Volvo S60 2019 t5 r-design, Volvo S60 2020 t5 r-design

2020 Volvo S60 R-Design review

Australian first drive

Rating: 8.1
$64,990 Mrlp
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Volvo's all-new S60 sedan range has landed in Oz with sharp looks and even sharper pricing. We check out the T5 and hybrid T8 versions of the Swedish range.
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The most attention-grabbing highlight of the all-new 2020 Volvo S60 isn’t its handsome design, impressive tech, fulsome features and refined, luxury-focused on-road experience, but its pricing.

The tip-in point for the mid-sized, premium four-door Swede, the $54,990 (list) T5 Momentum version, not so much undercuts circa-$70K German rivals logically matched in powertrain and equipment, it ploughs a trench with a discount bulldozer. Yes, 15 grand more affordable.

The Volvo S60 is gunning for erstwhile Commodore buyers. No, that’s not a misprint.

It’s no news that the Swedish sedan nameplate hasn’t enjoyed the sort of resonance in Oz with buyers enjoyed by the C-Class, 3 Series and A4 – in order of current sales popularity – for various reasons outside of pricing, including culturally. That it traditionally wanted for German money didn’t exactly lure an army of Aussie bums into Scandinavian leather seats.

With the all-new S60 comes a new, aggressive sales tactic by Volvo Australia: to plug the gap between $40K-something mainstream in the Commodore, Camry or Passat and the mid-$60K entry for a nice if sparsely endowed Euro wearing more prestigious badging. To conquest from above and below is the obvious strategy at play.

“I wish we had a Momentum here,” says Volvo Australia MD Nick Connor at the local S60 launch in Adelaide.

Instead, we’re here to steer the high-spec T5 R-Design, at a premium entry $64,990 pricepoint, and the whiz-bang T8 R-Design flagship, with its convoluted turbo- and supercharged plug-in hybrid powertrain and on-demand electric-assisted AWD, at a properly High Street $85,990 ask before on-roads. A shame given the base version is such a hot topic of discussion with media on the day, given Volvo’s promise about so much bang for such little buck.

We’ll have to wait for assessment on the Momentum, middleweight Inscription ($60,990) and V60 wagon extrapolations (adds $2000) for another day.

The two subjects at hand are handsome roosters in the metal, with lovely New Volvo sweeping lines and seductive details, more restrained S90 yet retaining that key ‘street presence’, nicely organic with its subtle R-Design enhancement and 19-inch rolling stock. It’s a dignified, upmarket look, the pair virtually indistinguishable apart from badges on bootlids. They also look larger and longer than the tape measure reveals.

Cabins, too, are minted in that Swedish Renaissance design that’s worked so successfully in Volvo’s other contemporary S, V and XC lines, and if there’s one overarching critique, it’s that the overall effect is utterly indistinguishable from other current stablemates. They say, if you’re on to a good thing…

It’s a little cosier inside than you might expect, yet doesn’t lack comfortable roominess. Those R-Design front seats err on the sporty side of luxurious – we’d like to try the regular pews – but are amply supportive and forgiving for the sort of weekend getaway driving we conducted throughout the southern state’s wine country and the famed twisties of the Adelaide Hills.

The minimalist dash and centre stack arrangement, together with the conspicuous ‘iPad’-aping infotainment touchscreen format, does polarize, though personally I’m a big fan. An easy one-swipe left or right to access almost any function you can imagine is inspired streamlining in a segment still obsessed with complicated user-interfacing with distracting submenu-itis. For its part, the T8 hybrid’s digital driver’s instrumentation does lack a bit of one-glance clarity, and overbearing the driver a little too much with hybrid system operation displays.

Materials, fit and finish, presentation: from the 360-degree camera display to the evenness of the double-row trim stitching, there’s nothing about the S60’s interior that looks or feels cut-priced. At R-Design level, spec such as fine Nappa leather and proper four-zone climate control are par for the course.

Rear seating is good if a little tight in leg room, and we’ll have to A-B against the class-leading 3 Series to see how much of a packaging success the S60 is, but it certainly seems closer to the roomier end of its mid-sized segment than some competitors (such as the Lexus IS). The 442L boot, too, is nice and deep, with square loadspace proportions ideal for large objects and bulky luggage.

With the choice of selecting one version for the famed Targa Adelaide curves, and the other for cruising/commuting/highway assessment, we opt for the slower (6.3sec 0–100km/h) T5 for the twisties rather than the vastly more powerful and rapid (4.3sec) T8. Why? Because all of the quicker hybrid’s ‘duality tricks’, centring on all-electric drive capability and a heroic 2.0L/100km consumption figure, are lost hooking through the twisties. And besides, the T8’s two-tonne heft, a quarter-tonne heftier than the T5, hamstrings it somewhat as the more dynamic choice.

A number of things reveal themselves very quickly with the T5 in spirited Sunday-drive mode. Firstly, despite much song and dance about the new Modular Scalable Product Architecture underpinnings, the new S60’s driving character is strikingly similar to the old-gen S60, if polished, massaged and incrementally improved in pretty much every department. And, secondly, it remains a little incongruent in execution between the powertrain and chassis, and between what it hopes to achieve and what it ultimately delivers.

