Driving Northwest: The 2011 Volvo S60


by TOM VOELK / KING 5 Car expert


Posted on September 30, 2010 at 1:30 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 1 at 1:34 PM

It’s tough to escape marketing’s gravitational pull. Everything from toothpaste to the neighborhoods we live in are planned, packaged and positioned down to typeface used to sell them. Automobiles? Probably the worst offenders. We buy brands as much as we purchase transportation and like it or not people judge the keys on your ring. Depending on the crowd you hang with your stock can rise or fall with either a Porsche or a Prius.

No mistaking Volvo’s image, right? It is of course design (stay with me for a moment).  For the past 10 years the Swedes in Gothenburg have churned out very svelte and desirable shapes that are balanced, organic and original. The new 2011 S60 is a perfect example of their evolving body language, as chiseled and handsome as it is safe (you know, that other thing they’re known for).

Volvo has pioneered things we take for granted, the laminated windshield, nozzles that squirt washer fluid, rearward facing child seats, even the three-point seatbelt standard in every car on the road today. But every other manufacturer has jumped on the safety bandwagon, leaving Volvo at risk of looking like just another car company. So they’ve upped their game with the S60 offering great design, more performance and safety for those who aren’t even in the car.

Great tech. Awful name.

Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake is one of those features that everyone will be talking about (but give the marketing people a D for the ungainly branding name). Simply put, Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake uses a windshield camera and a grille mounted radar that both detect human movement. If you wander into the path of an S60 piloted by a distracted driver, the Volvo will stop automatically, even with a foot on the throttle. This would be a poor choice of cars for Death Race 2000.

Some history: The XC60 crossover pioneered City Safety, a system that automatically slams on the brakes if a driver isn’t paying attention. It may have a cooler name but it only detects cars.

Like the XC60, City Safety is standard on S60.  Opt for a $2,100 technology package and Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake rides shotgun along with radar assisted cruse control and Lane Departure Warning. PD with FAB uses sophisticated software (shown in the streaming video) that determines whether people will cross paths with the front bumper.

It detects bipeds 32 inches and taller but not bicyclists or animals. It can completely avoid impact when traveling below 22 miles per hour and significantly reduce injury at speeds under 50. Keep in mind the car won’t stop if it determines you’re paying attention and can steer out of the situation. It’s also smart enough to not immobilize the vehicle if you’re driving slowly among a crowd of people, like after a sporting event. Its range is reduced by heavy fog or ice on the windshield. A good rule of thumb? If you can’t see neither can the system.

Volvo set up a test track with a number of mannequins christened Bob Jr. We were told to aim squarely at the Gap clad lad and keep our Nikes on the gas. As a parent it goes against every synapse in my body to mow down even a pint-sized dummy but Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake consistently stops a foot before impact leaving little Bobby unscathed and able to live out his dream of modeling clothes at Nordstrom.  

No more Mr. Nice Volvo

So the S60 is programmed to not hurt humans, but really, this Boy Scout wants to ditch it’s neckerchief and find a twisty road to tear up. Volvo says the 60 designation means sportier driving dynamics and the engine bay houses high hopes. At launch S60 comes exclusively with their T6 engine, a 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six making 300 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a 6 speed automatic with manual shift mode and Haldex all-wheel drive capable of sending 50 percent of the power to the rear tires. 0-60 runs happen in just under 6 seconds, pretty darn quick.

There’s practically an entire Fry’s Electronic store worth of technology to keep the 60 on the road. Dynamic Stability and Traction Control are expected but fine tuned. Advanced Stability Control uses a roll angle sensor to detect and react to oversteer (loss of rear traction) and understeer (the front wheels sliding during a turn). This helps inexperienced or panicked drivers in poor conditions or emergency maneuvers. Don’t worry enthusiasts, DSTC now has a new “sport” setting for controlled rear wheel slip.

With that in mind Corner Traction Control by Torque Vectoring redistributes torque to the outside wheel to help guide the car around a turn durning hard driving. Operating on both the front and rear wheels it reduces in understeer as it automatically applies power to the outside tires.

