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Volvo S60 (2001) Preview

SEE ALSO: Volvo Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Mention "Volvo" and what comes to mind? A safe car with rather boxy styling and a boring character, right? Wrong.

Especially wrong in the case of the new S60. It is the first Volvo that can compete directly with prestigious sports sedans like the BMW 3 Series, Audi's A4, and the Lexus IS300. While performance-oriented Volvos have been offered for the past few years, they haven't been mainstream models. The original T5-R wagon was an awesome straight-line performer, and wonderful stealth fighter, but appealed to relatively few people because of its wagon style and conservative looks (yes, even in the original garish yellow. A wagon is a wagon, after all.) The C70 coupe is also out of the main line of Volvo development. The S60 takes the styling first introduced in the S40 and later developed in the S80 to the next step. It also takes the chassis platform introduced under the S80 to the next step.

It seems that, in the new Volvo order, sedans get even-numbered designations and wagons are odd. The S60 replaces the S70 sedan, which was a minor upgrade to the 850. The S70's softened front styling and boxy rear never seemed to match; the S60 makes the C70 look stodgy.

The S70 was beginning to show its age in chassis tuning and rigidity. The S60 rectifies that, with much greater rigidity and detail improvements to the suspension design and calibration. What does this mean in the real world? A rigid chassis allows more precise control of wheel movement, as only the suspension, not the chassis frame, moves. And it moves as designed, with no random input from chassis flex. That pleases the enthusiast fringe, those in Volvoland who know the meaning of arcane acronyms like IPD, BTCC, and TWR. For everyone else, a rigid chassis allows softer suspension tuning for a given level of handling precision, meaning more comfort with no lessening of control.

So. How does it work? I had the opportunity to drive and ride as navigator on a variety of roads near Stockholm. Following are impressions of the S60, and of driving in southeastern Sweden:

The Swedish roads were, for the most part, smoothly-paved, with wide shoulders. No potholes, few frost-heaved expansion joints, just smooth pavement on major highways, secondary, and tertiary roads.

Swedish drivers are courteous and attentive. Imagine, you pull up behind a car to pass, and the driver has been checking the rear-view mirror and moves over for you. This is where those wide shoulders come in handy. Rear-view mirrors as safety and driving aids, not cosmetic-application's not America. And, of course, you are expected to check your mirrors, too. The anti-destination league seemed to be thankfully absent.

The S60 really can be considered to be in the same league as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, and Lexus IS300, especially in T5 trim. It is front-wheel drive, but that's not necessarily a drawback for most drivers in most conditions, and the standard Audi is also front-drive. The slight front-drive disadvantage under hard acceleration will be compensated by better performance in low-traction situations.

The European-spec prototypes I drove had the European standard suspension, which is close to what will be the American-spec sport suspension. It was comfortable on smooth Swedish roads, and should be more than tolerable on less well-maintained American ones. During a slalom test at a small airport, the car showed its acceleration, transitional response, and braking abilities well. It has especially impressive brakes.

The T5 with the five-speed "Geartronic" automatic has very good, and fast, shifting characteristics under most conditions, in both automatic and manual modes. It should please those customers who have to deal with heavy traffic on a regular basis. The five-speed manual gearbox has very smooth shift linkage and a unique shift lever nicknamed "spaceball" by the Volvo folks. (They obviously haven't seen the Mel Brooks movie of the same name.) It does improve performance for those who have a need for speed with safety. The Euro-spec T5 engine seemed to have slightly better low- rpm response than American versions I've driven, although differences are allegedly minimal. Sweden has emissions laws, too, and, in fact, Volvo has been at the forefront of emissions-reduction technology with its "Lambda-sond" system.

The T5 has performance parity with the small German sports sedans, the BMW 325 and 330 and Audi A4 2.8, but is closer to the BMW 5-Series and Audi A6 in size. This is a plus for people who need or want a little more space. Its 247 horsepower doesn't exactly put it at a disadvantage, either.

A shorter drive around suburban and urban Stockholm in a light- pressure turbo (LPT) variant, expected to be the volume-seller, highlighted its ability. As has been the case previously, the LPT engine has better low-rpm power than the T5, making for easy drivability in everyday traffic. And afternoon rush-hour traffic in Stockholm is no better than it is in the States. Fortunately, the turbo- automatic combination provides quick, responsive acceleration and the S60's good brakes and handling help keep the various crush zones, airbags, and other passive-safety devices from being used.