We were pleasantly surprised to see last year's Volvo S60 T6 spruce up the notoriously square Swedish brand's lineup. So before heading up to Yountville, California for a test of the S60's hot-rodded spinoff, the 2012 R-Design, we anticipated more paradigm-shifting performance.

Starting at $42,500, the 2012 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design AWD commands $4,600 more than a standard T6, though the top-tier S60 includes a $1,900 Premium Package (adding a moonroof and power leather seats, among other items) at no additional charge. Safety features like City Safety - which detects slow moving traffic and automatically brakes when collision is imminent - are standard, while optional items like Driver Alert/Lane Departure Warning and Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake can be added as part of the $2,100 Technology Package. The setup also includes adaptive cruise control. Navigation, premium sound, and a rear camera are available for $2,700.


Scandinavian Sparseness

Swing open the R-Design's door, and you're greeted with a clean, uncluttered interior that places most controls on the "floating" center stack. Materials are tastefully finished, with soft touch plastics and aluminum inlays complemented with more aggressively supportive seats and a rear cabin spacious enough for normal-sized adults - a vast improvement over its 2.4-inch shorter predecessor.

Front and center is a 7-inch screen that offers a crisp display of navigation and multimedia information. The S60 R-Design also receives blue dial analog instrumentation and model-specific steering wheel, shift lever, and pedals. Despite this model's additional badges and aluminum bits, the cabin comes across as a relatively serious, unadorned space - exactly what you would expect from the Swedish automaker.


Full Speed Ahead

Volvo enlisted tuning company Polestar to extract 8 percent more horsepower and 9 percent more torque from its turbocharged, 3.0-liter inline 6-cylinder, yielding a total of 325 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque. The brand's most powerful engine yet is good for 0-60 mph sprints in 5.5 seconds. Handling has also been tightened through stiffer and lower suspension components, a new strut brace, monotube dampers, and 18-inch, 5-spoke wheels.

On the road, the S60 R-Design's sharp throttle response shoots the car ahead swiftly, while the cabin maintains good sound insulation on smooth surfaces, with rough patches transmitting some tire noise. The seats proved quite comfortable during our blend of highway and backroad driving, despite their supportive bolstering.

Several laps at Thunderhill Raceway in central California revealed good grip, virtually imperceptible understeer, and a willingness to rotate thanks to the all-wheel drive system's torque vectoring capabilities, which sends power to the wheel with the most traction and brakes the inside wheel when necessary. Thrust was strong and shifts remained smooth under hard acceleration, though we would have liked to see paddle shifters on the steering wheel. And while the R-Design's handling proved surprisingly capable, its brakes weren't quite track-ready: fade became considerable after one fast-paced lap, and by the end of lap #2, we had to slow down for fear of overshooting some corners.

We cut the R-Design some slack, though, as we doubt many owners will be subjecting their S60s to that level of abuse on public roads; our drive back from the track once again revealed the R-Design's fortes: engaging driving dynamics coupled with a smooth, comfortable ride.


S60 Long-Term Test Coming Soon

The Volvo S60 piqued our interest as an intriguing alternative to more mainstream European midsize sedans like the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. In fact, we're so curious about the livability of this offbeat offering that we've ordered the 5-cylinder, front-drive T5 version for a comprehensive six-month test. To find out how the Volvo S60 measures up, check back in a couple months when we launch our series of long term reports.

author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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