With Saab’s death dragging on month after month, fans of Sweden’s plucky little auto industry haven’t had much to celebrate recently. Volvo launched the most powerful car in its history, the 325-horspower Volvo S60 T6 R-Design, and hardly anyone bothered to notice. When one of the buff books got around to testing the compact all-wheel-drive sport sedan, they compared it to a four-pot front-wheel-drive Buick, and concluded that the Buick is better. Against the Audi S4 I found the S60 a clear second. Those seeking a segment-leading Swede need not despair, though. Just do what I did right after driving the S60 in Charleston, WV, and check out a different, less mature segment: compact premium SUVs. The XC60 T6 R-Design, with a couple of power bumps since it was introduced two years ago, might just be the best of the bunch.
Though no one will mistake it for a Honda, the XC60’s exterior has never worked for me in gray-cladded, small-wheeled base trim. The R-Design treatment addresses my reservations, and then some. Paint the cladding body color and fit 20-inch five-spoke wheels, and suddenly the overhangs don’t appear oddly stretched. Most likely this is the look the designers had in mind when they were carving the clay.
Scandinavian furniture has been popular among a certain social stratum for decades for a reason: northern Europeans are masters of tastefully stylish modern design. The same aesthetic has been applied inside the latest Volvos, including this one. Nothing remotely over the top, but even in the tested dark gray with cream accents much warmer than a German auto interior. Materials are more-or-less in line with the price.
This being a Volvo, the seats are among the most comfortable you’ll find. Much cushier than those in German competitors, yet also properly supportive fore-aft and laterally. But the S60 sedan has similar, perhaps identical seats, and they haven’t been enough to win comparison tests. So what’s the XC60 got that the related sedan doesn’t? Answer: a higher, much more open driving position. You can more easily see over the dash and between the more upright pillars of the crossover. The XC60 might not be ye olde 240, but it’s more of a spiritual successor than the new S60. This enhances both perceived agility and actual safety. The driver rightfully feels more confident behind the wheel.
The XC60 is also a much happier place for rear seat passengers. The crossover’s back seat is much roomier and mounted comfortably high off the floor. And cargo space? A sedan with a smallish trunk can’t begin to compete with a crossover. The front passenger seat folds to extend the cargo area in both, a rarity in premium cars, but this feature is even more useful with a rear hatch. The V60 wagon variant, currently not offered in North America, would put up more of a fight.
For 2012, the XC60 T6 R-Design has the same powertrain as the S60 T6 R-design, a transversely-mounted 325-horsepower, 354 pound-feet turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six connecting to all four wheels via a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic and Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system:
Sorry, couldn’t resist sneaking in this photo. The dealership’s owner parks his personal collection in the service area, and it includes a “continuation” Cobra. The service writer who popped the hood for me reported that this beautiful multi-throttled V8 was a $30,000 option. The Volvo’s engine:
The Polestar tune adds 25 horsepower and 29 pound-feet to the engine that powered last year’s R-Design and that continues to power the regular T6. The engine in the 2010 R-Design was good for “only” 281 horsepower. You can get more than 325 horsepower in a compact sedan. But in the compact SUV segment this is the most potent powerplant available. (At least on paper; BMW might understate the output of the X3 xDrive35i’s 300-horsepower engine.) The XC60 crossover weighs significantly more than the S60 sedan, 4,236 to 3,877 pounds. But from the driver’s seat the XC60 feels at least as quick, perhaps even a little quicker. Credit the more commanding driving position, from which you can better view the outside world as the Volvo passes rapidly through it. The Haldex system does have the same limitations here. It doesn’t instantaneously shunt power to the rear wheels, so with a hard launch there’s a split second of wheel spin and torque steer.
By any objective measure, the S60 outhandles the XC60. There’s no defeating the laws of physics as they apply to extra pounds and a center of gravity farther from the ground. But expectations are also lower for a crossover, and direct competitors are less talented. Audi offers no S variant of its Q5. And the BMW X3 xDrive35i, while certainly an outstanding performer, has vague steering and a cold personality. The XC60 does not have the S60’s selectable-assist steering. The system it does have is similar to the sedan’s in its “light” setting, but with a less artificial feel. Not sportily hefty, and not as communicative as the system in an Audi Q5, but intuitive and good for perceived agility. The crossover’s suspension tuning isn’t as aggressive as the sedan’s nor is it abetted by brake-based torque vectoring, and partly as a result its handling feels more fluid and natural while its ride feels smoother and steadier. Add in the XC60’s driving position, and I actually found it more fun to drive than the more stiffly suspended S60 or any competing compact crossover. While the BMW would be quicker along a challenging road, I enjoyed the Volvo more. Well, until I had to stop. Even more than in the S60, Charleston’s steep winding roads made it clear that the Volvo’s brakes aren’t as strong as its engine.
Equipped like the related sedan, the XC60 lists for about $2,000 more. The R-Design starts at $44,025. Add a couple packages and the blind-spot warning system to get heated seats, keyless access, nav, and an outstanding audio system, and you’re at $50,175. But, as is often the case with a crossover, the XC60 includes more features than the S60. Things like a power liftgate, two-panel (instead of conventional) sunroof, bi-directional obstacle detection, rear privacy glass, and a slew of cargo-related accessories. Adjust the XC60’s price for this additional content using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the XC60 emerges the better value by about $900. And a similarly-equipped BMW X3 xDrive35i? It’s $3,750 more before adjusting for feature differences, and about $2,700 more afterwards.
The XC60 T6 R-Design is roomier, more comfortable, more functional, and more fun-to-drive than the S60 sedan. A BMW X3 is a stronger performer and better handler, but the Volvo has more attractive styling, a more natural feel, and those oh-so-comfy seats. On top of this, the XC60 fits Volvo’s heritage. While three generations of R sedans have never quite achieved top shelf status, people have long gone to Volvo for fast, functional wagons. The XC60 is the natural evolution of these wagons, a little taller but casting a smaller shadow. Car buyers seem to agree. It’s easy to find a dealer with plenty of S60s in stock. XC60s are another matter. If I were to buy a premium brand compact crossover or a Volvo, it would be this one.
Vehicle provided by Chris Myers of Smith Company Motor Cars in Charleston, WV. Chris can be reached at 304-746-1792.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.