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First Drive: 2011 Volvo S60

Thinking outside the box.

by on Sep.27, 2010

Out of the box, a coupe-like look for the new 2011 Volvo S60.

Despite an admirable career on the track, Andy Pilgrim began the year feeling a bit like the old comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, he just couldn’t get any respect.  Not behind the wheel of a Volvo S60 going up against competitors driving Mustang, Corvettes and Porsches in the grueling World Challenge Series.

Yet as the season winds down, Pilgrim and teammate Randy Pobst have clinched both the Driver’s and Manufacturer’s Championships – and shined a spotlight on a brand long known for boring design and anything but performance.

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Now, with the launch of the all-new, 2011 Volvo S60, the Swedish automaker is out to shift the way potential buyers think of the brand on the street, as well as the track.  And after getting a first drive of the new, coupe-like sedan, we have to agree that Volvo gets the checkered flag.

Volvo's new Pedestrian Protection system uses camera and radar to spot someone walking into the S60's path.

Don’t worry, Volvo isn’t walking away from its long-standing commitment to safety.  The maker still proclaims a goal of reaching the point when no one is killed in a collision while driving one of its vehicles.  And the S60, in particular, brings to market a new technology that could significantly reduce the death toll among pedestrians, as well.

But the 2011 Volvo S60 aims to achieve those goals in an eye-pleasing package that’s also plenty of fun to drive, a distinct shift from the classic Swedish box.

The wheelbase of the 2011 Volvo S60 is stretched 2.4 inches, most of it going to rearseat passengers.

These days, you can’t just be good at one thing.  And while Volvo may be out front when it comes to safety, it has plenty of competitors who’d like to snatch the lead.  So, “We wanted to make a big statement that this is a brand new car,” explained chief designer Jonathan Disley, as he offered a first look at the all-new sedan.

Like so many other contenders in the near-luxury segment, Volvo has gone with a coupe-like shape for the new S60, but that doesn’t make it a clone.  The design is distinctive from nose-to-tail, starting with the enlarged grille and oversized Volvo badge and sweeping back to the stylish LED tail lamps.  The wraparound headlamps are accented by a sculpted hood and what Disley describes as a “double wave,” accent lines that sweep rearward giving the 2011 Volvo S60 a muscular poise.

With drivers Andy Pilgrim and Randy Prost, Volvo is proving to be an unexpected force to reckon with on the track.

While Volvo’s exterior styling is just coming into its own, the maker has been steadily improving the look and refinement of its cabins for several product generations and the new sedan continues that momentum.  The second-generation S60 is at the same time more sporty, yet elegant, with a mix of leather chrome and other materials that make the new car look and feel a lot more expensive than its starting price of $37,700.

Though Volvo hasn’t fallen sway to the latest technology trend, using a single controller for seemingly all vehicle functions, the steeply sloped center stack is an example of classic Scandinavian simplicity.  It’s easy on the eye and you don’t need a manual to figure out how to turn on the radio.

Volvo offers a roomy interior that is stylish but maintains that distinctly Scandinavian feel.

The seats are comfortable and supportive, especially when you push the 2011 Volvo S60 to see if it lives up to its sporty claims.  The rear seats, in particular, have been carefully sculpted to provide a surprising amount of leg – and headroom, considering the curved roofline.  An extra 2.4 inches of wheelbase, most of it devoted to the rear seat, also helps.

The overall dynamic feel of the cabin underscores the technology that gives the new sedan both heart and soul.

Start with a completely revised 3.0-liter T6 engine.  This new turbocharged inline-six makes an impressive 300 horsepower and a surprising 325 lb-ft of torque.  That’s as much as the older 4.0-liter naturally-aspirated Volvo V8, and will launch the 2011 Volvo from 0 to 60 in just 5.8 seconds.  All the more impressive, it delivers about 10% better fuel economy than the prior S60’s past-generation T6, at 18 mpg City, 26 mpg Highway.

More power...and more mileage from the new, 300-horsepower T6 engine.

We’re pleased to see Volvo maintain a 6-speed manual gearbox option, even if the majority of buyers will be likely to opt for the automatic transmission.  Power, meanwhile, is driven through a vectoring all-wheel-drive system.  For those unfamiliar with the technology, vectoring delivers additional torque to the outer wheels during a turn, helping overcome the normal tendency of an all-wheel-drive powertrain towards understeer.

The new car’s chassis, shared with several other Volvo models – the S80, XC70 and XC60 – is solid and robust, with a McPherson strut front and a multi-link rear suspension.

Corner Traction Control helps the new S60 maintain its poise if a driver enters a turn too fast.

Volvo’s confidence in the performance and handling of the new car was underscored by the ride route it offered us for a day behind the wheel of the 2011 S60.  We clocked close to 300 miles starting out from Portland, Oregon and heading inland along the rugged Columbia River Gorge.  It gave us the opportunity to challenge some tight turns and charge up some steep mountain grades.  And all along, the new sedan performed with aplomb.

The new version of the T6 is eager to accelerate, and its vigor is matched by a dynamic platform that readily tracks around the sharpest corners.  Credit not just the vectoring AWD system but a stiffened suspension and tightened steering.

While we don’t think the 2011 Volvo S60 is going to take down the dynamic king, BMW, it’s a definite alternative for those who’d prefer a sportier ride than they’ll get from Mercedes-Benz.  And it’s got a decidedly more refined feel than the boy-racer Asian luxury imports.

The 2011 Volvo S60 makes elegant use of materials like leather and chrome.

For the road course we went with the mid-range choice among three separate suspension packages offered for the 2011 Volvo S60.  The Dynamic suspension, as well as the lighter Touring alternative, are both no-cost options.  There’s also the Four-C suspension, an electronically-adjustable suspension that can be switched from comfort to sport mode with the touch of a button.  A few laps around the track proved this to be the option of choice for those who enjoy an occasional opportunity to push the limits but who might also prefer to settle back when taking the family on a long drive.

Nothing boxy about the design of the 2011 Volvo S60.

As you’d expect from any Volvo, the 2011 S60 is loaded with the usual assortment of airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, and the alphabet soup of brake intervention systems, ABS, TCS, ESC and the like.  The options include features like Active Cruise and BLIS, or Blind Spot Intervention System.

To reduce possible distractions, the optional navigation package can be controlled by voice, while a steering wheel-mounted thumbwheel can operate the entertainment system.

There’s also the City Safety system, first introduced in the Volvo XC60, last year.  It’s designed to step in should a motorist miss a potential low-speed collision.  If necessary, it can bring the vehicle to a complete halt – although it’ll do so abruptly to ensure a driver doesn’t come to rely on the system while they catch up on their e-mail and text messages.

With the 2011 Volvo S60, the big breakthrough is Pedestrian Protection with full Auto-Brake.  Yeah, it’s a tongue-twister, but as someone who has been hit by a car driven by a distracted driver, I can appreciate what it represents.  I was lucky.  In a typical year, nearly 5,000 American pedestrians are struck and killed by motor vehicles.

The 2011 Volvo S60 carries a base price of $37,700.

The system uses a combination of front-mounted radar and a camera fit in front of the rearview mirror to constantly scan the road.  At speeds up to 22 mph, it will detect when a pedestrian walks in front of the vehicle and bring the sedan to a quick stop.  At higher speeds it will, at the least, slow the S60 down enough to reduce the likely impact.

For those who’ve always appreciated the safety and durability of a Volvo, the new sedan will be a welcome addition to the Swedish maker’s line-up.  But when you add the unexpected performance and striking good looks of the 2011 S60 the maker seems all but certain to broaden its appeal.  This is truly thinking outside the box.

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