Preview Drive: 2011 Volvo S60

Redesigned midsize sedan gets new look and sportier nature, accompanied by turbo powertrain

by James M. Flammang

2011 Volvo S60 T6 AWD

NEWBERG, Oregon - Slotting right in the middle of Volvo's three-car sedan lineup, the S60 is an important model for the Swedish automaker. Redesigning of the S60 for 2011 gives the sedan a fresh appearance and a more sporty nature than its predecessor. In the estimation of designer Orjan Sterner, the 2011 S60 is the "most sporty and dynamic car in range." Many observers might agree.

Volvo issued its first S60 sedan in 2000. By 2002, some 110,000 per year were reaching customers (worldwide). Of the estimated 600,000 that remain on the road, 220,000 are in the U.S.

The S60 is "key to the new emerging markets for us," said project director Hans Nilsson, helped by its "very dynamic exterior design." Like several other manufacturers - especially in Europe - Volvo calls the design a "four-door coupe."

Volvo's sportiest sedan also is considered the safest car in segment by its Swedish maker (which is now owned by a Chinese organization). A longer wheelbase for 2011 translates to more than 2.1 inches of additional rear legroom. C-pillars stretch to the taillamps. Springs are shorter and stiffer. Inside is a new three-spoke steering wheel, with sport seats all around.

Initially, only a T6 AWD (all-wheel drive) version is on sale, with a twin-scroll turbocharged six-cylinder engine generating 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. A "volume" edition with a milder non-turbo engine will come later (early in 2011). Volvo claimes 10 percent better fuel economy for 2011: specifically, 18 mpg in the city and 26 mpg for highway driving. Though acceptable for a turbo-powered model, that city figure isn't as thrifty as one might hope from a Volvo. Only one transmission is offered: a six-speed Geartronic automatic.

Volvo's S60 demonstrates its prowess best on long highway journeys

Undeniably a superlative road car, the S60 feels supremely confident on the highway, yielding a refined and civilized motoring experience. Ample energy is delivered seamlessly, without evidence of turbo lag, and automatic-transmission shifts are barely discernible. The S60 is especially quiet, too.

An effectively compliant standard Dynamic Chassis suspension, working with 18-inch tires, absorbs quite a bit of road commotion, minimizing the need for a Touring suspension (a no-charge option) to smooth the ride. Tenacious roadholding is the rule, even on damp pavement in curves. In fact, handling scores close to the top of this class, delivering on Volvo's promise of a sporty nature. Only the most avid performance-driving enthusiasts are likely candidates for the tauter Four-C adaptive suspension choice.

Gauges are stylish and modern, but not the easiest to read at a glance. Seats are superior, with ample cushioning for comfort, excellent back and thigh support, and snug (yet unobtrusive) side bolstering to keep occupants in place. Leg and head space in the back seat are good, but toe room is somewhat restricted. The center-rear occupant probably won't be too happy, because some heads will wind up close to the roof and the wide floor tunnel steals considerable foot space. Even so, center space is more comfortable than average.

Volvo's goal, according to brand manager Frank Vacca, is to attract upgraders into the entry-luxury midsize sedan segment. Sticker price for the S60 T6 AWD is $37,700 (plus destination charge). Sales began in late September. A Technology Package including Pedestrian Detectionn adds $2,100 to the price.

Since wagons have a long history with Volvo, will there be a companion V60 wagon? Not in the U.S., said Vacca, because wagons are not selling well; but "it's going to be a smash in Europe." A special S60 R-Design appeared at the Paris Motor Show in September, to be followed by an stint at the Miami Auto Show.

Will the new Chinese ownership change the direction of the long-lived Swedish automaker? No, says public relations director Geno Effler "They bought Volvo to be Volvo. To maintain its Swedishness." The actual owner isn't a manufacturer, but the Zhejiang Geely Holding Company. More Volvos will be produced in China, for that market. But for the rest of the world, Volvos will continued to be built in Sweden. "It's a Swedish company," Effler said, though "we're a very valuable asset to this holding company."

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang