Car reviews - Volvo - S60 - R sedan
Subtlely tough look, brakes, performance, grip, interior comfort, safety, build quality, attention to detail
Room for improvement
Price premium, options, turbo lag, ride quality
27 Jan 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
THE S60 R is the hottest Volvo on the block, hotter even than the six-cylinder S80 T6, even though it gives away one cylinder and about 260 cubic centimetres of engine capacity.
In fact, it’s the most worked-over road-going Volvo sedan ever – the sort of thing, in Volvo’s eyes, that might draw comparisons with high-flying Euro road cars like the BMW M3, Audi S4 or Mercedes C32 AMG.
The common denominator might not be price – the Volvo is cheaper than any of the above-mentioned – but there are similarities in the approach to squeezing the best possible out of existing componentry. They are all examples of just about the best each manufacturer can do without going totally feral.
And while the Volvo may not be the most expensive in this genre, the company has not been shy in stating where it thinks the S60 R belongs. It’s saddled with a virtual price of $100,000 - or double the tag on an entry-level S60.
No different really from any of its competitors, but still a huge premium to pay.
But for your $100,000 you get the best performance sedan Volvo is capable of producing today.
Previous hot Volvos were generally something of a handful when it came to transferring relatively large amounts of torque to the road, largely because they were front-wheel drive but also because the Swedish company has never really been known for its suspension expertise.
The former issue is well addressed with the S60 R because it’s all-wheel drive, not merely front-wheel drive. So it has twice the number of wheels to transmit power to the road. Forget the wild torque-steer of previous Volvos like the 850 and S60 T5s – the S60 R is faithful to the driver’s desires even when scorching away from a standing start on full, 400Nm boost.
The all-wheel drive system overrides power transfer problems but it doesn’t hide the fact Volvo is no front-runner in the development of effective suspension tuning.
The S60 R, despite the adoption of a sophisticated electronic shock absorber system, suffers the basic inadequacies inherent in all S60s. Namely, the ability to provide an absorbent ride while ensuring crisp steering response on corners.
Despite its high-tech "Four-C Technology" - developed in collaboration with shock absorber developer Ohlins Racing AB and shock absorber manufacturer Monroe - and despite what seems a perfectly competent suspension design (multi-link at the rear, struts at the front), the Volvo still lags behind most of the prestige field.
The suspension can be quite jarring even when in "Comfort" mode, to the point where the test car came close to bottoming out on only slightly uneven, high-speed freeway surfaces. The ride is no benchmark-setter.
The S60 R’s road grip, on the other hand, owes a lot to the all-wheel drive configuration - even if it’s only part-time all-wheel drive, activated when front-wheel slip is detected.
The switchable, three-mode Four-C electronics certainly introduce more assertive shock absorber characteristics when the Sport mode is selected, giving the impression of an eager, responsive chassis, but the Volvo never feels as lively as the best of its competition.
The steering is well enough weighted, but is not the most sensitive of systems.
The S60 R is probably best described as secure and predictable. Helped by the Pirelli P-Zero Rosso 235/40 tyres, it will rush around a given corner at decent speed, to be sure, but there’s not the feeling of involvement one might have expected from a $100,000 sporting sedan.
The 220kW engine’s power delivery is something of a curate’s egg too. The inline five-cylinder is actually slightly larger in capacity than any other S60, displacing a little more than 2.5 litres, and it’s fitted with dual intercoolers feeding a 1.05-bar turbocharger.
The twin camshaft, 20-valve engine also uses variable valve timing to help make the power curve as linear as possible.
But like a lot of turbos, especially high-powered ones, pre-planning is required for a decent step-off from the traffic lights. Allow your attention to wander and an embarrassing stall is a strong possibility.
The clutch is strong, but quite abrupt, and the engine doesn’t have a lot of punch at anything below about 2500rpm even though the claimed maximum occurs at just 1950rpm.
Concentrate hard, and the S60 R will blast away with WRX-style speed (in fact, the claimed 0-100km/h of 5.7 seconds is exactly the same as the Subaru), rushing towards maximum legal speeds with impressive fervour.
The R’s six-speed transmission is accessed via a quite positive, slick gearshift (Volvo’s neat-looking "Spaceball") and the ratios are closely spaced for an even surge of power.
Part of the S60 R package is a proper high performance ABS braking system incorporating all the usual brake assist and electronic brake force distribution, underpinned by a set of oversized, ventilated discs front and rear, complete with four-piston Brembo calipers. The S60 R is a very confident stopper.
The negatives return when attempting tight, parking-pace manoeuvres. The turning circle is an appalling 13 metres, necessary because of the car’s jumbo-size 18-inch wheels, but making every U-turn an exercise in early application of full lock and more-than-usual slipping between first and reverse gears.
Only Alfa Romeo’s equally fat-tyred 147 GTA matches it for low-speed awkwardness. Fortunately the steering is light enough to allow easy twirling from lock to lock.
The S60 R’s presentation is a combination of bold and brassy and nicely restrained. Restrained on the outside that is, with an almost invisible strip spoiler on the bootlid, a revised front with larger air intakes and a black grille with matte silver surrounds, all framed by bi-Xenon headlights.
Volvo’s interior decorators were given freer reign, choosing the bold yet sumptuous route by adopting loud tan shades for the leather seat and door trims.
The instrument panel dials are blue-faced and there’s a leather-clad, three-spoke steering wheel with a "slightly elliptical" section that is supposed to provide a firmer grip. Matching the instruments, the leather piping on the seats is in blue.
The flagship S60 gets most of the equipment you’d expect, from climate-control air-conditioning to power-adjustable, heated front seats, cruise control, 11-speaker sound system with, four-disc CD player and four 75-watt amplifiers, and a self-dimming rear vision mirror.
But you do have to pay more for satellite-navigation, laminated side windows, power glass sunroof – and even metallic paint. Approaching $110,000 would not be difficult.
The S60 in basic form is an appealing car to look at and the R version takes that a step further with its bigger wheels and subtly revised bodywork.
Unfortunately the R also inherits the Volvo suspension so it doesn’t really rate among other top-shelf Europeans in terms of ride or handling – although it has heaps of road grip.
It does inherit Volvo’s unquestioned skill at clever packaging with its nicely conceived, comfortable and relatively spacious interior, and a load-through boot that makes it a useful cargo carrier.
It’s also outstandingly safe – dynamically and passively – and beautifully built, with great attention to detail.
A close look at the suspension, maybe some attention to the low-speed turbo lag, and what a car the S60 R would be.
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