When Volvo introduced the S60 in 2011, the Swedes advertised their mid-sized sedan as the naughtiest Volvo ever thanks to a 300HP turbocharged engine. While I’m sure former “R owners” would disagree, the S60 has met with sales success with over 18,000 units sold so far this year, a 14% increase over last year. In 2012 Volvo added a less powerful FWD model to the mix to cut the price of entry. For 2013 Volvo has further expanded the S60 line by adding a torque vectoring AWD system to the lightest S60. Volvo also tells us they have completely refreshed their T5 engine for 2013 and tweaked the transmission for the naughty Volvo’s first retouch ahead of the rumored 2014 refresh. Huh? Yep, Volvo’s gettin’ down with the yearly refresh. Does that make the T5 AWD the naughtiest Volvo ever? Let’s find out.
From the outside, the S60’s sheet metal is a departure from Volvo’s traditional past, but still retains Volvo’s strong shoulders and something of the iconic Volvo two-box style. If it were not for the over-sized proboscis, the design might rival the original S80’s form for the most elegant Volvo ever penned, but as it is, passengers and observers were mostly undecided whether they liked the schnoz or the short trunk lid. Light pipes in the tail lamp modules, subtle swoops over the wheel arches, and a coupé-like C-pillar conspire to add a touch of modernity to the new S60. Polarizing style has never been a Volvo hallmark however and taken as a whole the new S60 is conservative luxurious rather than daring. As before, Volvo remains the Birkenstock to BMW’s Prada.
Birkenstocks are comfy. Prada? Hit and miss I’m told. And so it is with Volvo and BMW interiors. The S60 is only 3 years old, so aside from massaging color and trim options, the only substantive change is the new transparent shifter. I’m not quite clear what Volvo was trying to accomplish with the new lighted plastic knob. Whatever it was I’m not sure it worked. Still, the rest of the cabin is pure Scandinavian Chic from the soft dashboard to the floating center console and supremely comfortable seats. Despite lacking the range of motion that the competition affords (seriously, have you see the number of buttons on a BMW sport seat?), Volvo’s thrones continue to be the segment’s ergonomic benchmark. Helping keep the interior trendy interior is a new black/baseball glove color scheme. Volvo has also improved sound deadening materials to reduce both road and wind noise in the cabin.
Once upon a time Volvo’s sedans occupied a half-step between the C and D segment cars from the German competition. Fast forward to today and the 3-Series has caught up with the Swedes and the S60 and 328 are essentially the same size. The BMW’s dimension stretch pays dividends with two more inches of rear seat room, an important number because four six-foot-two adults fill the Swede to capacity.
Like many luxury cars in the industry, Volvo has taken to a coupé-like rear profile that reduces the trunk opening to more of a cargo slot. This problem isn’t unique to Volvo, but the opening is a hair smaller than the new 328i’s recently enlarged cargo hold. As with the S60 models we reviewed earlier, the T5 AWD continues to use trunk hinges that cut into the available trunk space as well as the opening.
Infotainment, Gadgets & Safety
Volvo’s Sensus system has been around for three years and continues to deliver a competitive experience in the segment. The 7-inch LCD is essentially the same size as other entries in this segment aside from BMW’s 3-series which brings an 8.8 inch display to the fight. While Volvo has fixed many of the glitches the original system suffered from, the system still does not allow for voice commanding your USB/iDevices like the latest Acura and Lexus systems. Still, the Germans haven’t figured this out yet either. Overall the system is more intuitive than COMAND and MMI, but not as snazzy as iDrive. While I’m complaining, Sensus lacks internet connectivity and App integration that MMI and iDrive sport. Does that matter? Probably not, but I’m sure someone cares.
On the gadget front, Volvo is touting their new full-range cruise control which will now take the S60 to a complete stop in heavy traffic and keep you stopped until traffic moves again. (You just press the resume button.) The system works extremely well and easily ties with Mercedes’ Distronic Plus as the most natural feeling radar system. Bundled with the optional ($2100) radar system is a collision warning system with tailgating alert, lane departure warning, road sign information and automatic high beams.
Volvo’s City Safety system is standard on all S60 models and uses a camera and laser scanner to watch traffic and pedestrians ahead of you. For 2013, the system is active up to 31MPH (up from 19MPH) to keep you from running down Jimmy on his way to school. While the system isn’t perfect, Volvo claims the Volvo models with the system is responsible for the S60 and XC60 being involved in some 25% fewer at-fault accidents than the competition.
