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2012 Volvo S60 R-Design Preview by Carey Russ +VIDEO

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Volvo S60 R-Design

The R-Design designation is not just a trim level anymore


After making a performance statement by debuting its second-generation S60 sedan in high-performance 300-horsepower turbocharged T6 AWD trim last year, before the core-model T5 version became available, you'd think that Volvo would rest on its laurels.

You'd be wrong. Very wrong.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2012 Volvo S60 R-Design

Because the T6 AWD is no longer the high-performance variant in the S60 lineup. That distinction now goes to the just-introduced T6 R-Design. Which starts where the regular T6 left off, adding more power -- 325 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque vs. 300 and 325 -- and further suspension refinement to make it the best alternative to German premium performance yet. "R-Design" used to be merely a cosmetic package. No longer!

The second-generation S60 has been a success for Volvo, with sales increased by nearly 30 percent and 60 percent of buyers "conquests" from other brands. And although the T6 R-Design is a "halo car", one that attracts attention more than sales (expected to be around five percent of the mix), it is vitally important to Volvo in establishing Volvo as a manufacturer of premium sports-luxury cars, with an emphasis on the "sports" part.

The 2012 S60 T6 R-Design was recently introduced to the automotive press in Yountville, CA, in the wine country just north of Napa (Northeast of San Francisco). There are some lovely "sports car" roads in the hills around that area, especially to the east. One of the best goes through Angwin and Pope Valley to Clear Lake, and then further through the Coast Ranges to Williams in the Central Valley.

From there it's just a short jaunt north on I5 to Willows, and thence east a bit to Thunderhill Raceway Park. And that was the morning drive route, followed by track time. And then back to base via the highway, for a good long day's worth of driving on roads from 20-mph mountain roads one step up from goat trails to smooth pavement on a race track to the Interstate Drone Zone. Temperatures ranged from a foggy 60-degree Napa Valley morning to 95-plus at Thunderhill. The R-Design ran quickly, smoothly, and comfortably in all climate and road conditions, and was noticeably more composed on the goat roads and track than the previous T6 AWD in last year's cosmetic-only R-Design trim.

Which is quite a testament to the suspension revision, as the 2011 T6-R-Design was the best sports Volvo up to that time.

Watch the original S60 R-Design promo video

The standard T6 AWD gets Volvo's "Dynamic Chassis" suspension tuning as standard equipment, as did last year's R-Design. That's the standard European tuning, firmer than the more American-spec "Touring Chassis" of the T5, which is optional for the T6. As is the electronically-controlled multi-mode FOUR-C Active Chassis system. The 2012 T6 R-Design gets the "Sport Chassis". With the same fully-independent MacPherson strut / multilink architecture as the Dynamic, the Sport gets upgraded shock dampers for quicker response to bump inputs. The springs are shortened 15mm, lowering the ride height and center of gravity, and are 15 percent stiffer than those in the Dynamic tuning. Rear suspension bushings are 20 percent stiffer, with the tie-blade (trailing arm) bushings 400 percent stiffer. A strut brace ties the front strut towers together, stiffening the front of the chassis structure a bit.

Suspension tuning is not magic or rocket science; it is careful, iterative testing and revision. Which takes time and resources not often allocated. Kudos to Volvo for its work on the new S60 R-Design - it's noticeably better-composed than last year's already very good model on even poor road surfaces, with no harshness or thumpiness. Thinking back nearly a decade, the previous-generation T5-R would have been great on the track, but getting there would have been painful. Now, lovely anywhere and truly the equal to any German competitor. Or maybe even better.

Engine upgrades are, as is the way these days, largely electronic. Polestar Racing, a Swedish partner to Volvo, has reworked the engine control module (ECM) settings and increased turbo boost to give increased power -- 325 hp at 5400 rpm, with 354lb-ft of torque between 3000 and 3600 rpm and nearly as much everywhere else -- with no detriment to fuel economy. Factory "chip job" without invalidating the warranty -- which is five years/50,000 miles including scheduled maintenance, wear and tear coverage, and roadside assistance.

That power gets to all four wheels via the second generation of Volvo six-speed automatic with regular, sport, and "Geartronic" manual-shift modes. During the morning street driving, in the hills, I mostly kept it in Sport mode, in D, with occasional use of manual mode to hold second or third when the road got especially interesting. On the track, Sport and D was the order of the day, for me at least. Like other contemporary electronic automatics, this transmission knows better than to upshift in the middle of a corner, although it may choose a higher gear than the driver would (out of consideration for optimum fuel economy, and no different in that than any other automatic. With the engine's copious torque that's not necessarily a problem.)

The Volvo all-wheel drive (AWD) system operates with a front-wheel bias to torque distribution in normal operation, with torque vectored to the outside driven wheel(s) and the inside wheel(s) braked slightly when cornering to reduce understeer. The result is very good traction and confident cornering, on both the road and the track.

Outside, the R-Design gets a redesigned lower front fascia, lacking the metallic trim of the other S60 models. Grille trim is also unique, as are matte-silver outside rear-view mirrors and active Xenon headlamps. It sits lower on its suspension, and has diffuser-like styling at the rear, with 3.5-inch exhaust pipes. The signature color is Passion Red, as pictured, and as featured on all event cars. Other colors will be offered.

