While Volvo has had the occasional flirtation with performance (the 850R and S60R/V70R twins spring immediately to mind) the Swedish brand is most know for a dedication to safety. It was safety that attracted me to buy my first Volvo, a 1998 S70 T5 (5-speed manual of course), but it was performance that resulted in my second Volvo purchase, a 2006 V70R (6-speed manual). Unlike my Swedespeed.com brothers, however I had no delusions about the future of the R brand as Volvo doubled-down on their core. The R-Design models are a concession to speed freaks with a Swedish soft spot. Let’s see if they can fill the void.
Much like Audi, Volvo believes in the “one sausage different lengths” school of design. From the S40 to the S80 and even the XC60, the Volvo “look” of “narrow at the shoulder, broad at the hip” is unmistakable, often imitated and undeniably sexy, in a safe, practical sort of way. While the front overhang on the S60 is long compared to some of the German options, the overall look has grown on me since I drove the non-R-Design S60 last year. While the S80 remains the best proportioned of the bunch, the S60’s greenhouse screams four-door-coupe which is inexplicably all the rage. R-design models get a subtle update to the bumper with stabilizing fins, a tiny spoiler, more aggressive exhaust, a new front bumper that ditches half the chrome in favor of a more aggressive pose and a set of 18 inch 5-spoke wheels.
While the outside of the R-Design was treated to the same level of updating the former R models received, the interior gets less love. That’s not to say the interior of the S60 is uncompetitive – the build and parts quality is only a notch behind Audi and a decent step above the Mercedes C-class, there’s just not much inside to say “I got the sporty one” save a small emblem on the steering wheel. True to Volvo’s minimalist style, the buttons are clear, easy to read and easy to reach. If you’re looking for some funky Swedish character you won’t find any in modern Volvos. They are almost Germanic in their arrangement. Speaking of those controls, the slot for the “key” is located fairly high on the dash, so if you don’t pony up $550 for the keyless-go option, your keys will bang around in a fairly undignified fashion. Volvo should make this feature standard in a market where discount Nissans can be had with it.
All S60 models sold in the USA come with Volvo’s 7-inch LCD infotainment system, with or without navigation. Our R-Design tester was equipped with Volvo’s $2,700 “Multimedia Package” which bundles navigation, the backup camera and their premium audio system together. Should you decide to navigate solo it’ll set you back $1,895. Compared to the big hitters in the market, Volvo slots neatly in the middle behind iDrive and MMI but well ahead of Mercedes’ and Lexus’ aging systems and perhaps a tie with Infiniti. Menus are all logically laid out and easy to navigate, iPod and Bluetooth integration are fairly easy. While I prefer a hybrid controller/touchscreen system like Infiniti, I have to say that the steering wheel controls on the Volvo proved a decent and welcome alternative. A week back to back in a BMW proved that while iDrive is by far the more attractive system and more feature rich, Volvo’s interface is easier to use and less distracting.
Rear seat passengers in any of the European small sedans won’t be as happy as they would be in a Lexus ES350 or an American sedan, but in comparison to the A4 and the C-class, the Volvo delivers essentially the same dimensions in the back. While the previous S60R and V70R came with acres of “pearlescent” leather in wacky shades of orange and blue, the R-Design is available with sensible black leather faced seats. As someone who owned a full-leather upholstery V70R, I find myself torn between the feel of real leather on the doors and dash and the hours I had to spend caring for it all.
Volvo’s funky and polarizing 5 cylinder turbo engine is now an item for the history books. While I loved my 5 cylinder Volvos, I have to agree that they were a little different sounding. The S60R/V70R’s 2.5L engine also suffered from heat soak in hot weather. When the S60R/V70Rs were killed, R-Design became a sport and styling exercise at Volvo, so the S60 R-Design’s power bump came as a welcome surprise to the Volvo faithful. Volvo called in Polestar, their preferred tuning company to tweak the 3.0L twin-scroll turbocharged inline 6 for R-Design duty. The result was a modest bump from 300 HP and 325 lb-ft of torque to 325 HP and 354 lb-ft, but that only tells half the story as the torque and horsepower curves are improved compared to the stock engine. The 2011 S60 T6 AWD we tested last January ran to 60 in 5.67 seconds, which was notably behind the S4 and 335i, while the R-Design sprinted to the same number in 5.05. So marked was the difference that I headed to my local Volvo dealer and performed the test again with a T6 and R-Design fresh off the lot and recorded essentially the same figures. We all know BMW underrates their engines, but Volvo? Who knew. If you have access to an AWD dyno (we couldn’t get in one on short notice) let us know in the comment section below and maybe we can work out a rematch with Volvo.
