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.