Volvo is touting the new S60 as the athletic member of the family. The brochure emphasises it’s “for the kind of driver that chooses back roads, just to get a smile on their face”. Quite the contrary of what one associates a Volvo with. A quick walk around the car tells you the coupé-like design is quite striking and, at least visually, the sporty pitch seems rather convincing. So, what’s new in the facelift?
The altered styling now uses a larger grille and accentuates the car’s facial features, giving the Swedish sedan a bit more visual muscle to better contest with the Germans. Broadly speaking, it now looks more mature and could appeal to a wider clientele. They’ve packed it with more equipment too. During our first drive of this car, we were quite impressed with the package on offer, and that got us thinking. Can the S60 now be considered a serious contender in the entry-level luxury segment? The only way to find out was to thoroughly test and measure it against a benchmark.
Which brings us to the BMW 3-series. The Three is a legend. Almost every iteration of the compact luxury sedan from Munich has trounced its German contemporaries, and this latest F30 version is no different. Back in August 2012, we pitted it against the C-class and A4 and concluded that it set the new benchmark for the class, making it the perfect yardstick.
The goal is to size up the S60 against the best in the business and assess its worth as a genuine alternative to the typical step-on point to the luxury ladder. Prices start at Rs 31.9 lakh for the base D4 kinetic variant and the better-equipped D4 Summum variant you see here costs Rs 34.4 lakh (all prices ex-showroom, Delhi), which makes this 161bhp, five-cylinder, 2.0-litre diesel model about Rs 2.5 lakh cheaper than the BMW 320d sport, lowering the step-on point a bit too. Moreover, a good chunk of shoppers in this segment tend to be chauffeured around and hence don’t really benefit from the BMW’s dynamic finesse.
Looking at it in the metal, it’s clear that both cars have an assertive visual strength, but you’re more likely to notice the S60, for two reasons. Apart from the fact that it’s a good-looking car, its larger dimensions add to its presence. Also, the fact that it isn’t a common sight on our roads makes it turn more heads.
SWEDE AND SIMPLE
However, it’s the cabin where you spend your time and its ambience plays a key role. And unlike its exterior, the S60’s interior doesn’t quite share the same pizazz. Instead, it employs IKEA-inspired surfaces and a button-dense central console. Volvo’s idea to plaster on a plethora of controls stems from its philosophy to clearly label all the buttons and make functions easily accessible. Yet, we weren’t too convinced. Navigating through the menus is a bit confusing, mainly due to the multiple rotary knobs that take you through two sets of menus. On the upside, switch-fiddlers would love the expanse of settings you can play with in this car. The only snazzy design on the dash is the instrument panel, which instead of traditional analogue instruments, uses a high-resolution TFT screen. This graphical display can be lit according to any one of the three distinct themes of your choice – ‘Eco’, ‘Elegance’ or ‘Performance’. The overall cabin quality is decent but a few elements, such as the rotary knobs on the central console, feel a bit fiddly.
Safety aside, Volvo is also well-known for making ergonomically sound seats. In fact, its engineers consulted orthopaedic surgeons to develop contours that, while keeping you comfortable, try and eliminate backaches too; especially during those long hauls. And it works. The front seats offer plenty of thigh and lower back support and do a good job of keeping driver fatigue at bay. Also, there are plenty of cubbyholes to hold your beverages, phone and knick knacks. There’s some useful storage behind the ‘floating’ central console too, but accessing it on the move isn’t the easiest.
Typical Indian frames would find adequate legroom at the rear too. The reclined rear bench and deeply contoured seats make the rear quarters a relaxed place for two. You’ll also appreciate the pillar-mounted rear AC vents that can be aimed straight at your face. Additionally, the nicely crafted metallic Volvo remote control gives you access to the car’s audio; a feature the chauffeured will miss in the BMW. The S60’s greenhouse screams ‘four-door-coupé’ which, while stylish, reduces outside visibility and eats into some headroom. Also, taller folk will find the legroom to be a bit of a squeeze and the seat squab a bit small. It’s more claustrophobic than the BMW too.
On the other hand, the cabin of the 3-series is plush and makes the price tag well worth it. This realisation dawns the moment you lower yourself into the snug-fitting driver’s seat that features adjustable lateral support and the dashboard that is angled towards the driver, announcing the car’s driving-focussed demeanour. Opting for the Sport trim gets you a sprinkle of red accents, including a bright red belt that runs across the dashboard. Unlike the S60, the Three’s dashboard employs just a few buttons (that feel a size too small) that cater to just the perfunctory functions and leave the rest to the fairly intuitive i-Drive system. Pairing up your Apple or Android phone is quite easy and so is streaming music from these devices. While the audio quality is more than acceptable, the tunes lack a bit of the detail and soundstage found in the Volvo’s unit.
