When you think of a luxury car, the name Volvo rarely springs to mind. That’s because the Swedish car maker has, at best, been a marginal player in the small but rapidly growing premium car segment in India that’s completely monopolised by German brands. It’s not that Volvo doesn’t make good cars. The clever XC90 and comfy S80 are highly capable models but in the upper reaches of the Indian car market; it isn’t what’s under the skin that’s important but the skin (and the badge) that is. Safe and solid but a bit boring is what Volvos have been stereotyped as. Though Volvo is proud of the first two attributes and will hang onto them dearly, it desperately wants to change the boring bit and give the brand the energy to take on the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes. Central to the Volvo’s image makeover is the newly launched S60 saloon which the company is touting as the first of a new breed of sexy and sporty saloons to come out of Gothenberg. In fact, Volvo has gone so far to say that it’s the sportiest saloon the company has ever made.
The S60 is critical for Volvo’s fortunes in India too. This is the car Volvo is banking on to catapult it from the fringes of oblivion into the thick end of the entry level luxury car segment dominated by the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series and the Merc C-class. Volvo currently sells cars only in double digits a year, so if the S60 can even make a small dent in the stronghold of this German triumvirate it could give Volvo a plenty-fold increase in sales.
To achieve that end, the S60’s styling is a great starting point. The design has a hard-to-miss dynamism and the highlight is the coupe-like profile along with the flowing C-pillar that extends all the way back to the tail-lamps. Another interesting design element is the pronounced shoulder line which has a double wave extending from the headlamps back to the rear lights. The S60 looks absolutely stunning from the front and yet every bit a Volvo, which until now was a contradiction in terms. The aggressive nose with swoopy headlamps and distinctive ‘marker’ lights is hard to miss. The skid plates under the front and rear bumpers give the S60 a tough-looking stance that’s intrinsic in every Volvo. The understated A4 looks delicate in comparison. Indian customers should take to the S60’s extrovert, Scandinavian styling which is refreshingly different from the Teutonic designs that are now quite commonplace.
The S60’s interior isn’t quite as enticing as its exterior and is typically understated. However, there’s a nice logic to the minimal style with large dials and well located controls. The ventilation controls with Volvo’s trademark humanoid figure are really easy to use but the dials for the temperature and audio system are so similar that they are easy to confuse for each other. The ‘floating’ centre console, typical of Volvos, is quite unique and, apart from being quite stylish, is practical too with useful storage space behind it.
Comfort is the S60’s forte. Though you sit quite low both in the front and back, the seats are large and extremely comfortable. Legroom is generous all around and in terms of interior space the S60 has the measure of its German rivals. However, the rear is best for two passengers because the seat with its pronounced contours has two buckets which makes long drives unpleasant for the middle passenger.
Though interior quality is of a very high order and the cabin feels very plush with superb materials, it doesn’t have the richness of the 3 Series or A4, whose plastics and switchgear feel a notch better. What the S60 does have is lots of equipment and it sets a new standard for safety in this class with innovative features like Pedestrian Detection (see ‘Under the skin’ box) which will be standard even on the India-spec S60.
The S60 will be launched in India with just two engine options. The D5 diesel is the same unit that powers the XC90 and S80 but it’s the petrol motor that promises class-leading performance. And how! The petrol S60, badged T6, will blow away a BMW 330i with its 3-litre, turbocharged, inline-six cylinder motor that belts out 304bhp and a massive 44.8kgm via a six-speed gearbox. It is four-wheel drive too and hence is more than a match for the 3.2 V6 A4 Quattro. But how does it drive?
Like most turbos, the T6’s strong mid-range is the talking point of this engine but what’s also good is the way the boost builds up nice and early in the rev band. The result is a linear strong shove in the back and enough pace to fly past all its German ◊ ∆ rivals. Though the Volvo turbo-petrol doesn’t rev as freely as a BMW straight six, it is seriously quick with a claimed a 0-100kph of time of just 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 250kph. For a car with so much power and sporting pretensions, the auto transmission is a bit of a letdown. It’s not very enthusiastic and there are no paddle shifts, so manual operation is done with the old-school prod of the gear lever. In ‘sport’ mode, the gearbox is more responsive and it kicks down quite quickly but you need to adopt a relaxed driving style to enjoy this car.
The D5 diesel is a 2.4-litre, five-cylinder unit developing a healthy 205bhp which again gives it more grunt than most of its rivals. This is obvious the instant you flex your right foot and the S60 diesel always feels it has a surplus of power and torque. The company claims a 0-100kph time of 7.8sec, which puts it ahead of the 320d and C220 CDI. But again, this engine doesn’t seem as finely honed as the ones from Germany. It sounds a bit gravelly and falls a tad short on refinement, the slow gearbox exaggerating its boomy nature.
On the twisty roads around Verona, the S60 had a chance to display its sporting ambitions. The steering has lots of feel and with 2.6 turns, lock to lock is very quick. In fact it’s a touch too quick and you often find yourself adjusting your line into a corner. But once you get used to the helm, the S60 can be hurled around like no other Volvo and the four-wheel-drive T6 just bites the road especially when exiting corners. But is it a 3 Series? No, it doesn’t have the BMW’s chassis balance or body control and the nose-heavy S60 has a tendency to understeer but the flipside is a ride so plush that it makes a 3 Series with its harsher rebound damping and run-flats feel like a bicycle. The chassis is ultimately tuned for comfort which, on Indian roads, is a good thing.
There’s an honesty about the S60 which gives it a certain charm. It won’t bowl you over with any flashiness or gimmicks but the impression you get is that it will be a pleasure to own. Unlike the German brands which hit your wallet harder than your heart, Volvos in India come with honest pricing and even more honest service. And that’s the point Volvo wants to make. Though prices are not announced yet, the fully loaded petrol T6 will retail for around Rs 26 lakh while the diesel D5 will cost around Rs 33 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi). That’s astonishing value especially since the fully imported S60 undercuts its locally assembled rivals. True, the Volvo badge is still far from strong in the minds of Indian consumers but the S60 could be the game-changer the company has been waiting for