exhaust design came from the Guy Ritchie flick Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, wherein the villain wraps his sawed-off shotgun in a newspaper to silence it. Pointing to a plastic drape over the twin exhaust tips, Harper says, "This is my newspaper."
Inside, the detailing is equally thoughtful, over and above the already high levels of craftsmanship in the mid-size Volvos. Two tiny italic Rs glint in the metallic bezels surrounding the blue speedo and tach. Three leathers are offered: dark blue metallic, beige metallic, or natural. The last is the highest grade, with the hand of a soft Herms purse. The cabin's color scheme, with warm tones abutting harsh ones, was inspired by the silver/cream gas tank on Philippe Starck's motorcycle design for Aprilia.
Overindulgence is the theme here, both cosmetically and mechanically. The complex web of electronics supporting the R driving experience is integrated into something Volvo calls its Active Performance Chassis. It coordinates the functions of Volvo's electronically controlled Haldex clutch-based all-wheel-drive system with DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control) and a new semi-active suspension called Four-C (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept). Four-C takes readings from sensors measuring longitudinal acceleration, lateral acceleration, yaw rate, vertical motion of the body, vertical motion of each wheel, engine torque, throttle position, degree of braking, and steering-wheel position and turn rate. It processes all this information and adapts damping force accordingly. Volvo claims the system is lightning quick, able to adjust wheel and body resistance 500 times a second. Four-C has three settings: Comfort (for highway driving or bad pavement), Sport (for smooth-road sweepers), and Advanced Sport (for billiard-table surfaces and tight corners, such as you would find on a racetrack).
Racetracks and Volvos are an unlikely combination, as Volvo unintentionally made clear recently. Indeed, just as it was demonstrating to the world's press its new racing-inspired R cars on the Paul Ricard test circuit in France, Volvo was canceling its involvement in the European Touring Car Championship.
The Paul Ricard circuit did not show the R cars to their best advantage, although they were fast enough. The KKK turbocharged in-line five is reportedly good for a 5.6-second 0-to-60-mph time, a claim that seemed entirely credible. Its power delivery works best in a straight line, since the aggressive turbo is hard to modulate in corners. With the Advanced Sport setting engaged, the car rolls not one whit and exhibits little dive or squat under the wonderfully effective force of the brakes. Flimsy might best describe the action of the six-speed manual gearbox (a five-speed automatic is also offered). Same goes for the steering, which lacks feel in spite of its weighty buildup. Traction control comes in early and often, and it can't be switched off. Whether cornering patiently or impulsively, the car's safety bias always asserts itself, returning understeer in exchange for prodigious grip. We've been noticing this tendency with every front-biased all-wheel-drive system we've driven hard lately, but the Volvo's passion for understeer borders on pathological. It severely delimits the fun, making our little racetrack exercise seem like an intellectual one.
But the car shines in more laid-back driving conditions. On the sinuous roads surrounding the Paul Ricard complex, with the Four-C system set at Sport, the car's midrange fluidity came to the fore. This is a fine and engaging road car that prefers sweepers to first-gear corners.
The R cars take the realistic tack, happily ceding the drive-to-the-club-race crown to BMW, and this philosophy is in line with Volvo's carefully considered approach to going fast. In the end, these sporting four-doors seem the mildest of their breed, not merely because they are less powerful than the BMW M3 or the next Audi S4 but also because they never fully let loose. They are not steer-it-with-the-throttle, hand-brake-it-into-a-parking-space kinds of cars; their strength is in their craftsmanship and their seven-tenths performance. To its credit, Volvo has created the first good-for-you sport sedan and wagon, supervised-fun cars with a full team of baby-sitters built in. They answer the question of whether ultimate safety and ultimate fun are a good match. Inasmuch as fun involves a whiff of danger, the answer is no.