The rear quarters offer about an inch more knee- and headroom and have better thigh support. The lower window line also makes it a comparatively airier place, but just like in the Volvo, the front headrests still block most of your view of the road ahead. Also, the bench itself isn’t as deeply contoured as the Volvo’s and shorter passengers may prefer the S60’s rear bench in terms of support and comfort. In a nutshell, the Volvo’s rear seats are better shaped, while the BMW offers more absolute space.
For a weekend holiday, the BMW’s 480-litre trunk has a 20 percent advantage over the Volvo’s 380-litre boot, which simply means the 3-series will swallow an additional squishy bag. Unfortunately, neither of these cars comes with a spare wheel, and while the BMW is equipped with run-flat tyres, the Volvo wears normal rubber and gives you a puncture repair kit that won’t help if you slash the sidewall. Not exactly a practical solution on our roads.
The gizmos in the S60 won’t make you feel short changed. Most impressive is the ‘City Safety’ feature that automatically slams on the brakes if the car detects an impending collision; very useful on our roads, where errant drivers often appear out of thin air. In fact, safety is so deeply ingrained in the car that the door handles are designed so that they can be opened by someone wearing flame-resistant gloves! Both cars get an audio setup that supports Bluetooth and USB. Both get a sunroof, parking sensors (but no camera) and power-adjustable seats. Apart from this, the Volvo is equipped with cornering headlamps that are missing on the BMW.
Behind the wheel, Munich has set the bar rather high. Let’s start with performance. While the S60 matches the Bimmer visually, matching the BMW from the driver’s seat is a different ballgame. With 161bhp, on paper, the Volvo isn’t too far off from the BMW and, in fact, makes a bit more torque than the 3-series. But, on the road, the contrast is a lot sharper than what the numbers suggest. The S60’s 161bhp, 2.0-litre engine is mated to a six-speed automatic ’box and, unlike the BMW, powers the front wheels. The power delivery is a bit peaky, but nothing more than what’s characteristic of modern turbo-diesels. The healthy 40kgm of torque gives this sedan a nice meaty mid-range that gently shoves you back in the seat every time you flex your right foot. However, the gearbox is a touch unhurried, especially when compared to the BMW’s brilliant eight-speed unit, and the weaker top end means it’s best to upshift early to squeeze the maximum out of this engine. At full tilt, the S60 hits 100kph from rest in 9.81 seconds – a whole two seconds slower than the properly quick BMW. It isn’t just flat-out performance either; it lacks the sharp part-throttle response that makes the 3-series brilliant in daily driving conditions.
Throw refinement into the equation and the Volvo does a slightly better job than the BMW, but only in terms of engine noise. The 3-series’s aluminium engine’s clatter is a bit louder at idle and more so when pushed hard. However, the BMW claws back the advantage by offering better isolation from road noise at expressway speeds.
As far as road manners go, the S60 goes about its job without much drama. The ride, on most occasions, is absorbent, and it does insulate the cabin from the occasional bump quite well. It’s when you hit a long stretch of uneven road that you encounter a ride that’s a bit on the wrong side of choppy; an area where the Three does decisively better.
The S60’s handling comes across as fairly neutral; not particularly lively, but a-lot-better-than-not-bad. Yes, it does feel nose-heavy under hard cornering and doesn’t quite match up to the BMW’s supreme agility, but it’s not a deal breaker. Also, to disable the electronic nanny, Volvo has embedded the traction control options deep inside the settings menu (BMW has a quick-access button), hinting that the Swedes would prefer you drive this car in a conservative manner. Expectedly, it’s an easy victory for the BMW and the S60 doesn’t really pose a threat to the 320d’s dynamic brilliance.
Competing against the 3-series was always going to be an uphill task. Nonetheless, in key areas such as equipment, safety, comfort and even exterior design, the S60 does a fine job of matching or even bettering the segment benchmark. Frankly, if you’re a chauffeur driven Indian of average frame or there about, the S60 does make a lot of sense. On the flipside, the uninspiring cabin doesn’t make you feel special and the engine just lacks the outright punch of the BMW’s. And for the self-driven, the Volvo clearly can’t match up to the BMW’s near-perfect dynamic balance. Additionally, the lack of either a spare wheel or run-flat tyres somewhat hampers its practicality too.
The BMW coming out on top wasn’t much of a surprise. What was surprising is that the margin of victory wasn’t huge, which says a lot about the Volvo. Essentially, the 3-series sets the standard so high because it’s equally suited to being a self- or chauffeur-driven car. Yes, its comparatively basic safety kit may lack some of the sophisticated features of the Volvo, but that apart, it does everything else almost perfectly. Especially from behind the wheel. And that’s why the sensible S60 loses to the sensational Three.