Handling life’s twists and turns
There are three suspension choices. Equipped with the standard “Dynamic Chassis” suspension the whole car is sharper and much more eager to slice up corners this time around. A no-cost option “Touring Chassis” is available for the comfort crowd. Can’t decide? The optional FOUR-C system can be tailored to suit your mood. It uses sensors to continuously monitor the car's behavior and adjust the dampers in fractions of a second. It has three different settings- Comfort, Sport and Advanced.

How does it all come together? Very nicely. As marketed, the new S60 is definitely sportier (or “naughty” to quote the ads). To the seat of my pants it still doesn’t equal the gold standards, BMWs sweet steering 3-Series or Infiniti’s G37.  But the Volvo has other fine qualities the others don’t and really, how much performance does the average driver need on a daily basis? My drive partner and I pushed this sedan with the Dynamic Chassis suspension on the twisty (and fortunately law enforcement free) backroads of Oregon hard enough to deserve an expensive ticket and it performed admirably.

To drive the performance issue home Volvo rented Oregon Raceway Park (an exceptional course in the middle of nowhere) offering up hot laps in FOUR-C equipped cars. Pushing the S60 way too hard on a number of blind turns I can feel the electronics feather in to firmly guide me out of serious trouble. The steering may lack some road feel but the dampers never hit their bottoms and the ride is always composed.

A nice place to see the world from  
The handsome cabin is trimmed with deeply grained leather, the instrument panel is soft touch. Volvo adheres firmly to the “everything that is touched must feel good” principal giving a high sense of quality to the car.  Gauges and controls are slightly oriented toward the driver for a cockpit feel. Volvo’s signature slim center stack is here too finished up in faux brushed aluminum. Even without the optional nav system there’s a 7 inch information screen so the cabin never looks low rent. Volvo now uses knobs on the front of the steering wheel and center stack to navigate the menu which allows a driver to tailor things like steering wheel effort. I find them on the small side but much better than the nub they tried on the back of the XC60 steering wheel for the nav system. Voice recognition is also on board but untried by myself.

There’s Bluetooth for phones and audio streaming plus USB iPod integration. The sound system is quite good, controls for the optional radar adaptive cruise control and Lane Departure Warning are easy to understand. My two main gripes? I prefer keyless ignition to the two step process Volvo uses to start the car. On a vehicle that’s touted as sporty, the lack of steering wheel paddle shifters is surprising. Volvo says research shows buyers don’t care but they speak volumes in the marketing department. Oh, those practical Swedes...

Moving to the rear

A common complaint about the outgoing S60 is snug rear quarters. At 5’9” I find the backseat with two inches of added legroom about average now. Without looking at actual measurements the S60 seems to be similar in size to Audi’s A4. Foot and leg room is about average with a drive shaft tunnel to deal with. Put shorter passengers in the middle, there’s raised center seating position.

The trunk has a wide opening but gooseneck hinge arms and undulations in the cargo hold take up space. Consider it average in class. Not only does the rear seatback split and fold, the front passenger seat drops forward and flat to if you need to haul a surfboard. So useful. So Volvo.

Volvo is eager to reach beyond its safety image and snag some enthusiasts with the S60. With the T6 AWD model starting at $37,700 dollars (46K as tested) it’s priced aggressively against Audi A4, BMW 3-Series, Infiniti G and Acura TL. Then there’s Volvo’s Safe + Sound coverage plan. It covers all maintenance and wear and tear items except for tires for 5 years or 60,000 miles. That’s a decent value. 

Volvo certainly proved that safety sells. How many times have you yelled the company’s slogan “Drive Safely” to friends and family as they drive away from Sunday dinner? Traditional Volvo drivers now get more driving fun, enthusiasts get some cutting edge safety technology. Sounds like a win for everyone. A car that stops itself when pedestrians are endangered is big news. The only thing more impressive? A vehicle that markets itself. The chiseled, athletic, and tech laden S60 might just be able to pull that trick off.