Volvo. What does that name conjure up in your mind’s eye? Jerry and Margo Leadbetter’s suburban upright estate from The Good Life? Or maybe Rickard Rydell pummelling around Donington Park’s Craner Curves in the 850 wagon in the most unlikely of Touring Cars? Or do you recognise the Swedish brand as a purveyor of curvaceous, slinky saloons with coupé rooflines?

Volvo's curvy, second generation S60

Despite binning the design office’s set squares back in the late 1990s, Volvo is still working hard to rid itself of its reputation for producing tank-like carry-alls. The first S80 ushered in a new way of thinking, with voluptuous, strong shouldered styling elements to its three-box body, with no estate derivative on offer. The S60 that followed two years later, condensed those styling elements into a more visually appealing and youthful package. Although it was blunt at its extremities, the body style was firmly in the four-door coupé genre, well before Mercedes’ CLS appeared.

The S60's coupé-like profile especially obvious from the rear three quarters

A decade on, Volvo’s second generation S60 is now vying for attention in the hearts and minds of family car buyers. Is it enough to tempt them away from larger Mondeos and Insignias or is its anti-Teutonic styling a curve too far?

This latest S60 is quite a thing to behold. The first model’s deeply chamfered shoulder line has been filled out somewhat and instead shares centre stage on the styling front with a wave-like waste-line crease. It has the potential to look busy but the lack of sharpness to the body pressing ensures the look is subtle, suggesting a muscular tautness to the panels. The tail ends sharply as before but is now adorned with a pair of boomerang shaped rear lights, resplendent in their LED techno-glow. Above sits a curtailed bootlid, with a concave deck which melds seamlessly into the rear screen and roofline. So continuous is that line from the windscreen top backwards, the S60 almost possesses a fastback silhouette.

Forwards of the windscreen is the least successful element of the S60’s design. The nose is bold as Volvos tend to be, but instead of a large high-mounted grille, flanked by dominant headlamps, a new look is at play. The grille is still large, but is now shapelier and lower-set. A pair of vertical LED day running lights nestle alongside, before sweeping back to the headlamps which are now stretched back deeply into the front wings. It’s not an ugly visage, but it looks like the clay model from which the final measurements were taken was left outside on a particularly hot Gothenburg afternoon. Think Jaguar XJ40 tail in reverse and you get the idea.

If it wasn't for the badge, would you know it was a Volvo?

The overall effect makes the S60 look more pert than its 4.63m length suggests. It’s significantly shorter than rivals from Ford and Vauxhall in the fleet market, but those cars have a dual role to play, growing to fill the void left by the previous flagships not being replaced. It’s more likely to be cross-shopped against the Germanic triumvirate of A4, 3 Series and C-class, which are all similar in length to the Belgian-built Swede.

How much a car’s design appeals to the individual is always a subjective issue but from a personal perspective, even with its droopy snoot, the S60 ranks above its rivals in the styling stakes because its dared to be different and because you see far fewer of them. Not that that’s good news for Volvo, but with the 3 Series and now C-class appearing in the Top 10 best selling cars in Britain, buying the car with the iron symbol on the grille brings much more by way of exclusivity.

No chunky rubber bumpers these days

Conspicuous by its absence at the front is Volvo’s once trademark rubber coated chunky bumper, a device that looked capable of toppling a whole housing estate at 10mph without leaving a scratch. Technology and design have moved on significantly since the old 140 series first wore its front and rear girders – the S60’s soft nose discreetly providing a greater level of protection in a more elegant package.

Volvo’s long majored on its safety credentials, even when it wasn’t sexy to make it the primary marketing benefit for a range of cars. Long before the days of Euro NCAP, Volvo trotted out brochures and videos showing cars being driven off tall buildings but now the message is prevention rather than cure. S60s are equipped with City Safety – a sophisticated package of electronics and a windscreen mounted camera that endeavours to prevent you rear ending someone by performing an emergency stop for you if the car doesn’t think you’ll react quickly enough.