My grandfather used to always tell me not to bring a knife to a gunfight. Apparently Volvo’s engineers didn’t have granddad like mine. The R-Design may bring cool blue-faced gauges and a willing engine to the fight, but sadly the unloved Aisin 6-speed automatic tagged along. It’s not that the Aisin transmission is a belligerent companion – in fact, the unit has been reprogrammed to be more eager to downshift when prodded. The problem is that in the R-Design it’s no less eager to upshift when you enter a corner, a trait that I find more annoying than a transmission that holds a gear but resists downshifting. Perhaps this is because my heart longs for an AWD Volvo with a manual transmission? While I didn’t find this behavior that distressing in the regular S60, I had hoped for at least some paddle shifters and a manual mode that didn’t shift until I requested. The Volvo rumor mill tells me a 6-speed manual may make a return soon, it can’t come fast enough.
The previous V70R and S60R corner carved with curious aptitude and strangely little road feel. The new S60’s electric power assist steering is actually a considerable improvement on the previous system and while it is not as direct and involving as last generation’s 3-series it has about the same amount of road feel as any other EPAS system on the market. I was told some years ago to be careful not to confuse heavy steering with road feel, but in our EPAS world they tend to be the same. The R-Design suffers from a 3,877lb curb weight (almost 60% of which rests over the front wheels) and 235-width rubber. It’s the weight and its distribution rather than the rubber that dogs the S60R in corners, where it exhibits an unwillingness to change direction much like the similarly overweight S4. The S4 delivers a more refined feel while heading off into the bushes.
For reasons that Volvo could not explain, their adaptive suspension system, a truly innovative feature on the S60R and V70R, is only available on the non-R-Design models. This means that should you want the extra power you’re stuck with the stiffer suspension all the time. I would not call the ride harsh, but it is notably stiffer than the standard suspensions one would find in an A4 or 3-series. Price likely has a role to play, with the R-Design starting at $43,375 – more expensive than my 2006 V70R, but significantly cheaper than an Audi S4. Our tester was equipped with the navigation system, rear view camera, up-level audio system, heated seats and washer nozzles, headlight washers, rain-sensing wipers, power retracting side view mirrors and Volvo’s blind spot monitoring system bringing our total up to $48,025. While that sounds like a large price tag, our own Michael Karesh estimated the R-Design undercuts the S4 by some $7,700.
One cannot review a Volvo without discussing safety. From collapsible steering columns, anti-whiplash seats and “anti-submarining” guards to Volvo’s latest active safety systems that will intervene when you fail to, we can easily say the safety box is well and duly ticked. Volvo’s City Safety with “pedestrian detection and full-auto-brake” is slowly working its way through Volvo’s line up and is standard on all S60 models. Personally I think this system should be standard on all Volvo models, even if it means a higher base price. The previous generation City Safety system saved my bacon in the XC60 I reviewed last year, so I’m confident it will do the same here. The S60 takes this system to the next level by detecting pedestrians as long as they are over 31-inches tall. After a week with BMW’s night vision system, which will warn you about pedestrians (but only at night) yet takes no action, I have to say my risk averse side prefers a system that acts instead. I was unable to find a volunteer to stand in front of the system so we could test it. Understandable, as I am told the system errs on the side of running into the obstacle rather than slamming on the brakes if it is unsure. Still, preliminary insurance data indicates that the system does work. Tell us your thoughts in the comment section below.
With the S60 R-Design, Volvo has made a competent AWD sedan that is finally as fast as the Germans offerings. Whet they haven’t done is resurrect the hopes and dreams of the Volvo R line, nor have they created a compelling reason for S4 or 335i buyers to look elsewhereh for their next car. While the R-Design may be far from a replacement for the S60R, it is a vehicle that finally lives up to Volvo’s “naughty” branding by giving Audi A4, 328i and C350 shoppers a viable option from the frigid north.
Volvo provide the vehicle, insurance and one tank go gas for this review
Specifications as tested
0-30 MPH: 1.9 Seconds
0-60 MPH: 5.05 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.5 Seconds @ 104 MPH
Observed Average Fuel Economy: 24 MPG over 724 miles