REVIEW DATE: 08 Jun 2007
Volvo's entry-level S60 offers more power for a lot less money than its rivals. Jonathan Crouch reports
Buying an entry-level version of one of those prestigious compact executive saloons can be a disappointing experience. On the way to the showroom, the picture you have in your mind is likely to be of one of the top six cylinder versions. So it's a bit of a shock to get behind the wheel of the model you can actually afford and discover four cylinder power and a rather Spartan feel to the interior.
If proof were needed that the market leaders, BMW and Mercedes, can no longer afford to treat entry-level buyers in this way, Volvo's most affordable £19,995 S60 2.0T provides it. With five cylinders and a turbocharger, the power output is a useful 180bhp, a decidedly impressive figure when you look at what else you can get for that money. Audi's A4 2.0 SE manages 130bhp and Mercedes' pricey C180 Classic has 143bhp.
Before we go any further, time for a quick recap on the state of play. The S60 was launched late in 2000 by Volvo as the company's first really competitive offering in the lucrative compact executive saloon sector. The critics more or less unanimously agreed that the handling dynamics aren't quite a match for the class leaders but that they get close enough for the needs of most. Ride and refinement, on the other hand, were as good as you'll find anywhere. Volvo is learning fast and they recently demonstrated this by bringing a package of revisions to bear on the S60 range.
The main focus of the changes was to increase the S60's sportiness, both actual and perceived. The Dynamic chassis was introduced across the range with revised components while Sport models get a Sport chassis and the SE Sport derivatives benefit from the active Four-C set-up. Outside, indicators are integrated into the larger mirrors, there's a low front spoiler and the grille has a wide chrome surround. Inside, there's more chrome and aluminium detailing with cruise control standard on all models.
"If proof were needed that the market leaders can no longer afford to treat entry-level buyers to poorly performing models, the S60 2.0T provides it..."
Unless you're a handling purist, the 2.0-litre turbocharged S60's vast reserves of extra power will more than make up for its ultimate lack of total finesse. The chassis revisions have sharpened up its act but this is still no 3-Series and for buyers prioritising comfort, that will be viewed as a good thing. Sixty from rest is dispatched in just 8.8s on the way to 140mph: not bad for an entry-level model. Particularly when you compare figures from the BMW and the Mercedes. Only the Volvo's rather cumbersome gearchange and slightly inert steering detract from the fun.
Individuals owning one of the rivals we've mentioned may well try to criticise the Volvo's use of a turbocharged powerplant, talking of turbo lag and power that arrives all in a rush. Don't listen - they're living in the past. This is a modern light pressure turbocharged engine with a 20-valve head. Pretty much all its urge is on offer from as low as 2,400rpm right up to 5,200rpm. Which means that you don't have to keep swapping down the gearbox in town, nor is it always necessary to change down a cog to overtake on the open road. Even the fuel economy's acceptable: you should average around 30mpg.
All in all, a pretty impressive stab at the compact executive market from Gothenburg. So how has Volvo done it? Well handling has much to do with body stiffness - as anyone who tried to make an S70 change direction at speed will testify. Without it, you can make the springs as stiff as you like: it won't make much difference. Hence the need in the S60 for a completely new approach, aided by the use of a platform developed for the larger S80 saloon and the V70 estate.
In the case of the S60, this has allowed for a 70% improvement in torsional rigidity over the previous generation car. The provision of such a strong foundation has enabled much else to be achieved. Take the suspension, now tuned to deliver progressive movement, rather than lurching forward or back during heavy acceleration or braking. Over and above this, the two ride set-ups allow buyers to choose a car that's tuned for either comfort or handling response. Alternatively, they can go for the adaptive Four-C system which can be set into either comfort or sport modes.
The 'wheel-at-each-corner' design also helps with reduced overhangs that lower the polar movement of inertia, enabling sharper steering responses and a crisper turn-in. Plus there are the usual electronic aids. Like all S60 models, this 2.0T gets Volvo's STC Stability and Traction Control system, plus there's the (sadly optional) DSTC active anti-skid programme: enter a corner too fast and it automatically cuts in, reducing the throttle and selectively applying the brakes. Of course, as you'd expect, this car is as safe and solid as ever - though the associated weight has not, for once, compromised its sporting pretensions. And don't bother asking about an estate: there won't be one.
Volvo has an unparalleled reputation for safety and the S60 harbours yet another Volvo safety innovation that will doubtless find its way into many other rival cars. Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) acts much like an extra set of eyes and utilizes digital camera technology mounted in the door mirrors to monitor the areas 3m to each side and up to 9.5m behind the driver. If a vehicle enters this area, a symbol appears on the windscreen pillar near the rear view mirror to indicate that something's there when you take a quick look towards the mirror. Active at speeds above 10km/h, this system isn't the only safety benefit buyers of the latest S60 enjoy. Special water repellent glass is fitted to the mirrors and side windows. Water beads up on the glass and the airstream quickly clears it, leaving unimpeded visibility.
This S60 has a lot going for it. Power, equipment, relative exclusivity. With the sharper dynamics of the latest cars, it's a better drive too. As it is, the S60 2.0T represents a challenge the executive establishment can't afford to ignore.
The results below show the top S60 deals on buyacar
|Volvo S60 D4  R DESIGN Lux Nav 4dr diesel saloon|
|Volvo S60 DRIVe  R DESIGN 4dr diesel saloon|
|Volvo S60 D2  SE 4dr diesel saloon|
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|OVERALL||7.1 OUT OF 10|
|Space / Versatility||6|
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