It’s a fit-enough powertrain on numbers: the R-Design gets nominal lifts of 5kW and 50Nm over the 2.0-litre turbocharged four in Momentum and Inscription spec, its 192kW/400Nm bang on par with its fittest key German rivals. The engine itself is toey, refined and mostly foible free. And with a 7.3L/100km claim, it’s impressively thrifty, too. But when combined with the eight-speed auto and all-wheel drive, some synergy between its key elements is a little lost.

Dig in and response isn’t as swift as it could be, its character not as bold and alert as it otherwise might be. It’s just a touch leisurely for its sporty R-Design brief, and doesn’t quite muster up the mojo for what’s a satisfyingly focused roadholding package. The T5 will certainly return some heady pace at the expense of a fair degree of sweat and fanfare, and tends to settle into a planted, safe-as-houses dynamic mode that’s safe, secure and predictable, if not exactly heart-racing.

The handling brief is one of ironclad safety net rather than sweetness, lightness or playfulness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just won’t be for everyone. There is a decent degree of engagement with the driver, and you certainly feel more directly connected with the road than with S60s past, but it just comes up a bit short if you’re expecting proper 3 Series-like sports sedan talent.

The T5 R-Design’s Four-C adaptive damping seems key to the T5’s impressive point and lateral grip on the go, but peg the pace back and even its softest ride setting isn’t quite as compliant and cosseting as it should be for the S60’s clear comfort leanings. At cruise it’s quiet, feels solid, and is generally quite composed, but sharply edged road imperfections can jar the ride more than they really should.

A little more focus and polish in the powertrain, and more temper in the suspension, would bring a bit more satisfying balance to the T5’s broader on-road character.

Sure, you’d expect a magnitude of added thrust from the 311kW and 680Nm T8 hybrid combination, but I was utterly surprised by how smooth, clean and seamless drivability is compared with the T5’s simpler turbo-four and eight-speed auto package. That’s because the T8 hybrid system is so bloody complex that even both words in its Twin Engine namesake are technically incorrect (it should perhaps be One Engine Two Motor instead)…

How complex? Deserving of an editorial deep-dive from some brighter engineering spark than I – Hello? Paul Maric? – but I’ll give it a concise crack.

There’s a 2.0-litre turbo petrol four, its supercharger boosting until clutch disengagement at 3500rpm, where a large high-flow turbocharger continues the heavy lifting to redline. Transverse, eight-speed, front drive: gotcha. There’s also a 65kW/240Nm electric motor – not ‘engine’, Volvo – on the rear axle that performs various roles: it provides sole rear electric drive in EV mode for up to 43km range; adds AWD in hybrid mode; adds power and torque during acceleration; and performs brake-energy recuperation.

Wait, there’s more. Wedged between the engine and transmission is a Crank-Integrated Starter Generator offering 34kW and 150Nm of extra “internal combustion support” electric boost, though, apparently, its primary function is as a start motor and alternator. How everything conspires together to create 311kW and 680Nm is black magic venturing beyond my dimly stated comprehension…

Jump on the loud pedal and thrust is instant, solid and satisfying; a sensation that seems to shed the S60 of much of its two-tonne mass, complete with a nice tuneful engine note and absolutely no sense of where and when the various power units clock on and off. It’s the sort of thrust perfectly aligned with the robust and dignified premium vibe the rest of the S60 package promises.

The EV mode is pretty decent: happy to run out to highway speed with moderate acceleration, and able to flow with other traffic without having to call on internal combustion support. Testing both its EV range and 0–100km/h claims is a task for another day, but thankfully this ‘plug-in’ can be forced into charge mode to top up the battery on the fly for later full-EV use of the driver’s choosing.

Strangely, then, the T8 R-Design sits not on Four-C adaptive suspension, but on the range’s Dynamic system. And while its taut nature might return body-control favours manhandling two tonnes on a twisty road, it’s simply way too stiff for a vehicle otherwise built for swift comfort, and at times jarringly so.

Ride quibbles aside, the S60 T8 R-Design package has a lot of appeal, and unique appeal at that. Volvo Australia itself struggles to name a logical rival to this mid-$80K luxo-performance plug-in hybrid, and despite what bench racers might read into acceleration figures, it's nowhere in the neighbourhood of even a BMW M340i xDrive (once it finally arrives) let alone an M3, nor does it neatly substitute for something such as a Genesis G70 3.3T. A Mercedes-Benz C300e, perhaps?

The S60 T5, too, is a very likeable prospect, but it’s getting close to German money where there’s some heady competition from the Big Three, though the Volvo certainly looks very compelling in the equipment-as-value stakes regardless of anything else. Better still, Volvo has finally addressed excessive servicing costs, introducing competitive capped-priced servicing plans across the local ranges. Three years of “comprehensive” servicing on the S60 will total $1595 – a huge step forward from where Volvo has been to date.

On paper, though, it’s the entry, mid-$50K T5 Momentum that seems to be the real sweet spot for the S60, and a car we really look forward to getting through the CarAdvice garage. It certainly appears to be the best chance to change the nameplate’s fortunes for the better in the premium segment, and perhaps the mainstream segment as well.

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