From inside, the Volvo S60 sometimes feels bigger than it is because its shape doesn't allow you to see the four fender corners. Driven hard around turns, it almost seems like a '90s version of a '60s muscle car. The relatively long throw of the five-speed gearbox adds to the retro feel.
The S60 doesn't offer the razor-edge handling of the BMW 330i. Pushed through bumpy, high-speed corners, the S60's steering can't keep up. The suspension is tuned for comfort, not hard cornering, so the body leans in the chase. But the ride is excellent, even over nasty bumps, even with the optional 17-inch wheels fitted with Pirelli P6 all-season 235/45HR17 radials.
The S60 is front-wheel-drive, and torque steer rears its head, especially with the more powerful T5. Stand on the gas and you'll feel a tug on the steering wheel. It's really no big deal, though, as you get used to it. Still, the S60 definitely engages the driver, because you have to pay attention to the steering when you're driving hard. But it's extremely steady at speed if the road isn't too bumpy.
The T5 produces prodigious thrust from its high-pressure turbocharger, but you need to keep the revs up to keep the engine responsive. The T5 won't impress you until the revs climb to 4000 rpm where the power comes on really strong. At 50 mph in fourth gear the engine is turning 2500 rpm, so you'll generally have to downshift to third gear to pass on a two-lane. Volvo's turbocharged engines get great gas mileage. With the five-speed manual transmission the T5 gets 21/27 mpg.
The brakes were on the soft side, but the ABS was very smooth. We didn't feel thrown forward in the seat under hard braking, as we have with other sports sedans, including the BMW 330i.
The steering is slightly heavier in the S60 AWD, because of the weight of the all-wheel-drive system. (Volvo prefers to say it has a more "on-center feel," which is fair enough.) The ride also is firmer on the all-wheel-drive version, using stiffer shocks to handle the weight. We think it's a worthwhile tradeoff to get the AWD's improved traction and handling in the rain and snow.
We drove over gravel roads in the S60 AWD, and the directional stability on this loose surface was excellent. Power in the S60 AWD is distributed between the front and rear wheels using a wet multi-plate clutch controlled by electronics, and the distribution varies according to conditions. With a steady throttle on dry pavement, about 95 percent of the drive is transmitted to the front wheels; but up to 70 percent can go to the rear wheels when required. The balance changes instantaneously. Of course other automakers say that, too; but the difference in Volvo's Active-On-Demand system is the degree of instantaneous-ness. When one wheel slips 15 degrees, far less than any human can detect, the balance of power shifts away from that wheel, thus replacing the slip with grip. In other words, it's just more secure and better stuck to the road when the weather gets nasty.
The S60R is another animal altogether. It was designed and developed by Hans Nilsson, who's been a Volvo engineer for 26 years and races his own Volvo in 24-hour endurance races. Volvo let him alone to do what he knows how to do, and he did such a bang-up job they now call him the "Czar of R."
The twin-turbo engine makes 300 horsepower, the big vented discs use four-piston Brembo calipers, and there is a close-ratio six-speed gearbox. We tested the S60R on the road course at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and it was a perfect day in a perfect car. The balance is brilliant, the engine train-like, the gearbox bulletproof and the brakes bomb-proof.
The suspension is what's really special. Volvo says it's the most advanced active chassis on the market. A button on the dash allows three settings, Comfort, Sport and Advanced, which mostly address the shock stiffness and engine management. There is a distinct difference between the three settings, and each performs exactly as defined by the buttons. No more compromises with the ride of your high-performance car. You have a suspension that's soft when you want it to be, and stiff when you need it to be. Up to 500 times a second, sensors measure things like longitudinal, lateral and vertical acceleration of the car relative to road conditions and driving actions, and use this information to constantly adjust the ride. But the real leap with this technology is that sensors from the suspension, wheels, throttle, steering and brakes all communicate with each other before the various instantaneous settings are determined, including stability and traction control.