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.