If it's a premium mid-sized car you want and you're watching your pennies, then there's really only one option: the Volvo S60 T4.
The price of the Volvo S60 T4? $48,990. It's the only car in its class to come in under $50K. But if you're thinking you're getting some kind of bare-bones stripped out car with cloth seats and single-zone aircon, think again. It's a remarkably complete package which downsizes under the bonnet to keep the cost down, rather than deleting interior luxury.
Powering the T4 is a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine coupled with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Known as EcoBoost in the Ford stables, this diminutive engine actually delivers the goods when it comes to outputs. Power is listed as 132kW and it makes 240Nm of torque, meaning it will go from 0-100km/h in 9.0 seconds. While that doesn't sound like much, it feels a lot quicker on the roll than off the line.
The engine makes peak torque at 1600rpm and the torque curve stays flat as a pancake up until 5000rpm. While the on-paper figures suggest it will leap off the line at low revs, in practice it only gets into its stride after 2000rpm. Once past there, however, it's a very willing performer. Peak power is made at 5700rpm, and it really does keep pulling until it upchanges near its redline.
There is an issue with the power delivery, however, and it's with the gearbox. It tends to shunt through the changes, rather than smoothly shifting. You get used to it, but it's a different style of change to the usual dual clutch quick shift. At full throttle, each change takes a lot longer than you'd expect from a DCT, and seems to be the result of a lightweight gearbox dealing with a car that weighs a lot more than a Ford Focus, for example.
It's really the only flaw in the drivetrain, as it's relatively lag-free and is also extremely quick to respond to throttle inputs in both revs and downshifts. It's a lot more spritely than you'd think from a 1.6-litre and (apart from the auto's shift quality) really suits the car well.
Fuel economy is listed as 7.4 litres/100km, but we averaged 9.3L/100km during a city-only week.
The Volvo's steering is a little numb, but there's enough weight to be satisfying; there's a level of connection which makes an Audi A4 seems a little pale in comparison. It turns in reasonably well, and has a firm but forgiving ride which gives the S60 a good level of handling for its size.
The rest of the car is typical of the S60 range; high quality, soft-touch plastics, beautifully comfortable leather seats (the driver's is electric as standard), a good amount of room for front-seat passengers and respectable legroom for the rear passengers. Headroom in the back could be a little better for taller people, however for the average sized male, there will not too many complaints.
The boot is also a good size, and making it all the more practical, the rear seatbacks can be dropped down. We had cause to test this feature when a friend riding his bike received a puncture. Undo the front wheel and a mountain bike fits into the S60 with no hassle at all.
The Bluetooth works a treat in both phone and audio streaming modes and the eight-speaker stereo is clear and bassy - Volvo really does terrific stereos. The new menu screen is still more difficult than the BMW equivalent to navigate through, but the screen itself is very high resolution, making it a pleasure to view. Navigation is still horrifically expensive though - it's a $4175 option.
Included spec is pretty good: rain-sensing wipers, rear parking sensors (you can add fronts for $325), auto-dimming mirror, USB and iPod connectivity, floor mats, leather steering wheel with decor inlays, heated door mirrors and dual-zone climate control.
Being a Volvo, it's safe. You get Volvo's City Safety (which applies the brakes if it senses an impending front-to-rear collision), Anti-lock Braking with Emergency Brake Assist and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Dynamic Stability and Traction Control, a heap of airbags and various patented Volvo technologies which reduce whiplash, as well as side-impact protection.
Yes, the Volvo S60 T4 has a few flaws, but it's the price which really is appealing. It's a good size car that's well built, and what you get for the money is extremely competitive. Considering how safe it is and how good-looking it is, Volvo should certainly make a sizeable dent in the sales of the base model 3 Series, A4 and C-Class.