Monitoring equipment for Volvo's City Safety is at the top of the windscreen

If you’re warming to the S60’s charms, you’ll doubtless be pleased to know there’s a multitude of petrol and diesel-powered versions to choose from. As part of its range simplification, Volvo ditched previous engine size badges (after all, ‘1.6’ is so passé, isn’t it?) and replaced it with an alphanumeric system, explained thus: 

  • T3: four-cylinder, 1.6 turbo petrol, 148bhp
  • T4: four-cylinder, 1.6 turbo petrol, 178bhp
  • T5: four-cylinder, 2.0 turbo petrol, 237bhp
  • T6: six-cylinder, 3.0 turbo petrol, 300bhp, with four wheel drive
  • D2 DRIVe: four-cylinder, 1.6 turbo diesel, 113bhp
  • D3: five-cylinder, 2.0 turbo diesel, 161bhp
  • D5: five-cylinder, 2.4 turbo diesel, 212bhp

Most engines are available with the full range of trim levels from ES, SE, SE Lux and the sought after, body-kitted R-Design models. All S60s are front wheel drive, except for the fastest T6 versions which feature drive to all four wheels. Transmissions vary between engines too, but whether you choose manual or the Geartronic or Powershift automatics, all are 6-speeders.

Prices range from the D2 DRIVe ES Start/Stop at £23,495 up to the fastest T6 AWD R-Design Geartronic at £35,110.

Scandinavian interior design?

Simple and bold interior design for the Volvo S60

The new 60 Series Volvos (the S60 saloon is accompanied by the V60 estate and XC60 SUV) combine the floating centre console, first seen on the smaller S40, with a minimalism not typically found in car interiors. Switchgear is kept focused to key areas, leaving the dashboard a touch stark in this all-charcoal coloured cabin, but the quality is superb. Everything feels solid and substantial enough to last the lifetime of the car, working as well on its tenth birthday as it did when it first left the factory.

That's the space behind that floating centre console. What do you put there?

That floating console’s always been a bit contentious. The space behind it has a little mat, which is just about big enough to sit your iPhone on but it’s best left to pieces of equipment you don’t intend to access frequently. The console on this SE model featured a striated silvery finish, garnished with aluminium banding that felt satisfyingly cold to the touch on these late autumnal mornings. Behind the gear lever are a pair of cubbies, the first one being primarily for drinks behind a neat, sliding cover. It looks good but functionality is somewhat hampered by your left elbow fouling the bottle tops as you change gear.

Instruments are simple and clear

Starting the S60 is a technologically packed experience every time. Slot the multi-buttoned bladeless key fob into the wide slot in the dash, press the starter button above and watch the dials come to life. The instruments themselves look elegant, with needles that don’t rotate from the centre of the dial, permitting an unobstructed view of the digital readouts contained within the centre of each. The colour LCD screen in the centre of the dash relays all manner of information from the climate control settings to the radio station with the name of the current track being played.

Beautifully comfortable front seats in the S60

Settle into the driver’s seat and you immediately feel like you’re ensconced in your favourite armchair. The seats are supremely comfortable, and heated on this model, ensuring every journey leaves you fatigue-free. A wide range of adjustment across eight planes means you feel at one with the driving position. The only flaws are that the gearlever felt like it was set a smidgen too rearwards to be ideal and there was no left foot rest – a disappointing omission.

S60's rear passengers aren't short-changed

The rear bench is also comfortable and wide enough for three adults to sit side by side without being overly intimate. Foot, knee and elbow room are good but inevitably taller rear passengers will find they’re treated to a complimentary scalp massage from the headlining, due to the aggressive slope of the roof. Naturally, there is a wealth of safety fittings to keep the S60’s occupants protected.

S60's boot features a useful partitioning board

Open the truncated bootlid and you’re greeted with 380l of well-shaped space, with rear seats that tumble to increase the capacity further. Particularly useful was the section of the boot floor that folds upwards to form a partition in the boot, preventing you from needing to be an expert pot-holer to retrieve belongings that have rolled to the seatbacks. The board also has a couple of hooks and a band to restrain slender cargo.

