REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

What’s with us guys and sedans? The SUV is clearly a more efficient bodystyle with minimum wasted space within a given footprint. Essentially engorged hatchbacks, the sport utility vehicle is inherently more practical (big hatch opening versus a small boot aperture, square loading bay with lots of height) and is surely the best machine for daily urban warfare, thanks to extra ground clearance and a high perch, from which you can command and conquer, or simply avoid.

It’s a hit with the ladies and families across the world, and it’s something that Volvo knows well. The original XC90 felt like it had been around forever when it was finally replaced in 2014 – a 12-year run is rare, and its longevity was a testament to the car’s ease of use and practicality.

The slick sequel ushered in a new era of design for Volvo, and those good looks are now standard across the family. Momentum was already there when the second-gen XC60 came onboard in 2017, followed by the all-new XC40, which completed an SUV range so strong and desirable. It is the XC family that has propelled Volvo to year after year of sales records.

The SUV may be the hottest thing in town, but the sedan is far from finished. Now I don’t have stats to back this up, but it seems like when it comes to choosing vehicles for themselves (as opposed to picking family transport), men are by and large very much loyal to sedans. The coupe fan and hatchback diehard are outliers.

REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

In the premium segment, sedans are still the bread and butter. The younger bloke likes a good sporty sedan, the more matured businessman a plush executive saloon. And while Alphards have disrupted the status quo slightly in our part of the world, is there a better way to arrive than in a big shiny limo? Look around you.

It’s likely that the paragraph above led to flashing images German premium sedans. The upwardly mobile young man – BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class; the businessman – E-Class; limo – S-Class, Bentley, Rolls-Royce (both British luxury brands are of course owned by Germans). That’s the reason why Volvo has found the premium sedan segment hard to crack. The S80/S90 has had three tries now, and the car you see here is the S60’s third roll of the dice.

Third time lucky? The competition is so stiff here and the stalwarts so entrenched, it will take more than luck to stand any chance. Thankfully, the Volvo S60 looks like a million and one bucks, and we all know that buying a car is far from just an exercise of the brain, especially at aspirational levels. No one’s looking for a pure tool.

REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

To me, the S60 is the best-looking car in the compact premium exec class; perhaps Volvo has hit top form at exactly the same time that some of its German rivals are trying too hard stylistically. Brutish yet elegant, macho yet sensual – the S60 carries over much that’s good from Volvo’s current design template, but with a twist.

That twist could well be in the centre of the car, like a Coke bottle. While broad-shouldered and handsome like the S90, the S60’s body is more chiselled and contoured, with more definition and curvier panels. It’s a stronger look, but organic at the same time.

While the S90’s profile features a straight character line from front to back, this car’s shoulders are most apparent at the rear, thanks to a sharp crease that surfaces from the rear doors backwards.

REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

At 4,761 mm, the S60 is some 202 mm shorter than the S90, but the smaller car is just 29 mm less wide (at 1,850 mm), which gives it more athletic proportions. That, plus the more muscular body, leaves the observer in no doubt which is the sports sedan. In comparison, the S90 looks like the more formal and “proper” sibling, which is appropriate.

The most obvious design difference between 90 and 60 sedans is at the rear. I’ve always thought of the blank space between the S90’s tail lamps as awkward; Volvo remedied that by moving the number plate slot up to its natural position. The signature Volvo logotype has been bumped up in a knock-on effect. The result is a more conventional looking bum, but one that’s still very distinctive thanks to those “E 3” LED tail lamp signatures.

Lastly, the front end, which at first glance appears identical to the S90, or any other modern Volvo for that matter. Look closer however, and you’ll find that the S60’s “Thor’s Hammer” LED daytime running lights protrude from the headlamp housing, which itself is slimmer. R-Design vs R-Design, the S60’s gloss black lower bumper elements are joined together by a slim lip – there’s no such bridge on the S90.

I think it’s cool that Volvo managed to achieve a sporty vibe (mildly aggressive even) for the S60 by keeping it clean and simple, and without resorting to exaggerating elements or adding unnecessary ones for machismo (by this scale, the 3 Series M Sport and C-Class AMG Line are rather juvenile).

