Sweden's answer to the 3 Series.
by Alex Law
Base Price (MSRP) $26,500
As Tested (MSRP) $35,875
Volvo's S60 is an all-new mid-size model that brings the Swedish firm's safety legacy and standards to consumers for whom the S40 is too small and the S80 too big. Not surprisingly, it also fits between those models in price -- starting at $26,500 but running to about $35,000 for a full prom dress edition.
The 2001 S60 replaces the S70, which replaced the 850, which replaced the 740, which, if memory serves, replaced a wooden cart with stone wheels.
The S60 handles really well when you get it going, but getting it going depends greatly on which engine you choose. If you like lots of launch and passing power, avoid the base engine.
Three models are available: 2.4 ($26,500); 2.4T ($29,800); T5 ($31,800). The big difference between models is the difference in horsepower.
The 2.4 comes with a 2.4-liter five-cylinder engine (yes, five cylinders) that produces 168 horsepower and 170 pounds-feet of torque.
The 2.4T uses a low-pressure turbocharger to generate 197 horsepower and 210 pounds-feet of torque; and that torque comes on at a much lower engine speed (1800 rpm instead of 4500 rpm), giving this model much better acceleration away from those intersections.
The mighty T5 uses a high-pressure turbo to produce 247 horsepower and 243 pounds-feet of torque for quick, turbocharged throttle response.
All S60 models get a raft of safety and security items: front, side and head airbags up front; seats that move to reduce whiplash problems; an immobilizer and an alarm; a Safe Approach and Home Safe Lighting System; five head restraints; and anti-lock disc brakes. The T5 model comes standard with traction control; and a Dynamic Stability system is an option.
Convenience features common to every S60 include power windows, trunk release and door locks, illuminated visor mirrors, a trunk light, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, a pollen filter, air conditioning, cupholders, and remote keyless entry.
There's a "Honey, I shrunk the S80" look to the S60, which is okay since the biggest and most expensive Volvo sedan is widely felt to be handsome in that Lars-the-hockey-player-in-a-cable-knit sweater kind of way. There is certainly no sense of the famous old "boxy but safe" styling that Volvo single-handedly championed for decades.
Interestingly, the S60's general shape predates the S80, so the bigger car is actually a copy of this car. Volvo crafted this general shape back in 1994 but lacked the funds to build it and the S80, so they shelved this one and went with the more profitable S80.
The man who lead the S60's design team, a Hungarian named Geza Loczi, likes to say that its exterior shape is ''the essence of contemporary Scandinavian design,'' which is the essence of bafflegab to me.
It seems compact at first glance and there's a hunched shoulders look to the part behind the rear door, which makes it seem like it's ready to lead a charge up the ice toward the other team's goal, if we can take that hockey analogy another step.
Overall, the S60 interior is handsome and comfortable. The seats are cushy and covered in a nice pigskin-type leather. Switches are well designed, including the electric window buttons mounted conveniently on the door (instead of inconveniently on the center console) and feature auto down. There's a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and other controls. The dashboard is organic, with flowing shapes that form a cohesive whole. The inside door handles are easy to grab.
The S60's primary weakness is evident the first time you open a door or the trunk lid and examine its interior space. There's no problem at all if you're sitting up front, but if you're in the back and you're in high school or above there will be legroom issues. Just getting into the back seat requires a duck of the head. Two people could sit in the back for an extended trip, but they'd have to be two of the more patient people you know.
Up front, there's better news. I found the gauges easy to read and the control switches easy to use. They were intuitive, which means you could figure most of them out without having to admit total failure and read the manual. The gauges are attractive, on a flat dark gray background.
The heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls are very nicely designed, using that flat gray color. The buttons are big and use Volvo's clever metaphoric design to direct the airflow. The radio will require study of the owner's manual to master.
The material used to cover the surfaces was pretty good, though not as good as you'll see in the S80. But they seemed crisper and sharper and more competent. The center console is mounted so far rearward that it's awkward to access. The cupholders mounted just forward of this console have a flimsy lid covering them. There another mini-cupholder on the center dash.
Attractive wood trim is used sparingly, on the glovebox lid and on all four doors. Silver painted plastic on the shifter surround looks out of place.
To get the swoopy shape, Volvo had to make certain design decisions that make the trunk opening small. But the trunk itself is quite roomy, and very deep. So it will hold a bunch of stuff in little bags; big hard-sided trunks will not fit. Be careful about what you put in first, because the trunk is so long that it will be difficult to impossible to reach something up against the back seat without leaning against the car (which may present dirt-on-the-skirt issues) or half-climbing in after it (which may present modesty issues). If you fold down the rear seat and the front passenger seat, then you can carry something quite long, like skis.
Bopping along a highway is where the S60's real role in Volvo's pantheon becomes obvious. The Swedes clearly mean for this car to be seen as a sports sedan in the same general class as the BMW 3 Series, which is the hallmark of this segment.
Like everyone else who takes a shot at the 3 Series, Volvo falls short. Exactly how short depends greatly on which engine you choose and how hard you like to push your car.
If you are one of those folks who likes to talk about driving at 9/10ths or 10/10ths or 11/10ths of your car's limits, then you are probably a man with the usual range of inadequacy issues. You probably also care that it's a front-drive car, since that cuts down on the ability to let the rear end slide out in a hard turn. There is some body lean in hard corners and the suspension is tuned more for a soft ride than for quick transient maneuvers. In that regard, it's no 3 Series.
The S60 does a great job of filtering out road vibration, an important feature where potholes and washboard surfaces abound. With its soft suspension, it should be a comfortable car on gravel roads, though we didn't test this.
If you drive it sensibly, you will find that the S60 is more competent in all situations than like-sized sedans from American or Japanese car companies. This can be reassuring, even if you don't drive hard. There's no sense that the S60's going to do something stupid if it hits a bump or a patch of ice and head immediately for the ditch. However, an exorbitant application of power can be a little tricky on some surfaces because the front wheels have to look after the propulsion and the steering at the same time.
The T5 produces prodigious thrust from its high-pressure turbocharger. Mash the gas and it takes off, with some slight turbo lag. It's fun. One of the great features of Volvo's turbocharged engines is that, if you're driving sensibly, there's little penalty in terms of fuel economy: When equipped with the manual transmission, the T5 gets 28/23 mpg, which is the same as the 2.4T, and just one point down from the highway rating for the 2.4.
The shifter is a bit clunky. And the brakes are on the spongy side, making it hard to coordinate heel-and-toe downshifts.
Volvo's S60 offers an alternative to BMW's 3 Series. It combines the S80's stylish shape with all those safety features that have made Volvo famous over the years.
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