How’s the S60 on the road?

Chances are you’re not expecting the S60 to be as sharply honed as a driver’s tool as the latest 3 Series and C-class are lauded as being in road test after road test. Therefore you won’t be disappointed to learn that it isn’t. This somewhat misses the point though, as the Volvo is the antithesis of the German Big Three, not just in terms of looks but also in its road manners.

Make no mistake, the S60 holds the road well, showing no sign of slippage or wallowy waywardness during a wet drive across the winding roads of the Wolds. The steering feels meaty too, with a refreshing amount of weight on offer in spite of the power assistance. The wheel itself is a tactile delight, the sides of it being shaved to make them flatter to better fit the palms of your hands. Turn in to corners feels assured, if not exciting, with little hint of understeer at a typical cross country pace.

Smooth roads and higher speeds prove the S60's ability as a refined cruiser

Dual carriageways are equally unruffled experiences, with the mid-sized Volvo remaining stable and composed. The ride quality at speed is great, but suffers around town or over undulating surfaces at lower speeds. It doesn’t seem to have the capacity to soak up the bumps with aplomb, transmitting wobbles and jolts back to the cabin’s occupants. Adjusting the damper ratings a tad should be on the ‘fix at the facelift’ list.

This D2 DRIVe edition is the most economical engine in the S60 line-up and one which will doubtless be a significant seller as more buyers become thrift-conscious. Generating 113bhp (115PS) from its 1.6-litre capacity isn’t going to turn this Volvo into a ball of fire but it’s parsimonious with regards to its thirst for diesel. Volvo’s claimed average consumption of 65.7mpg gives this S60 a theoretical range of 975 miles on a single tank. Ordinarily, reporting that a family saloon had managed a figure in the high 40s mpg on test would be glowing, but in light of that official claim it seems lacklustre. The Start/Stop function worked well, tending to re-start the engine after a minute or so in order to maintain optimum working temperatures.

D2 = 1.6-litres of common rail, turbocharged diesel engine

I mentioned it was no ball of fire, but the claimed top speed of 121mph and 0-60 sprint of 10.4 seconds do flatter the Volvo somewhat. Acceleration doesn’t feel particularly slow, but the engine and gears require work to get the most out of the performance. If you’re approaching traffic with a view to overtake, dropping a cog or two is a necessity, as merely depressing the throttle and letting the revs rise from the cruising speed in sixth takes an age. Unless you really need your S60 with that claimed level of fuel efficiency, then spend a little more and opt for the D3 motor. Economy isn’t hurt too badly and performance gets a welcome boost in flexibility.

Verdict

The latest Volvo S60 is a car that has the ability to appeal on a variety of levels. Undoubtedly its curve-fest styling will be the primary focus for many, and why not? It’s a great looking saloon car that rejoices in being a standout design in a world of automotive porridge.

It will also appeal because Volvo’s gone its own way, rather than clone the look and feel of its primary rivals from Germany. And so long as performance is not of paramount concern, the D2 DRIVe versions provide decent economy too.

Comfortable, safe and solid, there’s not much to detract from the S60’s appeal… Apart from the V60. Same chassis, engines, styling themes and interior, with the added advantage of extra carrying capacity and even greater flexibility.

Great looking Volvo - but will more prefer the V60 estate?

It seems ‘Volvo’ and ‘estate’ remain synonymous after all.

Thumbs Up: Great styling, proper coupé profile, comfort, solidity, interior, economy

Thumbs Down: Performance, drooping nose, economy claims didn’t match reality on test, urban ride

Quick Facts

Model Tested: Volvo S60 D2 DRIVe SE Start/Stop

Top Speed: 121mph

0-60: 10.4sec

Average fuel consumption: 65.7mpg

CO2 emissions: 114g/km

Engine size: 4/1560cc common rail fuel injection, turbocharged diesel

Power: 113bhp

Torque: 199lb/ft

Price: £25,595 (June 2011)

All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2011

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