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Motornet: Vive la Revolvolution

Vive la Revolvolution


Volvo's revolution continues with the introduction of the sleek and stylish S60 sedan. If this car can't change perceptions of the marque, nothing will.

Words: K Ferguson
Photos: Neil McKenzie

On the inside pages of Volvo's publicity brochure for the new S60, there's an interesting quote from one of the founders of Volvo, Assar Gabrielsson. It reads: "Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore is - and must remain - safety."

Which is great, fantastic even. And anyone who spends anytime behind the wheel of the S60 can't help but realise that that principle still holds true many years later. The S60 comes equipped with everything under the sun that might help you walk away from an accident whether serious or minor.

Though it seems with Volvo, safety is synonymous with acronyms. SIPS (Side Impact Protection System), WHIPS (Whiplash Protection System), IC (Inflatable Curtain), STC (Stability and Traction Control) not to mention ABS (Anti-lock Brakes) and SRS Airbags (Supplementary Restraint System) are all on the standard equipment list. We haven't even mentioned the special child safety features yet either....

Unfortunately, safety alone is not enough to sell cars, and while Volvos have a good reputation, traditionally they are seen as boxy, stodgy and just a bit conservative - the kind of car a pipe smoking academic might buy.

But boxy is not an adjective that jumps to mind when casting ones eye over the new S60. Try sleek, modern, and stylish - even sexy. Even though it's a full-size sedan rivalling the BMW 5-series in size, its sloping rear roofline and beautifully tapered rear end are more reminiscent of a coupe. The 'Maya Yellow' pearl test car is a colour that clearly defines the new approach Volvo is taking. It is bold and just a little cheeky, without being a turn off to the conservative, upper management executive types that this car is aimed at.

The boldness is continued on the inside. The charcoal leather upholstery is inset with an unusual tan/gold fabric. I wasn't sure of its aesthetic qualities at first, but it soon grew on me, and it goes a long way to lift an otherwise dark(ish) interior. At $82, 990 the 2.4T is not the most powerful or the most expensive S60, but it comes well equipped nonetheless. The standard equipment list is extensive and includes such goodies as climate controlled air (adjustable for each front seat passenger), multi task trip computer, cruise control, wood inlay, electric seats (heated as well), attractive 16" alloy wheels and a first rate, nine speaker sound system with four disk in-dash CD player. As an added extra, the test car was equipped with a built-in GSM phone - great if you're on Vodafone but not much use to me, or the other hundreds of thousands on the Telecom network....

The S60 is no slouch on the performance front either. The 'T' carries the same quirky five-cylinder engine of its big brother V70 wagon, developing 147kw (200bhp). It doesn't have the instant acceleration of the more performance oriented T5, but the light pressure turbo does a good job of delivering adequate mid-range torque and useful acceleration when its called upon. I decided against trying for any performance figures when I glanced at the odometer shortly after picking up the car. With just 60 kilometres on the clock, hard acceleration just wasn't on the cards.

But the overall performance of the car really comes into context when you consider the transmission. Unlike other, lesser cars, the S60 has a five-speed automatic transmission, and a very good one at that. As well as the standard automatic functions, the car comes with Volvo's 'Geartronic' system. It is effectively a clutch-less manual that is accessed by snicking the gearlever across the gearbox. To change up, pull back, to change down, push forward - it's that simple.

I first experienced this system when I drove the V70 wagon last year. At the time, I felt it was borderline gimmicky. This time round, I found it much more useful and really enjoyed holding a gear as I weaved through tightish bends. For really demanding driving, the system is a little slow but it sure beats conventional autos.

In saying that, just like in its sister wagon, I managed to catch myself out. When driving in 'manual', the system automatically reverts to first gear when you stop. Normally fine, but if like me, you can be forgetful, a word of caution. The system won't change up at redline - it just holds the gear no matter what. It is real easy to forget you're in manual and to suddenly wonder what the heck you’re doing revving the car silly and why it’s not changing up when you take off from the traffic lights!!

What is immediately obvious when driving this car is how well put together is it. Shut lines are first rate, and materials ooze quality. Everything you touch is tactile and resilient, from the leather-covered steering wheel to the plastics on the dash.

The driving position is magnificent - ergonomic but welcoming at the same time. You literally sink into the large bucket seats, while the cloth inserts mean drivers don't slide all over the show when cornering hard. The test car came equipped with more sculpted and bolstered sports seats. If the standard seats are first class, the sports seats shift the goalposts again.

Clearly, Volvo has produced a comprehensive package in the S60. It's a very convincing luxury car that narrows even further the margin between it and its more expensive German rivals. The question that lingered in my mind was whether or not anyone would notice? After all, punters in this price bracket are spoilt for choice. If a stunning looking gold Volvo doesn't grab attention, what would?

To find out, intrepid photographer Neil and I (and Neil's two children, Liam, aged five, and Brooke, aged three - specially recruited to test the built-in child booster seat) set off for one of Wellington's more exclusive seaside suburbs, Seatoun. The houses are mostly architecturally designed monoliths or expertly renovated villas, the kind of place where driving the right car is important.

We knew we were on the right track when only moments into the suburb, we spotted three Volvos. Volvo New Zealand tells me that Wellingtonians buy more Volvos per capita than anywhere else in the country. Having visited Seatoun, I am pretty sure I now know where they are all kept!

As we headed to Scorching Bay, the narrow twisting road provided good feedback on the S60's handling attributes. For such a big car, it proved surprisingly nimble, effectively shrinking around the driver. You're always aware that this is a front-wheel drive car but the sledging under steer of latter-day Volvos is gone. Entering a corner too-fast will see the nose push wide, but the well shod wheels do a good job of hanging on and there is always the sophisticated traction control system to fall back on if you really get yourself into trouble.

Seatoun's Chocolate Fish cafe is somewhat unique in that about half of its tables are outside, which on its own would not amount to much but when you consider that a road goes through the middle of them, is suddenly of interest. So while waiters decked out in fluro gear dodge traffic, we were able to parade the Volvo in front of those Wellingtonians most likely to take interest.

While there were no audible gasps or sounds of breaking china as punters caught their first glance of Maya Yellow on wheels, we certainly made an impact. Ten years ago, the kind of looks we were getting would have been unheard of for a Volvo. Heck, even five years ago. There is no doubt that Seatoun's sophisticated cafe set was impressed. Of course, the fact that we drove back and forwards through the seated cafe goers about ten times so Neil could get the perfect shot might have accounted for at least some of the stares....

Make no mistake; the S60 is not a sports car. If you're looking for a tightly controlled sporting sedan with few compromises, you need to look to the T5 or beyond. On the other hand, if a supremely comfortable, reasonably priced luxury vehicle with a personality is your kind of thing, a visit to the local Volvo showroom could well be in order. Need more endorsements? Perhaps I could suggest brunch at the Chocolate Fish. Somehow, I doubt finding a satisfied Volvo owner will take you long at all...


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