First Drive: 2011 Volvo S60

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2011 Volvo S60 Front Motion

Ask most Americans what single word comes to mind when they think of Volvo, and they are likely to say, “safety.” No other automaker has so burned the safety message into our brains than Volvo has over decades of advertising and brand management. Naturally, Volvo continues to capitalize on that reputation with the all-new 2011 S60, which integrates more active and passive safety systems than ever before, including a groundbreaking new pedestrian-protection system.

But Volvo wanted more for the new S60, which hits U.S. dealerships in mid-September 2010. Knowing how competitive the entry-luxury sedan market is, Volvo wanted the S60 to be as sexy as it is smart and as scintillating to drive as it is to look at. Peter Horbury, Volvo’s former design director who returned to Volvo last year after a stint at parent Ford, led Volvo design in a new direction back in the 1990s with the S80 sedan. So, for more than a decade, Volvos have been fine-looking cars, whether we’re talking sedans, wagons, SUVs, coupes, or convertibles. But they haven’t come close to equaling other European makes in terms of their driving experience. Will the 2011 S60 change that? Keep reading.

Safety comes naturally, even for pedestrians. Volvo’s all-new pedestrian-detection system is part of the $2100 Technology Package, which also includes adaptive cruise control, collision warning with full automatic braking, and warnings for maintaining distance and staying in your lane. But pedestrian detection is the unique offering here. Volvo’s radar- and camera-based system can detect pedestrians in front of the car, warn the driver if anyone walks out into its path – and then automatically activate the S60’s full braking power if the driver fails to respond in time.

How does it work? The system uses a newly developed radar unit integrated into the S60’s grille, a camera fitted in front of the inside rearview mirror, and a central control unit. The radar’s task is to detect any object in front of the car and to determine the distance to it while the camera determines what type of object it is. Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake can avoid a collision with a pedestrian at speeds up to 22 mph if the driver does not react in time. At higher speeds, the focus is on reducing the car’s speed as much as possible prior to the impact, to lessen its severity.

In a test that Volvo set up for us during our first drive of the S60 in Portugal, we drove at about 15-20 mph toward a stationary dummy, to mimic low-speed driving in a crowded urban area. “Just keep driving steadily toward the dummy,” advised Tomas Andersson, senior manager for active safety electronics at Volvo. We did as we were instructed, and as we got closer to the dummy, the S60 sounded an urgent tone and flashed lights at us. Just as it seemed that the dummy’s days were over, the car took the reins from us and slammed on the brakes. The S60 stopped in its tracks, the dummy’s life was saved, and we were impressed. The radar’s field of view is about 60 degrees, but the camera’s field of view is only about 45 degrees, “so the limiting factor is the camera,” explains Andersson. “We need redundancy to perform this kind of harsh maneuver.” Meaning, both the camera and the radar must recognize the presence of a pedestrian at the same time, communicate this information with each other, and then take action by applying the brakes. The pedestrian-detection works up to 80 kph (50 mph) but does not work at night or in other low-light conditions.

The pedestrian-detection system is a follow-up to Volvo’s existing collision-avoidance systems, including City Safe, standard on the new S60, which automatically brakes the car if the driver fails to do so when approaching another vehicle from behind.

Volvo also offers its blind-spot detection system as a $700 stand-alone option. Curtain air bags, seatbelt pretensioners, whiplash protection, and all the other safety systems we’ve come to expect from Volvo are also in play here.

At launch, standard six-cylinder and all-wheel drive. The 2011 Volvo S60 arrives in the United States with only one powertrain initially, but it’s a good one: a turbocharged, 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder producing 300 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is standard.

“We will introduce a less expensive volume engine as well,” says Volvo Cars of North America brand manager Frank Vacca, “and it will be mated to standard front-wheel drive.” Vacca won’t confirm, but it’s very likely that this second engine, which comes on-stream in the first quarter of 2011, will be the 203-hp turbocharged direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder that Volvo is offering in the S60 in Europe from launch. It likely will be mated to a dual-clutch automatic transmission. For now, Vacca likes to point out that, with 325 lb-ft, the S60 has as much torque as the 4.4-liter V-8 in the XC90 SUV.

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