By on December 13, 2011

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, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.

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45 Comments on “Review: 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design...”

  • avatar

    The pics don’t do it justice – in person it’s such a hot looking car.

    • 0 avatar


      I first saw this rig in dark grey from the rear 3/4 view as it drove by…I initially mistook it for a Jag. This thing has terrific street presence.

    • 0 avatar

      I like the rear diffuser, and it’s got a great stance about it. The red is probably the best choice in color for this version, but might attract some unwanted police attention. I love the look of the center stack, but even in photos, the materials don’t look as inviting as competitors in the segment. I’d like to check one out in person before passing judgement though.

  • avatar

    That car ought to be a hatchback!

  • avatar

    Since I lack charisma, I require that my car compensate. This Volvo doesn’t.

  • avatar

    Tires make a big difference, indeed. My 2004 S60R came with Pirelli P-Zero Rosso’s, which were good dry, OK wet, and positively terrifying on snow or ice. I switched to Michelin PS all-season and don’t miss the little bit of extra grip on clean concrete, since I can get out of my sloping driveway in any snow that doesn’t hang up the low-slung underpinnings. I hope the new R-Design has a tad better clearance under the exhaust pipes and a tighter turning circle than its predecessor’s 43+ feet (parallel-parking an aircraft carrier is easier). Did your tester have the magneto-rheologic shocks? You mentioned changing steering settings, but not the chassis, which I thought had at least two selections.

  • avatar
    Alex L. Dykes

    Great review Michael. My take two from the perspective of a former Volvo R owner with as-tested 0-60 times, etc will be hitting in the coming weeks.

  • avatar

    Michael – Didn’t this chassis start as a Mazda3? Interesting car, but still has the motor hung out over the front wheels.

  • avatar

    This car has the “short” Volvo straight six that can be mounted transversely or longitudinally thus breathing new life into the straight six engine configuration.

    Michael, are there examples yet of this engine mounted longitudinally?

  • avatar

    Similar to Michael I want to like the base S60 as a 3 series or A4 alternative. The interior is really beautiful — both the center stack and instrument panel — but I just cannot warm to the exterior design.

    Perhaps a better Infiniti comparison would be the G37xS. One of the most ridiculous car names out there.

  • avatar

    Michael, I’m very curious how it compares to the Infiniti G37x. On paper, it seems like the G37x should be an easy win… does the Volvo’s safety tech keep it in the running?

    • 0 avatar

      I haven’t driven a G37x since 2007. AWD should help with the RWD car’s difficult to modulate oversteer, but not its worst-in-segment (in S form) ride quality. AWD or RWD, like the Volvo it can’t match the Audi S4 for handling precision.

  • avatar

    I liked the looks of the last S60, but was mighty disappointed after having driven my brother’s, years ago. I think it was a T5, and it felt incredibly ordinary.

    When this new car debuted, I thought it looked cartoonish and had a ridiculously proportioned snout. But it’s grown on me, and I think it’s a great looking car, for the most part.

    I recently rented a new S60 T5 while in LA, and I was incredibly surprised and impressed by how well it drove. Mostly local LA driving, with some runs on winding Sunset and PCH and the hills, but not much more. The T5 engine was suprisingly smooth and made the car sufficiently quick, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. And the interior was quite nice, and had great seats, but I thought the HVAC and audio controls were horrible.

    Somehow, even if the T6 and R-Design models drive better, I think the lower end models are the sweet spot for this car. At $35K, it makes a good alternative to the obvious choices – base A4s and C-Classes. At the upper $40s, it just seems very expensive.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, but the six is so much better…

      • 0 avatar

        I agree with hachee. Granted I am a long-time Volvo owner and just bought a T5(saville grey/off-black, premium and climate pacjages). The T5 feels like a much more expensive car than it is. Most people who saw mine thought I spent around 45K. The appearance depends a lot on the color. Saville grey and flamenco red look great and the wheels don’t look too different than the Ixions while being much more practical for daily use especially if you are up north. It is a significantly lighter car than the T6 and R-design at closer to 3500 lbs and the gas mileage is quite a bit better. Maybe because I am coming from other volvos (240 and S70 AWD) I think that the dynamics are great on this car; again if you are going to use the car on varied roads and climates, and the turning radius is a lot better than in the T6 or dynamic package. The size is perfect, with room for the kids in back but doesn’t feel like a family car. There are great deals on this car: I got mine for 33K plus another $1000 off for Volvo loyalty. Yes the R would have been my first pick, but for the price the T5 can’t be beat and it is a simple configuration so I expect that it will hold up well over the years.

  • avatar

    How would you compare this car to the Buick Regal Turbo?

  • avatar

    I like the pre-“face-lift” Volvo front ends like on my wife’s 2008 C30. Those took Volvo’s traditional “brick” front and smoothed things out just enough, where as this new front end appears to be trying too hard. However the rest of the car looks great, especially how the rear wheel arches sweep into the trunk line and bumper dips below. Surprised by the fuel figures, as the wife’s much smaller C30 with the (also smaller) T5 engine also returns 23 mpg in the city.

    If the center stack HVAC / stereo controls are the same as our ’08 then they are some of the best I have ever experienced. Same with the seats – a Volvo trademark – they feel great and its pretty much the only car I’ve owned where the headrests feel like they actually doing their job. At first I thought the interior of our C30 was boring but it has grown on me, its simple and to the point.

