First Drive: 2019 Volvo S60
Volvo gives us a Polestar Engineered taste of its new-electrified mid-size sport sedan
When we were first invited to sample the new Volvo S60, we figured we'd have an easy job ahead of us; we could just cut and paste from our recent Volvo reviews. After all, the S60 (along with its wagon sibling, the V60) is the final model in Volvo's product renewal, and it uses the same Scaled Product Architecture (SPA) platform, Drive-E engines, and tablet-like Sensus interface as the XC60 and 90-series vehicles. Though we were happy to hear the new S60 will be built in the U.S. at Volvo's newly minted South Carolina plant, we weren't expecting any surprises.
But surprise us Volvo did with its awkwardly named 2019 Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered. This is the top-of-the-range sporting edition of the S60, with an upgraded suspension, brakes, and a version of Volvo's T8 plug-in hybrid powertrain under the hood. While electrified performance cars aren't new, this is one of the first examples clearly aimed at the masses. And aside from a few glitches, it's pretty darn good.
That's the good news. The bad news is you won't be able to get one anytime soon. Volvo is offering just 20—yes, you read that right, two-zero—of the Polestar Engineering cars to the U.S. market for the 2019 model year. Rather than selling them, it offered them on its Care By Volvo subscription plan. As you can probably imagine, all 20 are already spoken for.
None of this makes us any less interested in the car, or any less enthralled by the driving experience. The S60 PE's powertrain combines the supercharged-and-turbocharged version of Volvo's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which drives the front wheels, with an electric motor connected to the rear wheels. Total system power is 415 horsepower and 494 lb-ft of torque, up 15 hp and 22 lb-ft from Volvo's base T8 setup. Other enhancements include Öhlins electronically-adjustable shocks and gold-colored Brembo brake calipers, with seat belts and tire valve stem caps colored to match.
The combination of the engine's supercharger and the electric motor on the rear axle brings a new definition to right now power. Volvo claims a 0-60 time of 4.3 seconds, but there's more to the story. Most modern-day turbocharged cars hesitate at least a little when you stomp the pedal from rest, but not the Polestar—it scoots with no delay. The T8 engine, which uses a supercharger to boost off-idle response, is quick enough on its own. Augmenting it with electricity seriously ups the grin factor and offers more confirmation that electrification can be a good thing from a performance perspective.
The snappy powertrain makes it easy to overlook the suspension, which is also worthy of note. Anyone who drove the previous-gen S60 Polestar will remember that it was a great-handling car with a punishing ride. The new Polestar Engineered S60 is a little tamer and a lot more livable. It's not the grippiest car we've driven, but it zips through the curves with a satisfying rightness. The ride is firm, to be sure, but not putative, and it floats rather forgivingly over sharper bumps. And while we've already dealt with the powertrain, we must mention it again: Corner exit is a whole new kind of fun with the workload shared by an electric motor, which doesn't get bogged down even if the transmission happens to be in the wrong gear.
What makes the S60 PE (sorry, Volvo, but we refuse to refer to such a great car by such a silly name) is that once you turn off Sport mode, it transforms itself into Mr. Green. The gas engine shuts off and the car favors electric power. The battery-only range is modest—21 miles—but that's enough for the average one-way commute plus a quick run for lunch. The T8 charges with a standard 240-volt EV charger and drivers can charge from the engine or hold the battery charge for later use. Tired of imitating a Prius? Click back to Sport mode, the engine fires up, and the electric motor goes from helping you save fuel to helping you waste it.
Only one thing was seriously out of whack during our drive, however, and it had to do with the brakes. Like most hybrids, the S60 utilizes a mix of regenerative and friction braking, and the setup in the cars we drove seemed way off to us. Hit the brakes quickly and they grab hard, and when nearing a stop the braking effort increases with surprising rapidity. Smooth stops are nearly impossible as there's no way of knowing when the sudden increase in braking power will come. We're guessing there's a problem with the transition from regen to friction braking as the car slows. Volvo says it is still refining the brakes, though it's a little worrying that the cars have come this far along in the development process without solving the issue.