Inside, high-bolstered sports seats in off-black leather with contrasting stitching, a sport steering wheel and pedals, aluminum trim, and R-Design badging and blue watch-dial instruments distinguish the R-Design from other S60s. Seat comfort is as expected from Volvo, excellent. A long day in the driver's seat as a pleasure. Interior space and layout are like the other S60s, no complaints there. With a focus on driving, and especially on the track, I didn't spend much time on interior and audio/telematic/gizmotronic details. Hey, it's a car for driving, and a very good one. It's not a game console. Emphasizing that, the rear-seat entertainment system offered in other S60 models is not available in the R-Design.

Safety is of course not compromised. If anything, the R-Design's quicker reflexes and cornering behavior improve the active safety potential (up to the driver's abilities to implement…). Strong four-wheel antilock disc brakes, with all of the expected electro-hydraulic enhancements, are standard fare as in other S60s. Ditto the Dynamic Stability and Traction Control (DSTC) system, which includes a less-intrusive sport mode. The "City Safety" low-speed collision avoidance/mitigation system, is standard. Adaptive cruise control, Collision Warning With Full Auto Brake, Pedestrian Detection With Full Auto Brake, Distance Alert, Driver Alert Control, and Lane Departure Warning are optionally available.

The 2012 Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design is available now, with a base price of $42,500. That's not inexpensive, but is very competitive with alternatives from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. It's the best sports Volvo yet, with an excellent combination of comfort, power, and ability.

Watch the 2012 S60 promo video

On The Track, In A Volvo?

Sure, why not? Volvo does have quite a racing heritage, winning in various European and even American Touring Car series. Racing series for production cars, modified for the stresses and hazards of motorsport, but essentially cars not too different from what you can buy. Some of those competition Volvos were wagons, like the original mid-90s V70 T5R.

And a track is the best place to go fast, within your personal limits. Everyone is going the same way (hopefully), runoff exists (as opposed to into a tree or stone wall or someone's living room), and medical help is there if things go very wrong. Yes, it's expensive (except if at an automotive press event), but so are tickets and subsequent insurance adjustments. Or bail…

The roads leading from Yountville to Thunderhill were perfect for a fast touring pace, which for me means maybe 50% of what the car could do, keeping traffic, animals, and pedestrians in mind. Not to mention The Authorities. Any mistake far from civilization -- and we were -- can get serious quickly.

Thunderhill was a new track for me, as I've never driven it before. Most purpose-built road-racing tracks are between one and a half to two miles long; Thunderhill is three. With elevation changes and plenty of off-camber and decreasing-radius (and off-camber decreasing-radius) turns. It was designed and built by racers -- the San Francisco Region of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) -- for racers. It's difficult because it's supposed the be difficult, and more challenging that way. It may be short compared to the old Nurburgring Nordschlieffe course (14.7 miles) or the Isle of Man TT course (37-plus miles of trees, stone walls, and living rooms), but it's longer and more technical than most American road courses.

I did my two allotted laps and felt completely lost. It was fun, but I was hardly going any faster than I did on the street, wasn't using all of the track (still being in street "stay away from the double yellow" mode) and was a long way from the S60 R-Design's limits. I could figure out some of it, but other parts were baffling. And then there was Turn 5.

Five is on a hill. You go over a blind crest, and the track drops away into a seriously off-camber right hander. Which wants to stuff you out into the weeds. It's more imposing than Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca's famous Corkscrew, which is equally blind (except that there's a tree for a reference aiming point) but has a friendly, well-cambered corner to greet you over the edge.

Watching from the tower before going out, it seemed like cars were stopping at the top of the hill on 5. Driving it, well yeah -- that's called self-preservation in action!

It was obviously time to get a driving instructor. As luck (very good!) would have it, the instructor was David Vodden, President and CEO of Thunderhill. He's been with the track since before it was built, and knows it well.

He could get around the track much more quickly and smoothly than could I, and those laps were a good learning experience -- about both Thunderhill and the Volvo S60 R-Design. It was happy, and felt completely controlled and controllable, and was in its element. No, Volvo didn't design it to be a track day car, but it certainly could do that. Well. My inner Jenks was fascinated. And didn't have to read course notes…

No casualties. Everyone was well-behaved -- nobody wanted to be "that one", who explored the weeds. No car problems, either, despite the heavy use and 95-plus degree heat. Well, there was the aroma of cooked brakes about some cars, and no doubt plenty of brake pads were changed after we left the track in preparation for the next group. Street brakes don't get worked as hard, so upgrades or modifications may be necessary for track use. No points against Volvo for that, any car being raced, even in a "showroom stock" series, will need improvements, or at least as much as rules allow.

Can Volvo, famed for safety and beloved by soccer moms, be mentioned in relation to performance like BMW or Audi or Mercedes? There's no doubt in my mind. If you doubt, drive a new S60 R-Design.


2012 Volvo S60 R-Design

Base Price $ 42,500

Price As Tested $ n/a

Engine Type turbocharged and intercooled dohc inline 6-cylinder

Engine Size 3.0 liters / 180 cu. in.

Horsepower 325 @ 5400 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) 354 @ 3000-3600 rpm

Transmission 6-speed automatic with adaptive shifting and manual mode

Wheelbase / Length 109.3 in. / 182.2 in.

Curb Weight 3835 lbs.

Pounds Per Horsepower 11.8

Fuel Capacity 17.8 gal.

Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline

Tires 235/40R18

Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS, HBA, OHB, RAB, FBS standard

Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink

Drivetrain transverse front engine, automatic all-wheel drive


EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 26 / 21 (mfg)

0 to 60 mph 5.5 sec

Towing Capacity 3300 lbs.


not known on this car