Volvo may have committed to an all four-banger future, but that hasn’t prevented them from face-lifting the trusty 2.5L 5 cylinder for 2013. Yes, you read that right, this is not the same 2.5L 5-cylinder engine under last year’s hood. To improve efficiency, Volvo increased the compression to 9.5:1, dropped in new pistons, a new crank, and revised the software. The result of the overhaul is a 1MPG bump in fuel economy, but more importantly, a new over-boost feature is along for the ride. While the performance figures (250HP at 5,500RPM and 266lb-ft of twist from 1,800-4,800RPM) are the same as before, overboost cranks the twist up to 295lb-ft for 10 seconds when you bury the throttle. In addition to the extra twist, Volvo tweaked the Aisin transmission’s software for faster and crisper shifts and now offers a $2,000 optional AWD system. The new engine and tweaks drop the FWD T5’s sprint to 60 by 2/10ths and allows the T5 AWD to hit the mark in 5.93, only 0.26 behind the T6 AWD.
Compared to the competition, the 5 cylinder’s 250HP class leading with Audi still using ye olde 211HP 2.0L TFSI and Mercedes’ new 1.8L turbo spooling up 201HP. It even compares well with BMW’s 240HP 2.0L turbo. (However, the 328i’s lighter weight and 8-speed transmission allow it to hit 60 0.17 seconds faster.) Volvo’s 5-cylinder produces a distinctly “dustbusterish” kind of sound that is less entry-level than a four-cylinder engine but not as refined as BMW’s sixes. BMW’s 2.0L may be the pinnacle of four-cylinder refinement but even it is not as smooth as Volvo’s 5-pot. Audi? The 2.0L engine sounds rough around the edges and the A4 transmits far more engine noise into the cabin than the BMW or Volvo.
We should get one thing straight right up front: no matter how many wheels get the power, little is going to make up for having 3/5ths of your weight on the front axle. While many reviews complain about the fact that the Audi A4’s engine is completely in-front of the front axle, it still has a better (54/46) weight balance than the S60 with the engine completely above the front axle. That being said, the S60’s chassis is well composed on all road surfaces and is perhaps one of the best FWD platforms currently on offer in America. Checking that AWD option box however turns the S60 into a different animal on the road delivering [literally] 96% of the performance of the S60 T6 for $6,700 less. In addition, putting the S60 on an engine diet means the T5 AWD weighs 200lbs less than the T6 AWD.
When the road bends, the S60 T5 surprises with more handling prowess than its front heavy numbers would indicate. The primary reasons are the 235-width tires and Volvo’s ABS system based torque vectoring software. Rather than using a limited slip differential, the Volvo system uses the ABS system to brake the inside wheels in corners to send power to the outside wheel. While the system is not as effective as the more expensive mechanical active diffs, it allows more rear end rotation than you would expect. The result is a car with extremely confident road manners in all driving situations. While the A4 can be more fun as it has a RWD bias, the A4 was less predictable and less composed on the back-country roads I frequent.
With a starting price of $33,750, the S60 T5 AWD is the bargain choice in this segment undercutting the A4 Quattro by $850 and the 328xi by $4,750. Adjusting for feature content, the S60 comes out further ahead at around $1,300 less than the Audi and between $4,200 and $5,800 less than the BMW (depending on content). Despite being the segment’s value choice, I’d call the S60 T5 AWD my second choice in this segment behind the 328i and ahead of the A4 Quattro. The BMW’s larger dimensions, sportier aspirations and impressive list of “techogadgetry” justify the 14% price jump in my mind. Audi’s rough and underpowered engine combined with their complicated MMI infotainment system help push the king of AWD one notch down below the confidant smooth S60. If value factors into your decision-making, then the S60 is about two paddle shifters and a 5% better weight balance away from perfection. Until then the 328i reins supreme in this segment, but the T5 AWD is an excellent option if you’re cheap like me.
Volvo provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Specifications as tested
0-30: 2.2 Seconds
0-60: 5.93 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 14.5 Seconds @ 95 MPH
Average Fuel Economy: 26.5MPG over 895 miles