First Drive: 2011 Volvo S60

2011 Volvo S60 Rear Closeup

Chassis: three cars in one?

Volvo continues to employ several different suspension setups for the S60, its bestselling model worldwide. Volvo Cars of North America wisely chose the Dynamic suspension setup as standard equipment for the U.S. market; a softer Touring suspension is a no-cost option. The third available setup is the driver-controlled FOUR-C Active system, which is a stand-alone $750 option. Compared with Touring, the Dynamic setup has stiffer springs and bushings and allows more range of motion in the dampers.

The electronically controlled FOUR-C, for its part, allows the driver to choose between so-called Comfort, Sport, and Advanced settings. We thought it was a relatively useless gimmick when an earlier version of it debuted on the 2004 S60R, and we still have our suspicions, but we didn’t have an opportunity to drive a car equipped with it in Portugal so we will withhold judgment for now. Roger Wallgren, team leader for large-car vehicle dynamics at Volvo, claims that the latest version of FOUR-C (continuously controlled chassis concept) is greatly improved. “You cannot compare this 4C with the old 4C suspension,” says the former Saab engineer, who moved to Volvo three years ago. “The basic idea with the 4C chassis is that you get three cars in one,” he explains. “If you are on a long journey, you choose comfort mode. If you want to enjoy the car on a challenging road, you select advanced mode. Most of the time, you will be happy with the middle mode, sport.” How does 4C work? “It’s not all in the electronics,” Wallgren says. “It’s also in the hardware, specifically the damper valving.” In fact, the S60 Dynamic and the S60 4C share the same mechanical chassis components---springs, anti-roll bars, and bushings---except the dampers.

A nice “welcome back” gift for Peter Horbury.

Volvo exterior designer Örjan Sterner was responsible for the stunning shape of the 2011 S60, and we’d have to say that he created quite a nice “welcome back to Volvo” gift for returning design director Peter Horbury. The new S60’s lines clearly pay homage to the 21st-century design theme that Horbury laid down in the 1990s, before he moved to Detroit to run Ford’s North American design operation, yet the car’s styling moves briskly in a new direction. Horbury must have been absolutely thrilled to see Sterner’s work when he returned to Sweden in mid-2009.

Indeed, Horbury says “I was an immensely proud ‘father’ of the first-generation S60 almost ten years ago. It took our design language a major step forward. Now we are taking an even bigger visual stride with more emotional and sporty dynamism. But the basic idea is and will remain the same: a coupe with four doors.”

The S60 interior is equally compelling, and Volvo designers say they took their inspiration for it from an unlikely place: the racetrack. “A quick glance inside the car is enough for you to feel that this is a Volvo with a totally different dynamic presence than previous models,” says Jonathan Disley, head of interior design. “The racetrack’s dramatic yet harmoniously flowing lines can be traced in almost every interior detail. It’s an interior for all your senses.” This is all a bit of a stretch, we’d say, but the S60 interior is indeed very, very nicely executed.

Interior trim themes concentrate on modern beige and black hues, but Volvo resurrected Beechwood brown, a shade of leather upholstery that traces its roots to classic Volvo models such as the P1800 ES and 164. We spent time in an S60 in the official copper exterior launch color and a two-tone interior of black and Beechwood brown, a very nice combination, as well as an S60 with a black exterior and a black-and-beige interior, which was also very smart. The seats both front and rear are very comfortable, there’s 2.1 inches of additional rear legroom, and the instrument panel finally has a properly integrated, modern infotainment screen; it’s standard even if you don’t get the optional navigation system. HD radio and six months of Sirius satellite radio are standard, as are a DVD player and USB, iPod, and AUX inputs.

They weren’t kidding about the sportiness.

Let’s face it: the outgoing S60 was never a class leader and was well past its sell-by date. The S60 development team was charged with creating “the sportiest Volvo ever,” and we think they have definitely achieved that. Not only is the 2011 S60 a vast improvement over its predecessor, it’s also now a true rival for cars like the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-class, and Acura TL, even if it lacks the keen edge of the BMW 3-series (what car doesn’t?). The S60 moves with a grace and sense of purpose that has eluded Volvos for years.

We found the Dynamic suspension setting to be ideal. Our test S60 was equipped with 235/40R-18 Continental ContiSportContact 3 summer tires, and the car had a supple ride yet excellent grip, thanks in part to the all-wheel-drive system. Volvo also uses a rudimentary torque-vectoring system at the rear axle to send more torque to the outside wheel in corners. “BMW and Acura are [sending more torque to] the outer wheel through a mechanical device,” explains chassis engineer Wallgren, “whereas ours is a brake system [via the stability control electronics].” He claims that it is a different way of achieving the same thing. That may be wishful thinking, but the S60 did carve through corners very nicely on a freshly paved former rally road in the mountains above Lisbon.

The T6 powertrain is also a winner. Smooth, progressive, seamless power and torque are on tap, and the six-speed automatic works pretty well, although it’s sometimes just a tad slow to respond to manual-mode upshifts. There are no shift paddles. Fuel economy figures haven’t been finalized, but Volvo expects to achieve a 17/26 city/highway fuel economy rating.

The S60 exhibits a crispness and a confidence that will surprise current drivers of Volvo sedans. With it, Volvo has improved not only on its traditional strength, safety, but also has made an even bigger styling statement. Most important, the S60 finally is competitive in terms of its driving dynamics.

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