Not so long ago Volvo attempted to poach some customers from BMW by offering high-performance R variants of the S60 sedan and V70 wagon. Then it decided these weren’t selling well enough to justify the expense of developing them. So now we’re offered “R-Design” variants instead. These involve larger wheels, a mildly stiffened suspension, and a slew of styling tweaks. Not part of the recipe: additional horsepower. Halfway through the 2010 model year the XC60 gained such a variant. All sizzle, or is there some steak here as well?
Proportioned more like an SUV than the wagon-based XC70 but lower and more car-like than the larger XC90, the XC60 seeks out a happy medium between the two vehicle types. A diagonally bisected trapezoidal grille, sizable shoulders, and tall twisty tail lamps mark it as a Volvo. In standard form the XC60 looks interesting but also a bit odd, with a pinched midsection and overly long nose. Volvo clearly tried to break further out of its traditional box with this one, and the results seem mixed…until you see the R-Design. Add body color, silver-accented rockers and attractive 20-inch five-spoke alloys, and suddenly the crossover’s curves and proportions work. So transformed, the XC60 T6 R-Design looks tight and athletic, and more distinctive than the competitor Audi touts as distinctive. I hadn’t realized that the regular XC60’s black lower body cladding and smaller wheels were doing the underlying form such a disservice.
The interior undergoes less of a transformation. The instruments have blue faces, the leather seats have contrasting inlays, and textured aluminum replaces brushed aluminum on the center stack. Tastefully restrained Scandinavian design, floating center stack, semi-premium materials with no untoward glitz—you’re in a Volvo. If you want outright luxury, go elsewhere.
Another sign you’re in a Volvo: the front seats. Neither too hard nor too soft and shaped for long-distance comfort, these seats probably trail only safety among the reasons to buy a Volvo. This said, those in the last true R cars were larger, even more comfortable, and provided more lateral support. There’s not a lot of room in the front seat, but the driving position is about perfect, and the A-pillars are thinner than most these days despite Volvo’s safety emphasis. The back seat is high enough off the floor and smartly contoured to provide adults with lumbar and thigh support, but knee room is in short supply. The XC60 is truly a compact crossover. You might find large-car quantities of rear legroom in mainstream cute utes like the CR-V and RAV4, but not here. The Audi doesn’t offer much more, but only the EX35 offers less. Cargo room is similarly just adequate. If you want more, there’s always the XC90.
In the U.S. the XC60 is offered with a 235-horsepower 3.2-liter naturally aspirated inline six and a 281-horsepower turbocharged 3.0-liter variant of the same. The R-Design is offered only with the latter— though bereft of a bespoke engine, performance does remain part of the R equation. It seems odd, a transversely-mounted inline six. But the turbo 3.0 feels so smooth and sounds so delightful, you wonder why anyone bothers with a V. Or with an inline five for that matter. Some premium car buyers might wish the engine were a bit less vocal, and more in line with the low levels of wind and road noise, but anyone who loves driving will dip deeper into the throttle just to make it sing. If only Ford’s 3.5-liter “EcoBoost” V6 sounded or felt nearly this good. Thrust with the Volvo turbo six isn’t at EcoBoost levels, but there’s more than enough for all but the most enthusiastic drivers. It makes a great case for quality of power delivery over quantity.
Not that the quantity of power delivered is bad—the T6 powerplant is only 19 horsepower short of the last R engine, a more aggressively boosted 2.5-liter five-cylinder. Paired exclusively with a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic, it’ll get you to sixty in about seven seconds. And yet, 281 horsepower isn’t much for a turbocharged 3.0-liter. Would it be that hard to dial up the boost a bit, if only to make the R-Design a little more special?
Elsewhere, boost could stand to be taken down a notch, or at least finessed. Steering effort isn’t overly light, and weighting is decent, but there’s an omnipresent syrupy numbness that has characterized Volvo steering for as far back as I can remember. Even the R cars were similarly afflicted. On the other hand, even with the XC60 T6 R-Design’s huge low-profile tires the suspension strikes a very good balance between handling and ride comfort. The R-Design certainly has none of the feel of a sports car, but it doesn’t feel large or bulky and takes curves with commendable balance and poise. There’s no plow, no float, no rocking, and no harshness. So why bother with the standard suspension that underpins other XC60s? Relative to the competition, this is Volvo’s best handling vehicle. But not the best-handling vehicle in the segment—that continues to be the BMW X3, followed by the Audi Q5. Note to Volvo: fix the steering.
With a base price of $42,400, the XC60 T6 R-Design starts $3,750 higher than the regular T6. But the R-Design’s standard xenons and sunroof account for two grand of that. $1,750 seems a more than reasonable amount to pay for the R-Design’s larger wheels, massaged suspension, and styling tweaks. With options, you’re in the mid-to-high forties. Seem high? Well, run the XC60 T6 R-Design and the Audi Q5 through TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, which similarly configures both vehicles then adjusts for remaining feature differences, and you’ll find that the Teutonic crossover runs a significant four-to-five grand higher.
It’s always disappointing to see a marque’s ambitions scaled back, and this disappointment could easily have rubbed off on the R-Design cars. The XC60 T6 R-Design isn’t quite an R inside the engine compartment, and this is a bit of a shame since true R status is only a few pounds of boost away. But it’s quick regardless, the R-Design tweaks do dramatically improve the exterior styling and finesse the ride-handling compromise, and the price is competitive. So, while the T6 R-Design isn’t a home run without further tweaks to the engine and steering, it’s a strong contender and clearly the one to get if you’re getting a Volvo XC60.
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of auto reliability and pricing data