A couple of things are slightly less out-of-whack. The steering, while nicely weighted and responsive, could provide more feedback. And what's up with the E-shifter's behavior? The crystal handle is nice, but it requires a double-tap to move between the most commonly-used ranges (park, drive, and reverse), which is both frustrating and unnecessary—most electronic shifters allow you accomplish this in one motion. Call us pedantic if you like; we'll see if you agree after driving a T8 and trying to figure out why the hell the car isn't moving in its intended direction (answer: You want drive but you've only made it to neutral). We'd be much happier if Volvo fitted the ordinary P-R-N-D shifter it employs on its T5 and T6 models.
We should note that the crusher-bound pre-production S60s we drove had 20-inch wheels and Pirelli P Zero tires that will not make it to the U.S.; our S60 PEs will get 19-inch wheels with a yet-to-be-determined tire. Volvo thinks the 20s would be too rough for the moonscape pavement of Eastern cities, and given our experience with the previous-gen Polestar cars, its caution is probably warranted. We'll save our final verdict for the fully baked production cars, which will mean waiting for the 2020 models. (Hopefully the brakes get sorted out by then.)
And what of the other S60 models? If you've spent any time in a new-generation Volvo, particularly the 90-series cars, we can do this quickly: There's way more back seat room than the old short-wheelbase S60, the trunk is still a bit tight, and the T6 R-Design model drives—as you would expect—much like a scaled-down S90. Everything else we say will be a rehash, so if you'd like to slip away now, feel free. We highly recommend Jetrho Bovingdon's article about scaring the daylights out of himself at the Nürburgring 24.
If you're unfamiliar with the Volvo revolution, you're in for a treat. No doubt you've picked up on the visual differences between the new S60 and the outgoing model; the two cars bear some similarity in silhouette, but the angles and creases on the new car are sharper, and we think the C-shaped taillights work better than they do on the bigger S90. This is a good-looking sedan, handsome and understated, and we think the design will age well.
But the real revolution takes place inside. Volvo has long aligned itself with Swedish minimalism, but the S60 (and its fellow new-generation Volvos) take this to a new level. Most secondary controls are accessed through a portrait-style touch-screen Volvo calls Sensus, with the number of buttons on the dash reduced to the minimum required by law. This makes the S60's cabin a wonderfully uncluttered place, and Volvo has taken good advantage by fitting the S60 with top-notch materials and switchgear. Aside from some detail differences, particularly on the passenger's side of the dash, the S60's fascia is identical to other Volvos, and that's fine with us—Volvo's cabin design is totally unique, and we love it.
That said, familiarity with the Sensus system (something we are quickly gaining with our Four Seasons Volvo V90) can easily breed contempt. It's easy to swipe around and find most of the functions, or to switch between a full-screen map and what's playing on the stereo, but some bits of the interface need work—for example, you have to fill in a lot of information to perform a simple search for particular stores or other points-of-interest. Volvo hasn't changed the interface much since the XC90 was introduced, though it says the S60's version has a faster processor.
We drove our T6-powered Four Seasons V90 to the press preview, and our drive in the S60 T6 really did feel like déjà vu. Despite its smaller size, the S60 is not that much lighter than the 90-series cars, and acceleration from the 316-hp T6 engine felt comparable, as did steering and handling. What sets the S60 apart is its more sensible size. As much as we love the V90, it's a land yacht, and the S60 is much easier to maneuver and park.
Volvo has set pricing at $36,795 (including destination) for the entry-level T5 Momentum, with T6 models starting at $41,295 and T8 plug-in hybrids at $55,395. T6 models are also available on Volvo's all-inclusive subscription program, Care by Volvo, at $775 per month for the Momentum trim level and $850 per month for the R-Design. (In case you were wondering, the limited-run 2019 Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered cars were priced at $1,100 per month.) Care by Volvo includes payments, insurance, and maintenance, and subscribers can change to a different Volvo after 12 months.
The S60 hits closer to the heart of the market than the bigger S90 sedan, and we predict it's going to be a strong seller (or at least a strong subscription). We're bummed to have to wait for the Polestar Engineered cars, but at least that'll give Volvo time to fix the brakes—and maybe come up with a better name.
2019 Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered Specifications
|ON SALE||Early 2019|
|PRICE||$1,100/month via Care By Volvo subscription|
|ENGINE||2.0L supercharged and turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus electric motor(s)/415 hp, 494 lb-ft combined|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine AWD sedan|
|L x W x H||187.4 x 80.3 x 56.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.3 sec|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph (est)|