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Volvo S60 20V SE

 

It's addictive and it's probably endorsed by the boards of management of oil companies worldwide.

For the first few days after you've discovered it, you find that at every opportunity you either floor the throttle causing the automatic transmission to kick down or you shift the gearbox manually into a lower ratio.

Second gear is ideal. Then you either keep your foot on the throttle or - if you're shifting manually - you stomp on the gas and are rewarded by this absolutely glorious howl as the 2.4-litre five cylinder inline motor spins up to the redline.

Now we all know about the magical sounds that come from V6s when they're asked to sing arias, but engines that are one short of a six-pack? We haven't heard the reportedly spine-tingling high-rev repertoire of Volkswagen's V5, but we just love the sound of Volvo's straight five in lungs-full, open-throated song and can't image how it could be bettered.

The motor's magnificent sound reinforces the new face and character of Volvo. Gone is the whisper-topped thump of the turbocharged four cylinders that powered cars like the 240 series of the 1980s. In its place is this glorious howl that wouldn't be out of place in an Italian sports car where brio and bravura might be seen as more important than solid dependability.

The sound is the mechanical counterpart to Volvo's stylish new bodywork. Go back to the 240 and the 740 and 760 and you find angular lines and brick-like chunkiness. Not even Robbie Francevic's inaugural Wellington street race win (with the unsung Belgian ace Michel Delcourt) or his subsequent Australian Touring Car title could make the old-style Volvos seem sexy-looking.

But take a look at the new S60, tested here in naturally-aspirated 20V SE form, and you'll see Volvo has come almost full circle.

This is one handsome car, and it's jam-packed with innovative and thoughtful touches and quality fit and finish.


The grille is a streamlined evocation of the traditional Volvo rectangle, softened and flatted but still divided by the diagonal slash that bears the badge.

It's echoed by an intake in the front bumper and emphasised by a bulging of the bonnet that spreads at increasing width to the base of the windscreen. The styling line runs along the side of the car at lower window level - the cabin is stand-alone above the consequently thick doors - and concludes with fluted taillights at the chopped-look, near vertical rear end. The line sweeps upwards from the front, peaking near the end of the back doors and tumbling down slightly to form the fluting.

The fluting gives the car a distinctive, very attractive rear three-quarter look.

We thought the S60 looked great, but would it go and handle as well as it looked?

The answer was pretty much a resounding yes, though we would have liked a little more power.

The free-revving five cylinder produces 125kW (170bhp).

Performance from the five-speed adaptive-shift automatic gearbox-equipped test car was brisk and more than adequate, but we would have liked a little more urgency (that's the province of the S60's turbocharged 2.4T - light pressure and 147kW - and T5 - high pressure and 184kW - siblings. The T5 is a prodigiously-fast car).


The five cylinder motor is beautifully-smooth and impressively quiet in normal running; and absolutely magic-sounding at high revs.

The five-speed auto shifts smoothly and kicks-down efficiently and quickly.

But it's the S60's chassis that impresses the most.

Quite simply it's outstanding, easily one of the best front-wheel drive chassis we've ever sampled.

Around town during the first few kilometres it didn't feel all that special. But the first time we encountered an open road corner we were hooked.

The steering was so communicative, so tactile. Turn-in was as crisp as you'd find in a good-handling rear-wheel drive car, and though the steering gave good feel and good feedback it was absolutely effort-free.

The car almost seemed to drive itself, or at least seemed to be completely in sympathy with what you wanted it to do.

It's trite to say a car feels almost like an extension of the driver, but the Volvo S60 is a car that genuinely feels that way.

I don't think I've driven a car that was so easy to drive at speed on demanding roads right from the outset. It felt neutral and had no tendency to sledge even on tight corners entered optimistically.


The handling was forgiving and vice-free. If ever there was a chassis to flatter a driver's abilities this is it. It makes you feel like the master driver you know you're not.

It's a perfect example of a car which has been designed with very high levels of active safety.

And it's all achieved without sacrificing ride quality. It soaks up bumps superbly and provides a beautifully pliant ride.

The car rides on 195/65 R15 Pirelli tyres on 15-inch diameter alloy wheels. The Pirellis provided excellent grip on either wet or dry roads. Roadholding was absolutely outstanding.

You'd expect state-of-the-art and comprehensive safety equipment in a Volvo, given the marque's long-established reputation in that regard, and the S60 won't disappoint.

There are driver's and passenger's front airbags with progressive activation; and a side impact protection system with two side airbags. Full length curtains deploy in side impacts to provide protection for front and rear cabin occupants. There's a system to protect against whiplash. For children there's a booster seat built into the rear seat armrest, and anchor points for child safety seats, including some developed by Volvo itself. Active safety includes ABS anti-skid braking with electronic brake force distribution, anti-lift and anti-dive built into the suspension, and outstanding roadholding and foolproof handling. And there's a warning triangle to set on the road if you've crashed, broken down or are changing a wheel.

But it's the little touches that delight: like the rear seat headrests that fold out of the way at the flick of a switch to improve rear vision. Or the little hook on the front headrest to hang a jacket off so you have easy access to anything in its pockets.

Standard equipment is comprehensive. The upholstery is leather; there are wood accents in the trim; the steering wheel has a wooden rim; there are the expected electrically-wound windows and electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors; and the electronically climate-control air-conditioning has dual controls and includes a pollen filter. There are ventilation outlets in the B-pillar; headlight level adjustment; an outside temperature gauge; central door-locking with coded remote control, and automatic re-locking. When the car is unlocked the bootlid opens with a touch on a flat switch on the outside of the boot above the numberplate. Like we sad, nice touches abound. The sound system is outstanding, providing the best definition on jazz records that we've encountered in any car with crisp cymbal sounds and just-like-being-there bass. The Compact Disc player has a four-disc in-dashboard set-up and the system uses nine speakers and can be controlled from the steering wheel for added safety.

The sound system and its quality are the icing on an already exquisite automotive cake.

The quality of the build, the quality of the fit and finish and the balance between handling finesse and power delivery can't be faulted. The chassis has such reserves that we're sure it could cope with a much much more than the 125kW the 20V SE's motor produces.

The 20V SE sells for $72,990 as tested (a manual version is $69,990) and given the quality of the car, its engineering and safety design and execution, outstanding chassis and all-round thoughtful design, that seems fair value.

AutoPoint road test team.


Auto Trader New Zealand