After skipping the 2010 model year, Volvo's wallflower, middle-child sedan, the S60, reemerged for 2011 wearing shapely new sheetmetal and a freshly honed set of dynamic skills. The S60 took many staffers by surprise at our 2011 All-Stars test and ended up as one of the dark-horse candidates to win an award. Its profile suddenly raised, the S60 became an obvious candidate for a closer, yearlong look.
At the time we ordered our 2012-model test car, the S60 was offered in two flavors: five-cylinder, front-wheel-drive T5 and six-cylinder, all-wheel-drive T6. The T6 was the version that impressed us so much during All-Stars, so that's what we went with. Since then, Volvo has added the S60 R-Design as a sporty new line-topper.
Whereas the T5, at $32,175, is the undeniable price leader, the T6 is still a fairly attractive value at $39,325 -- and undercuts the $43,825 R-Design by a substantial $4500. We added the multimedia package ($2700), which got us navigation as well as a premium sound system and a backup camera. The premium and climate packages ($2300) brought a sunroof, bixenon swiveling headlamps, a power passenger's seat, and heated front seats. Add the upcharge for metallic paint and keyless ignition, and our S60 rang in at $44,800.
One option we did not choose was the temporary spare tire ($225), and associate web editor Evan McCausland was very sorry we didn't. He hit a pothole, prompting the warning message: "tire needs air now!" A gash in the sidewall rendered the tire completely flat and beyond saving by the tire-inflator kit in the trunk, thus prompting a flatbed ride to the nearest dealership, which had already closed for the night.
Excepting that episode, life with the S60 was largely hassle-free. Over 28,668 miles, our Volvo suffered nary a mechanical failure (a door bolt worked itself loose, but we tightened it ourselves). Nor did it require any unscheduled service visits, and scheduled service is gratis for the first 60,000 miles. That's not to say there were no frustrations. The most often -- and repeatedly -- mentioned had to do with the electronics. Volvo goes its own way when it comes to navigation/audio system logic and operation, and that means a steep learning curve. "Holy driver distractions, Batman!" exclaimed associate web editor Donny Nordlicht. "The infotainment system draws too much attention away from the road and to the screen. The more time I spend with it, and the more I learn it, the more distracting I find it to be. It's the antithesis of what I would expect from a Volvo." Nordlicht's complaints were echoed by several members of the staff, most of whom had issues with the stereo -- strange menu logic, odd controls, and slow-acting graphics -- more so than with the navigation system. Some ultimately were successful at learning its intricacies, however, such as its "song saver" function that records information for a song that's playing that you like, but simplification is certainly in order.
Excepting those times when we were staring at the radio, waiting impatiently for the volume graphic to disappear, we liked what we saw in the S60's cabin. "The interior is the pinnacle of clean, luxurious, Swedish design" enthused Nordlicht. Indeed, the materials are of uniformly high quality and the details are neat. Volvo's floating center stack is present, although the open space behind it is too difficult to access to be useful stowage; in fact, the one quibble we had was the dearth of handy cubbies for storing odds and ends. No one could muster a discouraging word, however, about the excellent seats. Volvo characterizes them as sport seats, but senior editor Eric Tingwall respectfully disagreed: "Instead of deep, restrictive buckets, these seats are as comfortable as an old leather sofa," he said. "They're not particularly supportive for high-speed cornering, but they're divine for commuting and long trips, and in a car like the S60 that's what matters." We were also smitten with the leather upholstery, which prompted a paean from editor-in-chief Jean Jennings, who described it as "ruggedly spectacular, with a hefty pebbled grain. Every seam is double-stitched, making it look like fine luggage, or a saddle, or something really crafted and not just decorated."
As much as we liked the surroundings, we would have welcomed a bit more stretch-out space in which to comfortably enjoy them. Rear-seat room is crimped by the S60's dramatically sloping roofline. And, similarly, the car's small trunk lid hinders access to the modest (twelve-cubic-foot) luggage compartment.
Having a bit more space for luggage and people would be particularly welcome, since the S60 is such an excellent partner for long trips. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio characterized it as "a fabulous freeway machine." And associate web editor Jake Holmes observed, "Our S60's combination of power, comfort, and luxury make short work of freeway driving." On a trip to New York and back, senior web editor Phil Floraday noticed one not-so-fabulous issue: wildly fluctuating fuel-range estimates, even when using cruise control. Typically, we managed roughly 400 miles between road-trip fill-ups, with an observed highway mileage of about 25 mpg. Our overall average for the year was 22 mpg, on regular gas (notable for a turbocharged engine), consistent with the EPA's estimates of 18/26 mpg city/highway.
We surely would have done better with the T5, with its five-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive, but it's doubtful anyone would have wanted to give up the T6's turbocharged straight six, which makes a hearty 300 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque. Although those figures have now been eclipsed by the S60 R-Design's 325 hp and 354 lb-ft, we never found our T6 lacking for grunt; we measured 6.0 seconds for the 0-to-60-mph run. "Volvo's in-line six rivals BMW and Audi six-cylinders for power and smoothness," said assistant editor David Zenlea, and Floraday posited that Volvo's turbocharged six offers more linear throttle response than BMW's turbo six, a characteristic that was particularly welcome in urban traffic. As always, turbo torque comes on low in the rev range -- peak grunt is available at 2100 rpm -- making passing on the freeway "silky smooth," as downshifts are rarely needed. Speaking of downshifts, we liked the way the six-speed automatic transmission's character changes noticeably when in sport mode, but we did wish for rev-matching on manual downshifts and paddles to execute those shifts.
All-wheel drive is standard on the T6, and the system's torque vectoring works extremely well. "This car never, ever hunts for traction under acceleration," marveled associate web editor Ben Timmins, "even in some squirrelly situations, like low-speed hairpins on muddy gravel." The T6 has the Dynamic chassis setup, which is firmer than the Touring chassis in the T5 but more compliant than the Sport chassis of the R-Design. Most of us were happy with this setup -- Zenlea characterized it as "recognizably European" -- although there were some complaints of ride harshness. Here's contributor Ronald Ahrens, after a trip to Tennessee: "The ride is pretty firm, and the rougher patchwork section of I-71 in northern Kentucky became somewhat oppressive. On the other hand, it's easy to appreciate how well controlled the body motions are." We might have been able to dial up a mellower suspension tune had we taken the Four-C (adaptive dampening) suspension option, which gives a choice of three settings. Buyers of the T6 also can select the T5's Touring chassis setup as a no-cost option.
Finally, no Volvo review would be complete without some mention of the car's safety features. The S60 comes standard with Volvo's City Safety feature. At low speeds (up to 19 mph) it scans for objects ahead and can apply the brakes itself to avoid a collision. It helped us once, when we approached a slow-acting gate in a parking garage. (The optional technology package, which was not on our test car, includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and collision warning with pedestrian detection.)
"The S60 is a perfect example of how mastering the fundamentals creates a car that feels like so much more than the sum of its parts," wrote Tingwall as our year drew to a close. Over twelve months, the S60 not only held up physically but also in terms of our esteem. "This is a beautiful, smooth-driving, sporty car that is fully deserving of the All-Star award we gave it," said copy editor Rusty Blackwell. And Floraday added that it is "a car that surpasses expectations yet doesn't line up directly with any competitors." That last observation may explain why the S60 snuck up on us -- but we have now fully awakened to its charms.