Although it might not be evident from my review of the T5, I really, really want to like the Volvo S60. Why? Because unlike the Audi and BMW with which it’s intended to compete, it’s not the obvious choice. We cognoscenti live to unearth hidden gems, great cars of which the general public is unaware. Volvo used to be on the general public’s car map, but fell off during Ford’s ownership. For driving enthusiasts, the 325-horsepower 2012 S60 T6 R-Design is the most promising Volvo in quite some time, perhaps forever. Its specs suggest it can go toe-to-toe with the Audi S4. And?
Even since the groudbreaking 1983 5000, Audi has been a leader in car design. But, let’s face it, they haven’t broken any new ground recently. The current S4 is attractive, but also safe. With the the latest S60, Volvo attempted to break out of its traditional box without losing all visual ties to its past. When fitted with its chunky standard equipment 17-inch wheels, the Volvo S60 overly resembles some cars that cost far less, among them the Oldsmobile Alero from over a decade ago and the 2006-2011 Civic. The R-Design treatment helps take the sedan upscale, with a subtle body kit and bi-color five-spoke 18-inch wheels. Some people will take exception with the Volvo’s distended snout, but overall it is a sporty, stylish sedan that looks like nothing else in the segment.
The interior will be familiar to anyone who has been inside a current Volvo. The style is minimalist modern, with more character than you’ll find inside the Audi (or the other German compacts). Materials are good but short of luxurious. My main problem with the cabin: the center stack buttons for the infotainment system are hard to find and to operate at first glance.
I first drove the new R-Design in Charleston, West Virginia, in the midst of a week with an Audi S4. Given the strong similarity between the two sedans’ specs, and roads far more challenging than you’ll find anywhere near Detroit, the time and place were ideal. The first thing I noticed after climbing out of the Audi and into the Volvo: the relief provided by the latter’s much cushier—yet still laterally and longitudinally supportive—sport bucket seats. Later, while sampling a second S60 R-Design around Detroit, I had to wonder if the Volvo’s seats were overly squishy. But better too much cushion than too little, as in the Audi.
In my head the S60 is a larger car than an S4 or 335i. But in reality it’s in the same size class, and this is more evident with the swoopier shape of the current car. While the Volvo’s front seat feels roomier than that in the Audi, its rear seat, mounted low and just roomy enough for a pair of average adults, is very much that of a compact sedan. At 12 cubic feet, the Volvo’s trunk is no larger than the Audi’s marginal bin. But the Swedish sedan does have much more room in its center console and glove compartment. Neither is a useful size in the Audi.
The real story with the S60 T6 R-Design is its engine, a turbocharged 3.0-liter transversely-mounted inline six tuned by Polestar to produce 325 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 354 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. The six is hard to fault, with no detectable lag, just a strong smooth rush of power, and a thrilling (yet never overbearing) soundtrack. It’s not quite as efficient as the latest direct-injected competitors, with EPA ratings of 18 city, 26 highway (the S4 manages 18/28 with a seven-speed automated dual-clutch manual). Around the burbs while babying the car the trip computer reported 23.5. Exercise the engine and the stat drops into the mid-teens (or even into the single digits if you give the twin scroll turbo no rest). Otherwise Volvo’s six is as good as any and better than most. Just one more cylinder than you get in the S60 T5, but so much better in just about every way.
Such an outstanding engine deserves a better partner than the manually-shiftable six-speed automatic. Though not a bad box, the Aisin has a tendency to lug the engine when left to its own devices and shifts could be smoother and quicker. To get the proper gear you often must intervene, and no paddles are provided for the task, only the shift lever. Currently this transmission is mandatory: no automated dual-clutch or conventional manual is offered. In the S5 you have a choice of either.
The R-Design’s engine is strong enough that aggressive throttle mapping isn’t needed to exaggerate its potency. But Volvo has fitted the car with the most aggressive throttle mapping I’ve experienced in recent memory. This does lend the car an overtly sporty character that’s too often lacking in current Lexusized cars, but smooth starts require conscious effort. Switch into the Volvo from another car, unthinkingly hit the gas to get the car moving and everyone’s heads will be snapped into the pillowy headrests.
The heft of the S60 T6 R-Design’s steering can be varied among three levels (but only if the car isn’t moving). The difference is most evident at low speeds, where “light” and “heavy” feel, well, light and heavy. “Medium” falls in between, but closer to “heavy.” I couldn’t decide which mode I liked best, as the car feels more agile with “light” but more planted with “heavy.” The amount of feedback isn’t much affected: there’s more than in past Volvo’s (including the previous R) but (of course) less sense of a direct connection with the front wheels than I’d prefer.
Now, unfortunately, we come to the S60 R-Design’s primary weakness: its chassis. Swedish engineers have done their best to mitigate the car’s inherently nose-heavy weight distribution, with a performance-oriented Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system (kicks in following the merest whiff of front wheelspin and torque steer) and brake-based torque vectoring. Push the car hard and it will adhere to your intended line. The tires make a difference: the West Virginia dealer car was fitted with ContiProContact all-seasons, while the press car wore ContiSportContact 3 summer tires. The latter felt sharper as their significantly higher limits were approached. And only as the car’s limits are approached does understeer overwhelm the electronic countermeasures.
The problem with this approach: especially when driving the car moderately hard you can feel the electronics selectively apply the brakes to force the chassis to hold a line it otherwise would not be capable of. Effective, but not nearly as transparent as some systems. The feel is artificial and forced rather than natural and fluid. You learn what the chassis is capable of, but you don’t feel it in your gut. Instead, your gut keeps telling you the chassis is going to do something else—like plow for the outside shoulder. This said, the S60 does feel better the harder it is driven.
The Audi S4, in contrast, feels balanced in addition to acting balanced, despite also having most of its weight over its front wheels. An optional active differential permits progressive yet never excessive oversteer upon your right foot’s command. The Volvo’s drivetrain is less flexible. And the Audi’s brakes are noticeably stronger than the Volvo’s. Add it all up, and the S4 can be driven along a mountain road with much more precision and confidence.
The Volvo rides more softly than the more firmly sprung and suspended Audi, but this advantage is compromised by its poorer control over body motions. The Volvo absorbs minor road imperfections better—it’s the superior Interstate cruiser—but provokes more head toss over larger bumps. Though certainly not nearly as crude, compared to the Audi the Volvo’s tuning recalls Detroit’s early attempts at “European sport suspensions.” Additional polish would be welcome.
The 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design starts at $43,375. The car tested in West Virginia, with nav, outstanding 650-watt audio system, heated seats, keyless access and ignition, and blind spot monitors, listed for $48,125. Not cheap, but a similarly equipped Audi S4 checks in $7,700 higher even after a $450 adjustment for feature differences, based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool. So the Volvo might not handle as well as the Audi, but it also doesn’t cost nearly as much. On the other hand, a G37x costs about $4,000 less than the Volvo, but is not without its own shortcomings.
So the Volvo S60 T6 R-Design is fast and fun, but rough around the edges and simply trying too hard. Compared to the Audi S4, it’s more comfortable but less confidence inspiring. So it’s not an obvious choice over the obvious choice. Instead, it’s a viable choice for those who want a powerful premium compact sedan and who prioritize seat comfort—or who simply don’t want the same car their friends have. For the rest of us…another round or two of fine tuning could do wonders.
The first car tested was provided by Chris Myers of Smith Company Motor Cars in Charleston, WV. Chris can be reached at 304-746-1792. The second one was provided by Volvo with a tank of gas and insurance.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.