    We recently took the C30 on a long road trip (no way I was taking my 350Z – too stiff/too loud) and the Volvo was an excellent cruiser, only complaint was wind noise coming from the mirrors. In order to allow them to fold in (I assume) they stick out a bit too much and let noticeable wind thru the gap by the window.

    Since sporty Volvos are off almost everyone’s radar give this car two years and you’ll be able to score it off-lease for an excellent price I bet.

  • avatar

    Charleston, WV “and roads far more challenging than you’ll find anywhere near Detroit” . The roads are great driving roads in that area.
    HAHAHAHAH. There are roads anywhere near Detroit? Gotta go 200 miles north-west or 300 miles south-east of Detroit to get anything that resembles a “driving road”.

  • avatar

    “To get the proper gear you often must intervene, and no paddles are provided for the task, only the shift lever.”

    I have never understood the appeal of paddle shifters. To me, the “+/-” gate on the shift lever preserves at least some of the intuitive feel and flavor of a real stick shift. But flicking the switches on the steering wheel just feels awkward. I guess it’s what you are used to.

    • 0 avatar
      bill h.

      I have a car with both the automated manual shift lever gate and the paddles, and I use the former almost exclusively, because intuitively it’s an easier motion to make, especially when one of our other cars is a three pedal manual. Plus, the paddle shifters really only work when you’re driving on a straight or slightly curvy road; hand-over-hand turns pretty much preclude using the paddles during the manueuver.

    • 0 avatar

      When implemented well, the paddles let you keep both hands on the wheel. I used to have the same criticism of those that turn with the wheel, but then learned that this was because I was steering the car the wrong way. You’ll read elsewhere on the site about “shuffle steering.”

      • 0 avatar
        bill h.

        Message received–I do mostly shuffle steering in more sedate driving, but I still find it easier to work the stick than the paddles in all but straight line motion.

  • avatar

    The car looks nice. Too bad I don’t want a Chinese car. It might actually be built in Sweden, except Volvo will forever be a Chinese car to me going forward.

  • avatar

    Haha on the bit about European Inspired.

    I look forward to Volvos in a few years.

  • avatar

    The T6 is pretty nice, but the T4 and T5 are a hoot-and-a-half around the racecourse. Lighter, more balanced, more nimble… slower… but loads of fun.

    Now if they could only get 325 horsepower out of the 1.6 liter T4…

  • avatar

    You wanted to like the S60, and your review hints at why you should have. No, the S60 isn’t as confidence inspiring as an S4. But it has great seats, is a great highway car, quiet, comfortable and competent. In other words, it is the better car for 90% of the people 90% of the time. And that is why a reviewer should like. Car reviews shouldn’t be based on how a car performs at limits that MOST people NEVER drive at. A review should point out those shortcomings, and this one does. But the review underemphasizes the characteristics that make the S60 a great car for most people under most driving conditions.

  • avatar

    Though I think the styling looks a bit too Asian for my liking (for a Volvo) I like it. I was given an S60 T5 as a loaner recently while my XC90 Sport was in the shop. I liked it a lot, it seemed like it would make a nice commuter. I considered it as a possible replacement for my 7-year old G35x until I put my rear facing Recaro car seats in the back. While my twins would fit back there, it took quite a bit of maneuvering to get them in there. That rear roofline is cut real low for that coupe-like look that everyone loves so much. Why can’t a sedan just be a sedan anymore? In any event, the kids will be forward-facing soon so it won’t be an issue for much longer. Just something to consider for those of you with babies.

    On another note, my XC is now a few months out of warranty and the AWD system is not working. There is a problem with one of the axles too. Let’s see how Volvo (read: new ownership) handles this. It looks like my local store has 2 R-Design S60s in stock, think I’ll take one for a spin while I’m there. Nice review, Michael. I’m looking forward to yours, Alex.

  • avatar

    Volvo does deserve some credit for improved driving dynamics, and finally getting their NAV interface out of the stone age. That said, I think this car just doesn’t have a chance against the new F30 3 series.

    Audi made some missteps with the B8 A4 – the interior is too plasticky, and the seats are hard and uncomfortable. It’s nowhere near as good as the new A6. The F30 though seems near flawless. The last one looks drab next to the Audi, but the F30 looks great, much better than the dowdy looking F10 5 series.

    I think BMW knocked it out of the park, compared to Volvo’s base hit. Looking forward to your review, Mike.

  • avatar

    I hate the look of the centre stack, especially the placement of the vent below the screen.

  • avatar

    As a former V70R owner it would appear that this S60 suffers from the same issues. Great ergos, interior and engine but Volvo just doesn’t get suspension tuning.

  • avatar

    It looks like a cheap 15K car both on the me too overly bland side view and the cheapo gray and painted silver interior that would put me to sleep in less than 10 minutes save the engine. Volvo has lost there way. Thanks China

  • avatar

    Regarding the G37 S…. true it’s probably a much better comparison and cheaper car. The S4 is simply in another class. Test driving the G you definitely notice the well sorted out interior. However, I must say what’s up with the thrashing sounds when you put your foot into it…. it totally ruins the whole driving experience – for me anyway.

  • avatar

    As Everyone know that Volvo is leading brand for luxury car!!! look at this car we can see this luxury model of volvo. As we seeing in picture that this cars interior and exterior is well designed . The designers of volvo had taken a lot of hard work puts more efforts to make this car!!! . I will love to ride this car . Thanks for sharing this great information.

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