To exclaim “Scandi” would be too easy, but they’ve never been heavy-handed, the Swedes. Even in R-Design form, the S60 is far from over-designed, but the look is unmistakably Volvo. I was tailing a gorgeous Alfa Romeo 159 the other day and observed the same – clean design, strong identity.

There’s much less differentiation inside compared to the S90, with only the silver “wings” that spread the width of the dashboard looking more elaborate here (cupping the side AC vents) and the centre console looking less adorned (S90 has a leather boundary).

REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

The typical modern Volvo layout – high cliff dash, big portrait touchscreen – is repeated here. It can be quite a challenge to change things on the move, but at least the target area is large. Better for looks than user-friendliness, but with the amount of functions on modern cars, it’s either this or plane cockpit’s worth of buttons. Or BMW’s iDrive, which is still the best.

I’m a fan of light-coloured cabins, and we know that Volvo does it quite well, but the S60’s sporting brief means that we’ve only seen it in the R-Design regulation black. It never gets too dull though, thanks to judiciously applied silver, chrome and piano black trim.

The dashtop is covered in leather, while the knobs (engine start, drive mode) have an interesting knurled finish that reminds me of the motifs on whisky glasses – they act as jewellery for the cockpit.

Speaking of sparkly stuff, the top T8 Polestar Engineered adds on the Orrefors crystal gear knob that owners of range-topping Volvos are familiar with. That and the yellow seatbelts are the only differences between the cabins of the T8 PE and T6 AWD. Overall, it’s a modern and suave workspace for the driver. Very comfortable too, as you’d expect from Volvo seats.

As a static object, the S60 is a fantastic proposition then, but some might feel a sense of deja vu. Did you think of the outgoing S60 as a looker with plenty of pace, deserving of a spot on the grid with the favourites? Not me. I was moved by the S60 of the “ReVolvolution” era.

Retrieved from deep in the memory as I arrived in California for the drive of the new S60 was the original, specifically a black T5 with multi-spoke rims. I’m no brand fan, but that car – the second Volvo that wasn’t a box, after the first S80 – created a lasting impression on my teenage self (as the B5 Audi A4 did). Like Jennifer Love Hewitt, it was gorgeous.

It was fast too, with 250 turbocharged horses in an era where the Germans were still pushing big NA engines. Billed as sporty because that’s what the “3 Series segment” is about, the first S60 never had the driver appeal to match its looks and on-paper potential.

The second-gen S60, which first surfaced a decade ago, carried the same torch for the brand, and was hailed as the most sporting car Volvo has ever made. Dynamically, the Mk2 was a big improvement, and it was no chore to drive.

“The S60 feels refreshing and miles better to drive than its predecessor and big brother S80… Very surefooted and stable, not overtly sporty in nature but good to drive fast and without any vices… Good enough for most people most of the time, but there are better entertainers in the class,” this writer noted in 2011.

REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

Fast forward to 2019. We’re in Malibu instead of Melaka, but the message is the same – the new S60 is the one of the most exciting cars Volvo has ever made, said CEO Hakan Samuelsson, who calls it a true driver’s car. That proclamation, plus the beauty of the S60 means that I set off into the hills really wanting to like this car. As a neutral, I’m rooting for the S60 to succeed.

We start with the T8 Polestar Engineered, which looks like a car Darth Vader himself would drive. Darker than the night, your eyes are immediately drawn to the fancy 20-inch alloys and gold-painted six-piston Brembo calipers, which grab 371 mm slotted discs. Under the hood, there’s more big-name gear in the shape of Ohlins dual flow valve dampers with 22 clicks of adjustment, attached to a strut bar.

Powered by a 2.0 litre turbocharged and supercharged four-pot (318 hp/430 Nm) mated to a rear-mounted electric motor with 88 hp/240 Nm (11.6 kWh lithium-ion battery in the floorpan), total system output reaches up to 405 hp and 670 Nm. Volvo quotes 0-100 km/h in 4.4 seconds. Is this a rival to the BMW M3 and Mercedes-AMG C63?

No. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes behind the wheel for one to realise that the top S60 isn’t that kind of beast. It’s nowhere as brutal as those super saloons in acceleration, which might come as a surprise if your expectations had been inflated by the branded hardware and 400+hp rating. Perhaps it’s the over two-tonne weight, plus the fact that plug-in hybrids rarely perform to the level their total system output suggests.

There’s no attempt to fool you with sound and drama either; the “Twin Engine” powertrain is reserved compared to the testosterone-fuelled motors from M and AMG, and gimmicks such as sport exhaust flaps are beneath Volvo.

So, it’s no hammer, but the T8 Polestar Engineered is a stealthy and swift saloon that’s a pleasure to gobble up miles in. You pull away in PHEV-style electric silence (up to 51 km WLTP electric range) and there’s satisfaction to be had rolling around town without consuming petrol or emitting gases. In the default Hybrid mode, the ICE comes in and goes unobtrusively, which is not always a given.

REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

In town and on the freeway, the S60 exhibits good refinement and a solid ride quality that’s less wafty than the usual Volvo fare. I’m not entirely sure if it’s the Scalable Product Architecture chassis (SPA, as used by the XC60 and 90 series) or the Ohlins suspension doing its magic, but the T8 PE excels in both comfort (despite the big wheels) and control (this is not a light car) as you push on. It’s most probably the trick dampers.

If there’s one thing I didn’t quite like, it’s the brakes. No complaints with the absolute power of the Brembos, but it’s the blending between the system braking upon initial input, and the part where the mighty stoppers bite. It isn’t very progressive, can be rather abrupt, and definitely needs getting used to.

No such issues in the T6 AWD R-Design, which is the highest variant you can get without an electric motor. The same modular 2.0L Drive-E is employed with a turbocharger and supercharger (lesser models are turbo-only) for 310 hp and 400 Nm of torque. Paired to an eight-speed Aisin conventional automatic, 0-100 km/h takes 5.5 seconds.

The T6 shares much that’s good about the T8 PE, but has its own character, and I enjoyed it more than the faster car. Besides feeling more agile and light on its feet, the engine had perkier response and there’s a nicer soundtrack to boot, which really came as a surprise. The steering is quick and direct enough, but there a synthetic feel to it that’s not unexpected.

As good as the Ohlins suspension is on the T8, it doesn’t make or break the S60, which in T6 form is firmer than you’d expect a Volvo to be. Over coarse tarmac, the ride can get a little knobby, and you’ll feel the road surface, but it doesn’t cross the line from feedback to annoyance. We didn’t encounter any big ruts or potholes, and it remains to be seen how the ride will fare on Malaysian roads with the 19-inch wheels, which look visually perfect on the S60.

We’re not sure which variant Volvo Car Malaysia will launch initially as a CBU import from the the USA. Coming from Charleston, South Carolina, the S60 is the first Volvo to be made in America. CKD local assembly and T5/T6 variants should happen down the line as Malaysia is the brand’s regional manufacturing hub.

REVIEW: 2019 Volvo S60 – it’s very Swede, very sweet

So where does the new S60 stand in the grand scheme of things? Has anything changed after all these years? I feel that the Volvo is more desirable than ever, and it should be in any shopping list which has BMW or Mercedes-Benz in it – anything that looks so good should.

Let’s face it, BMW has always been the dynamic benchmark and still is with the latest 3 Series. When you’re really in the mood for a backroad blast, the car from Munich gives good vibes. That said, the S60 is fast and athletic enough to be a pleasant steer – not too comfort oriented like the S90 – while being a great cruiser.

In a sense, it’s a similar verdict to the one from eight years ago, but the S60 scores high elsewhere to make it a better proposition than it ever was. My guess is that very few buy a premium compact exec to bomb around and drive above seven tenths most of the time, and to judge it purely on driving would be to miss the point – comfort, design and individuality matters too, and the Volvo is a strong all rounder.

It’s funny that the good old sedan, for so long the default, is now a selfish purchase that the other half might try steer you away from. In a sea of SUVs, you’ll buy the S60 for how it looks, and I applaud you. It’s very Swede, and very sweet.

The new Volvo S60 has been launched in Malaysia. Local specifications and launch report here.

GALLERY: Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design

GALLERY: Volvo S60 T8 Twin Engine Polestar Engineered

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