Britain has some of the best roads in the world. Not for getting from A to B, you understand, but as a gruelling, potholed proving ground for carmakers to test the resilience of their latest models.
Egbert Bakker is one of the senior engineers charged by Volvo with helping shift the marque’s image from safe and stodgy to safe but sporty. He looks me squarely in the eye and proclaims: “We need to make our cars perform very well. And if we can make them perform well on even Britain’s roads, they will be good anywhere in Europe.” As backhanded compliments go, this one from Sweden’s Volvo (Sweden’s, that is, until China’s Geely cars group assumes ownership in the autumn) takes some beating.
Bakker’s thinking at least explains the sightings of some strange-looking Volvos – well, strange by Volvo standards – on Britain’s highways and byways over the past few years, usually with a Scotsman named John Cleland at the wheel.
Those who remember the quiet Scot as British Touring Car champion in the 1990s know that he didn’t take prisoners; a relentlessly hard driver who could wring every ounce of performance out of his race cars. Who better, then, to pound Britain’s backroads, leading the development of Volvo suspension, steering and other dynamics to suit its next generation of cars to a more overtly sporting role?
And now we have the first fruits of this process, the Volvo S60.
The name itself is not new. The first car bearing the designation was launched almost a decade ago. Most of the 600,000 sold to date are still on the roads. But they are very different indeed from their latest successor. The new S60 might share its basic engineering underpinnings with models made by outgoing owner Ford. But the finished product is a car that could rival Audi and BMW – and none more so than the range’s £36,745, three-litre V6, 300-horsepower T6 flagship.
The pair of Labradors traditionally to be found slobbering away in the back of a Volvo would be astonished to find themselves splayed to the rear window under the brutal acceleration of the T6. Except there is, as yet, no room for Labradors. Estate car versions will follow. But for the moment Volvo is focused almost entirely on securing a bigger slice of the world’s premium and sports saloon sector. And the T6, in particular, seems set to make rather a good job of it.
Looks are important in the compact premium saloon sector and all versions of the new S60 (there are also frugal 2-litre and 2.4-litre diesels) are quite aggressively handsome enough to mount a refreshing challenge to the over-familiar shapes of Audi’s A4 and the BMW 3-Series. But good looks count for little if the overall performance package is not up to scratch – and with the T6, in particular, Volvo and Cleland have pulled off something of a coup.
The T6 is quite remarkably refined, even when being bullied to its limit, with acceleration very strong throughout the rev range. There is an occasional jerkiness to the six-speed automatic gearbox but it mostly works well – it can also be operated manually should the mood take you. There is a sense of security on damp and winding roads which comes only with four-wheel-drive, in which Volvo has long been a specialist.
Almost best of all, however, is the fluidity with which the car tackles winding roads and their varied dips and surface heaves. No Volvo has ever gone in such accomplished and sporting fashion before; and there is no penalty in terms of harshening the ride unacceptably if the “sport” mode is selected to quicken throttle response and sharpen damper responses. Take a bow, Mr Cleland.
The interior is a rather more spirit-lifting place to be than its also-new and closest Swedish rival, the Saab 9-5. There is a funereal feel to the large expanses of unrelieved dark plastics and leather in the Saab that is refreshingly absent in the Volvo, although its use of brushed aluminium on the central console also verges on the excessive. There is a strongly sporting feel to the way the console is angled towards the driver, while supportive “sports” seats come as standard. Some neat, typically Volvo touches are a rear-view camera so panoramic that there could be no excuse whatever for backing into gateposts, while more cameras at the front provide 180 degrees of below-windscreen-level vision.
Volvo has also not abandoned its long-established preoccupation with safety, although its executives acknowledge that safety advances across the car industry have made it much less of a selling point than it once was. An optional “driver support pack” includes pedestrian detection and collision warning with automatic braking, in addition to systems used more widely in the industry such as rear blind spot warning lights in the rear-view mirrors and driver alertness warning. (A pity, then, that during one demo of the pedestrian warning system a car went on to clobber the car in front…)
The diesel models, although reassuringly frugal, are not quite as successful as the T6. While the 2.4-litre D5 is also impressively swift, with the automatic version topping 140mph with acceleration to match, both lack the turbine smoothness of the petrol model, although they compete in their refinement with other premium carmakers.
Will Volvo succeed in its ambitions for the S60, namely to woo the 34-45 age group out of their BMWs and Audis? Plainly, it is too early to tell. But it must stand a very good chance.
Volvo gears up for the sports saloon market
£23,295 (2-litre diesel) £36,745 (T6)
0-62mph 8.7 secs, top speed 137mph (2-litre diesel ); 0‑62mph 6.5 secs, top speed 155mph (T6)
53.3mpg; 28.5mpg on EU urban/rural test cycle
154g CO2/km; 231g CO2/km
Audi A4 from £21,315, BMW 3-Series from £22,155