Jez Spinks reviews Volvo's updated S60, which debuts the new four-cylinder turbo Drive-E engine.
The current-generation Volvo S60 had a facelift in late 2013 but another change for 2014 is arguably more significant as it’s one of the first models showcasing the Swedish brand’s four-cylinder-only future.
Although the Drive-E tag isn’t as catchy a title as BMW’s EfficientDynamics or Ford’s EcoBoost, it denotes a new family of modular engines that will share much commonality including a 500cc displacement per cylinder and be mated either to a turbocharger, a turbo plus supercharger, or an electric motor.
Drive-E signals a farewell to Volvo’s beloved (but thirsty) five-cylinders and Ford-sourced four-cylinders, with the latter replaced by new, Volvo-built petrol and diesel units.
The T5 badge here, then, no longer represents a five-cylinder but instead the respective performance placing in a range of modular VEA (Volvo Engine Architecture) petrol units that will be eventually exist in the Volvo world. They will include a T4, T6 and (hybrid) T8.
Volvo’s new four-cylinder under the bonnet of this Volvo S60 T5 R-Design is a 2.0-litre featuring direct fuel injection and turbocharging – and was co-developed by Volvo engineers and Polestar, which is also behind the company’s V8 Supercars engine.
Improvements over the former 177kW/320Nm 2.0-litre direct injection, turbo four-cylinder T5 are impressive. The 0-100km/h sprint has been cut by 1.2 seconds to 6.3sec, and 2.2 fewer litres of unleaded are consumed every 100 kilometres (6.4L/100km).
That virtually matches the 328i’s 6.3L/100km, if acceleration is still four-tenths off the BMW (5.9sec).
Moving away from the quantitative to the qualitative, the S60 T5’s petrol four-cylinder bodes well for the future of Volvo drivetrains because it’s a little beauty.
While it sounds almost diesel-like from down low – a characteristic that often manifests with direct injection petrols – it’s quiet on the run, equips the Volvo S60 with good pace, and is responsive from all speeds through the additional aid of the new eight-speed auto that’s quicker to think than your typical Volvo self-shifter of recent times.
The auto’s Sport mode – activated by nudging the gearshift lever to the left – is the only slight disappointment. Although this is an engine that can play on its useful torque band, the auto can shift up too early and spoil the flow on a good country road.
And even if you use the paddleshift levers, the auto won’t let the driver rev past 6000rpm even though the redline is set at 6500.
The engine note never gets particularly inspiring, and some might pine for the endearing warble of the old five-cylinder (never better, we’d suggest, than in the Ford Focus RS hot-hatch).
None of these niggles are deal-breakers but are points worth raising for what is pitched as the sportiest of the Volvo S60 range below the more hardcore Polestar.
It’s the sports suspension that is this model’s weakest link whether you’re driving in city or country.
The ride is constantly jiggly unless you’re driving on a piece of bitumen that has been freshly rolled, while at higher speeds the S60 R-Design’s dampers aren’t quick enough to settle the sedan over big bumps or dips.
An extra layer of firmness also comes from our test car’s 19-inch, low-profile tyres that are a $1725 option over the standard 18s with same-design wheel.
There’s tremendous purchase from these tyres, not just in terms of mid-corner grip but also traction off the line and out of corners – with some mild torque steer the main reminder (in the dry) that this is a front-wheel drive car.
The brakes are strong and consistent, though overall the Volvo S60’s steering and handling isn’t as well trained for keen drivers as a 3 Series (with adaptive suspension).
The steering works well at everyday pace, though, with sufficient smoothness, and the sporty wheel design exclusive to the R-Design is nicely sized and shaped.
Inside is where the Volvo S60 makes a case as a genuine rival to the German mid-sized luxury sedans.
Fit and finish is not only impeccable throughout the cabin of this swoopily styled Swede but the array of materials is also consistently of a premium nature.
Designers clearly put plenty of thought into areas such as the sculpted dash, C-shaped door section and even curved rear map lights. The ‘floating’ console may be a decade old this year, but it still looks effective – especially in giving Volvo interiors a distinctive feel.
There is still a decent-sized panel of buttons on the console, but they take little time to get to know – as with the four main surrounding dials that control temperature, sound/power/volume or menu operation.
It’s equally simple to make selections via the menu dial, backed by a high-resolution central dash display. We’re also big fans of the TFT (thin transitor film) symmetrical instrument dials that transferred from the V40 hatch for that 2013 update.
For the R-Design S60, the central circular dial switches from a speedo to a rev counter (with a smaller digital speedo featured).
There’s another feature in the digital cluster that is a brilliant aid for looking after your licence in a country notorious for speed limits that can change constantly over the same stretch of road for no apparent reason.
Volvo has managed to achieve what BMW failed to do a while ago and make Road Sign Information (RSI) technology work in Australia. A camera at the top of the S60’s windscreen reads posted signs as you pass them and then indicates the current speed limit on the display.
The speed sign starts to flash if you start to exceed that limit, though the system isn’t sophisticated enough yet to detect when school zones are actually in force.
This is a piece of technology that can’t be recommended highly enough if you want to protect your licence, though its cost means you’re more likely to be thinking about saving points than fines.
RSI forms part of a $5000 Driver Support Pack, though at least it bundles a group of other useful driver aids that include adaptive cruise control with full auto brake, lane departure and lane keeping assistants, automatic switchable high beam, blind spot monitoring, cross traffic monitoring (for helping with reversing out of a perpendicular parking spot), and forward collision alert.
A warning about this warning system, though: it might (as it did with me) scare the bejeezus out of you when you first hear the FCA go off with its alarm sound and flashing red lights, because the system can make some detections even when there’s no immediate danger.
With all options included, our test car totaled $70,990. The $63,890 starting price of the Volvo S60 T5 R-Design, however, still undercuts the BMW 328i by $5510 – by $9510 if you opt for the S60 T5 Luxury.
The Luxury’s standard gear includes leather seating, 18-inch alloy wheels, premium audio, rain-sensing wipers, rear sensors, reverse view camera, and City Safety tech that helps prevent low-speed rear-end crashes.
R-Design adds sportier, Nubuck perforated leather seats, ‘High Performance’ audio (which sounds good providing you don’t ask the speakers to deal with too much bass), electric driver’s seat, aluminium trim, and a whole raft of R-Design exterior and interior touches – plus that aforementioned R-Design suspension.
Volvo Australia has also added a space-saver spare that has previously been missing, though the solution of encasing one in a bag and strapping it into the boot isn’t ideal.
There’s a 60/40 split rear seat, though if practicality is key you might be better opting for the related V60 wagon.
And whether you choose the sedan or wagon, there’s plenty of space in the rear seat for knees and heads.
Volvo’s new 2.0-litre turbo not only makes it more competitive against direct rivals but also disperses any doubts there may have been about the Swedish company’s decision to commit to a future showroom full of only four-cylinder models.