Is the 2011 S60 the sportiest Volvo ever?

Volvo has earned a well-deserved reputation over the years as the builder of safe, reliable, long-lasting vehicles.

  • Feb. 10, 2011 3:00 p.m.

The new Volvo S60 was designed by a team that was tasked with creating the sportiest vehicle the Swedish carmaker has ever produced.

Volvo has earned a well-deserved reputation over the years as the builder of safe, reliable, long-lasting vehicles.

The need for class-leading performance and styling were likely not at the top of the list if you surveyed Volvo customers of the past.

In fact, many probably couldnπt have cared less that the Swedish automaker’s cars looked more like boxes on wheels rather than works of art when it came to exterior design.

What really mattered was that the cars were among the safest on the road and they would last for as long as you wanted to hang on to them.

But things have changed at Volvo as it has moved upmarket over the years to become a premium brand. The competition in the luxury segment is much stiffer and customers have become much more demandingã they no longer want just safety at the expense of bland styling. In short, they want it all.

So when the design team at Volvo set out to bring the next generation S60 sedan to market, they were charged with the task of creating the sportiest vehicle in the company’s history. It had to be dynamic in all areas from design to performance, handling and, of course, safety.

The result is the 2011 S60, now on sale at Volvo dealers from coast to coast. The S60 was developed while Volvo was under the Ford umbrella, but it is now Chinese owned, controlled by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

It is a global car with about a third of the production destined for North America, a third for Europe and the other third for China, which has become perhaps the most important market in the world.

At launch, the S60 will be available with only one engine choice, a turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine, making 300 hp and 325 lb/ft of torque.

It is mated with a six-speed automatic transmission with Geartronic and features all-wheel drive with instant traction.

Although horsepower is up over the 2009 model (there was no S60 for 2010), fuel economy has been improved by 10 per cent.

In the future, Volvo officials say a lower end model another yet-to-be-announced powertrain will be available in Canada as will a sportier R-design model that is being unveiled at the Paris Motor Show this fall.

The Canadian version of the 2011 T6 AWD, starting at $45,450, will come well-equipped out of the gate with features such as 17-inch alloy wheels, power sunroof, electronic climate control, leather seats, (heated up front), speed sensitive power steering, rain-sensor wipers, heated windshield washer nozzles, retractable rear view mirrors with puddle lights, eight speaker audio system with steering-wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth, tire pressure monitoring system, Sirius satellite radio, dynamic chassis, power driverπs seat with memory and three-spoke sport steering wheel.

Volvo prides itself in being an innovator in safety technology and with the 2011 S60, it doesn’t disappoint. Not only does it have the City Safety system (to help prevent rear-end collisions) that Volvo debuted in the XC60 crossover as standard, it has an optional new system called Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake that in effect stops the car or slows it down if the driver fails to respond in time.

Before our ride and drive through some interesting twists and turns that took us into the Columbia River valley, we had an opportunity to test out this latest safety feature in our hotel parking lot.

Driving at speeds under 35 km/h, we headed straight for a child-size dummy. Without touching the brakes or taking evasive steering action, the car came to an abrupt stop inches away from the dummy we had nicknamed Volvo Bob.

The system includes a radar unit integrated into the grille that is combined with a camera placed in front of the rear view mirror and a central control unit.

How the system works is the radar detects any object in front of the car to determine its distance away, while the camera works to detect what type of object it actually is. Once the system determines that it is a pedestrian it tracks the movement of the individual until the car safely passes.

If the pedestrian steps in front of the car and the driver fails to take evasive action, the system brings the car to a stop, or at higher speeds, slows it down to mitigate the damage (and severity of possible injuries to the pedestrian).

As important as Pedestrian Detection can be, the system does have its limitations. It only sees what the driver can see; therefore it doesn’t work after dark or in blinding snowstorms. Surely, the next step in its evolution might be the use of night vision technology.

In Canada, Pedestrian Detection is available as part of a $4,500 Driver Support Package that also includes a driver alert system, blind spot information system, park assist both front and rear, adaptive cruise control and collision warning with full auto brake.

A variety of stand alone options are also offered, but if you tick off all the boxes, it wouldnπt take long to get the MSRP over the $58K range when you add in the $1,715 freight and PDI charge.

Volvo is aiming this vehicle at a slightly different customer base than usual focusing on urban-dwelling professionals between 30 and 45 with a household income over $100,000.

If those customers are style-conscious driving enthusiasts, they should be impressed with the new S60. Design wise, Volvo says it has gone in an entirely new direction with more modern, contemporary look that features a swoopy, coupe-like profile from the side, much like the Volkswagen Passat CC and the 2011 Hyundai Sonata.

That contemporary look continues on the inside, highlighted on my Vibrant Copper-coloured test car with a similar Beechwood leather interior. I liked the exterior colour (Volvo chose it for all its test cars at launch), but I suspect it might appear dated in a couple of years, as trendy colours tend to do.

As with all Volvos, the new sport seats in the S60 are outstanding, offering lots of support and comfort, even after several hours of seat time.

They got a good workout later in the day as we turned the cars loose on the 2.3-mile Oregon Raceway Park, a Field of Dreams-type racetrack that suddenly appeared before our eyes, out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by wheat fields.

During my two laps of the track, the seats did their job, keeping my butt firmly planted with little slipping and sliding on hard corners.

Similarly, the Haldex all-wheel-drive system along with the electronic stability control and Volvo’s torque vectoring (which works to prevent understeer) helped me keep the car on track, even going into several blind corners on the challenging circuit.

As far as acceleration is concerned, the turbo six gets up to speed in a hurry, doing 0-100 km/h in 6.1 seconds, according to Volvo.

There is little or no turbo lag and the 325 lb/ft of torque peaks at a relatively low 2,100 rpm. I found it odd though that Volvo’s “sportiest” car ever didn’t offer paddle shifters, although it did have Geartronic manual shifting capability.

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