First Drive: Volvo S60

When you were growing up, did you ever know someone who was so well-behaved and generally harmless that the first time they ever toilet-papered someone?s house, they thought they had joined up with Al Capone? I would say that this is an apt comparison for Volvo?s new ?naughty? S60, except that Volvo has always produced great performance cars, so it?s a mystery why they get stuck with the Goody Two-Shoes reputation.? Seriously, if you look back at the successful racing and rally history of the Volvo 544, P1800 and 142, and the current sporty lineup with the S40 and C30, Volvo has some great performance cars in its history.

Which brings us to the S60 ? this is Volvo?s all-new revision of its mid-size sedan, and they?ve gifted the car with a new turbocharged inline 6-cylinder engine making 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mated to a smooth 6-speed automatic transmission with all wheel drive.

The S60 is aimed squarely at the Audi A4 and the AWD sedans in BMW?s 3-series and the Mercedes-Benz C-class, as well as the offerings from Infiniti, Acura, and Lexus. The S60 is attractively priced for the segment, starting at $37,700 and a well-optioned S60 can be put together for well under $45,000.

On the road, the S60 delivers a pleasant performance driving experience very much in the mode of a European luxury/performance car.? The transmission shifts smoothly and is well-geared for winding country roads. The Volvo uses a twin-scroll turbo for quick spool-up, and the AWD system keeps the car solidly planted on the road. Acceleration is brisk, but not breathtaking due to the car?s 3901-pound curb weight. But that weight also delivers the silky-smooth ride, so it?s a worthy tradeoff.

The S60 is a handsome car on the outside ? the bodywork uses a nice fastback design, and generally looks more aggressive than the previous generation. The car features 18-in wheels with run-flat tires as standard equipment, and the overall effect is sporty and a little bit in your face, but with a grown-up attitude.

Inside, the S60 is as quiet as a library and as comfortable as your favorite chair. The dash and controls are laid out with Scandinavian simplicity and functionality. As a luxury car, the Volvo comes with every modern convenience, including optional navigation, leather, heated seats, advanced climate control, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and a great stereo with hard drive and iPod connection.

Volvo has developed three suspensions for the S60 ? the ?Dynamic? suspension is stock, but less-naughty customers may also order the car with a softer ?Touring? suspension as a no-cost option. At the high end, Volvo offers the FOUR-C Active Chassis. The FOUR-C is self-adjusting suspension that uses sensors to continuously monitor the car’s behavior. In fractions of a second, the shocks are adjusted to suit the current driving situation.? You can select three individual suspensions settings? (Comfort, Sport or Advanced) from the driver?s seat to adjust the car’s ride to your liking.

After driving the S60 for several hundred miles, it?s apparent that there?s little real need for the Touring setup ? the Dynamic suspension is sporty in the corners, but sacrifices almost nothing in terms of noise, vibration and harshness. The S60 with Dynamic suspension is still a car that you can hop into and drive across a continent in comfort. ?The FOUR-C active suspension is a neat feature, but most drivers will put it in Sport mode and just leave it there all the time.

As part of the introduction test drive, Volvo took us to a road racing track to try out the S60?s wilder side. As with all road cars, it wasn?t hard to take the S60 to the limit on a race track, but the experience was instructive ? it?s not legal or responsible to drive a 300 horsepower car on a public road in such a way that you can feel the traction control or ABS engaging on every corner, but that?s exactly what the race track experience is about. Here again, the S60 delivers the experience you expect from a European sports sedan ? the traction control engages smoothly and the ABS on the S60 4-wheel disc brakes keeps the car well in hand under extreme driving.

Like all road-going cars, the S60 understeers at the limit, but Volvo has eliminated the torque-steer that characterized the previous front wheel drive S60. The S60?s 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque are quite nicely controllable when you divide the torque among four tires instead of just two. The S60?s all wheel drive system lays all the power to the ground and the car simply goes where you point it.

No review of a Volvo would be complete without a nod to the company?s industry-leading safety features. Sports car enthusiasts often scoff at Volvo?s reputation as the safest automaker in business today, but there?s nothing particularly sporty about running over a pedestrian in a parking lot. Volvo?s great new feature in the S60 is a forward-looking radar that senses people in front of the car. If you?re traveling at less than about 22 MPH, which is to say at parking lot or slow city street speeds, the S60 will sense an imminent impact with a pedestrian and stop the car if it becomes apparent that you won?t. For most of us, we might never need that feature, but it sure doesn?t hurt and you can override the computer with any input to the brakes or steering wheel. We tested the pedestrian avoidance feature and it works admirably.

The bottom line on the 2011 Volvo S60 is simply this ? if you?re shopping the European or Japanese luxury sport sedans, or the AWD Cadillac CTS, you really need to seriously consider Volvo. The S60 is worth your attention.

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