Preview: 2019 Volvo S60

Cars and carmakers being what they are, there are always peaks and valleys. And that’s been Volvo: it had several lackluster years, but has soared in the last little while with impressive all-new models. It continues that momentum with its latest, the 2019 S60 sedan, as well as that vehicle’s V60 station wagon sibling.

A tempting alternative to many rivals.

The S60 also marks a couple of milestones for Volvo. For one, it’s the first car that won’t have a diesel in its engine mix anywhere. Instead, as of 2019, all Volvo model lines will have some sort of electrification, and the S60’s contribution will be an upcoming plug-in hybrid version.

It’s also the first vehicle built at the company’s new American plant in Charleston, South Carolina. For the moment it rolls off the line alone there, as V60 models will come from Europe. The plant is still ramping up its capacity and, as a Volvo rep pointed out, since the V60 will be far more popular in Europe – Americans seldom desire station wagons anymore – it makes more sense to build the V60 closer to that target market, at Volvo’s facilities in Sweden and Belgium.

The company introduced the car at a small event in Toronto, along with its new Care by Volvo, a subscription-based lease with all-in national pricing, and which gets underway by initially offering specifically equipped versions of the S60 and V60 models.

Volvo occupies a niche in the market. It’s a relatively small company, and its cars and sport-utes tend to bridge a gap between the upper-line offerings of mainstream automakers, and the lower-priced models of premium car companies. Within that narrow strip you’ll also find Genesis, with a price range along Volvo’s lines – the S60 runs between $42,400 and $53,900 – and a sales strategy that differs in several ways from the new Care by Volvo but, as with Volvo’s plan, puts the ordering portion online.

The S60 starts with Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform, a design that can be sized as required and which underpins such other models as the S90, XC90, and XC60.

It debuts with two drivelines, but only the entry-level model provides power to the front wheels alone. That’s the Momentum T5 FWD, priced at $42,400, with turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine making 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque.

Next is the Momentum T6 AWD, which also uses the 2.0L four-cylinder but with turbocharger and supercharger, creating 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, and priced at $47,400. The all-wheel drive system runs primarily in front-wheel under most conditions, but can send half its power to the rear axle as required.

From that trim level up, the driveline remains the same, along with the eight-speed automatic transmission shared by all. Everything else is an increase in features, starting with the R-Design T6 AWD at $52,400, and topping out with the Inscription T6 AWD at $53,900. A few standalone options or packages can be added to each.

In time, we’ll also get the S60 T8 Polestar Engineered plug-in hybrid, with pricing yet to be determined. It will include suspension and braking upgrades courtesy of Polestar, the sport-tuning company that’s now under the Volvo umbrella and which, in addition to its work with the automaker’s models, is in the process of introducing its own line of electric cars that’s aimed straight at Tesla.

First impressions are important, and the S60 doesn’t disappoint. Years ago, when it phased out its squared-off styling, Volvo joked that it finally kept the car and threw away the box. The designers have gone progressively smoother with each new model, and the S60 is sleek and well-proportioned. It’s not a standout design but a classic one, and it’ll look good long after more radical models seem outdated. All models include LED headlights bisected with what Volvo calls “Thor’s hammer” running lights, echoed at the rear with the intersection of the reverse lights.

The cabin maintains an equally smooth Scandinavian design, with gentle curves rather than sharp edges, and with very little clutter. That said, your opinion on that latter point may depend on your view of how the vehicle’s functions should be operated. The design swirls around a nine-inch touchscreen that controls almost everything, and you swipe it, smartphone-style, to reach the pages and icons desired (Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard on all models as well). It takes a few practice sessions to figure out exactly where everything is hiding, although it’s fairly simple once you’ve learned the basics. However, while I give Volvo credit for having the climate control and heated-seat icons always available at the bottom of the screen, I’d still much prefer to have a dial or toggle for temperature adjustment. This is something most drivers access fairly regularly, and first tapping the icon, and then tapping or sliding the temperature display when it comes up, takes more steps and is more distracting than just spinning a dial – especially since most touchscreens tend to be slower to react when the car’s been sitting in cold weather for a while.

At the event I only got to drive the top-line S60 Inscription, and for a very short trip at mostly residential-area speeds, so a full assessment isn’t possible. However, as with the styling, the first impression is a positive one. Volvo didn’t invent the idea of using both a supercharger and a turbocharger together, but it does a damn good job of combining them. Both achieve the same purpose – to force more air (and, consequently, more fuel) at higher-than-atmospheric pressure into the cylinders, which creates bigger-engine power out of a smaller-displacement engine.

The difference is that while both act as compressors, turbochargers use exhaust gas to spin their turbines, which takes a moment to route through and get everything moving. That moment of inactivity is turbo lag, and just about every automaker has pulled out engineering tricks to reduce it to the shortest interval possible. Volvo’s solution is the supercharger, which spins up faster because it’s powered by the crankshaft. The supercharger provides that initial low-end grunt before the turbocharger takes over at the higher end, to produce power across a wide band – in this case, providing that 295 lb-ft between 2,200 and 5,400 rpm.

I didn’t get a chance to put my foot into it for this run, but I’ve driven similarly stoked Volvo four-cylinders in the past, and they’re every bit as good as expected. Fuel figures are 11.1 in the city, 7.3 on the highway, and 9.4 in combined driving, but it wants premium-grade gas.

I also couldn’t get out on the highway or try any curve-carving manoeuvres, or even check passing power – the drive was strictly limited to lower-speed streets – but the S60 feels light and offers up a smooth ride that doesn’t allow lumpy city asphalt to send much of a pothole punch up into the cabin. Some turbocharged engines can feel a bit too much “on the muscle” with an annoying shove when you’re trying to take off gently from a stop, but the S60’s throttle is lovely and linear, and it’s easy to modulate a smooth takeoff in traffic.

The steering is light and I’d want a bit more weight for something that’s billed as a sports sedan, but on the plus side, it makes it easy to spin the car around into tight parking spots. A rear-view camera is standard (as it is on every car now, as a government-required mandatory item), but parking my tester was made even easier with its 360-degree camera. It’s part of an option package priced at $1,800, which also adds such items as auto-dimming mirrors and blind-spot monitoring – but that’s something I would have expected to be standard, given that Volvo initially made its mark by promoting itself as the safest car on the road.

My gripe with some of the touchscreen functions aside, the cabin is a pretty pleasant place to be. As is the case with the German automakers, the seats initially feel firm rather than cushy, but they provide a lot of support, and that makes all the difference on longer drives. The adjustable cushion length is a plus as well: my taller co-driver appreciated that he could move it out to support his longer legs. I could see taking this out for several hours on the highway and still feeling good at the end of the trip, especially with relaxing music from my car’s optional Bowers & Wilkins sound system – adding $3,750 to the price – which showed no sign of distortion even with a soprano belting out opera at high volume. (Hey, we all have music that makes us happy…)

At $53,900 before such options, the top-line Inscription gives you such items as four-zone climate control, ventilated front seats with cushion extensions, Nappa leather, navigation, headlamp washers, and a panoramic sunroof – and at that price, it’s going to provide a tempting alternative to many rivals. And should you want more cargo space – or, if like me, you just happen to like wagons – you can get the two Momentum configurations or the Inscription trim in the V60, each at $1,500 more than its sedan sibling’s prices. Either way, from a quick first impression, this Volvo is looking good.

Flair without the dramatics 10/18/2018 6:30:00 AM