Ask a non-enthusiast about Volvo, and you’ll find that the words most associated with the venerable Swedish manufacturer are ‘Safety” and “Boxy”. The former has been a Volvo stock-in-trade since the ‘Sixties, while the latter … well, at least it was space-efficient. Current Volvos, however, scream “Not a Box” with their sharply creased beltlines and scalloped rear quarter panels. It’s a European look that suggests that Volvos play in the same league as BMW, Audi and Mercedes, marques that also have a performance image honed from extensive racing histories. Can Volvo compete?
SSGM tested a Titanium grey 2004 S60 R and it proved to be a very interesting ride. Volvos are different externally and it appears that the philosophy extends to the powerplant as well. It’s a four-cylinder/V-6 world, but the S60 R features a 2.5 litre inline five that’s fed by a high-pressure turbocharger with twin intercoolers, resulting in 300 HP with a generous 295 ft.lbs. of torque. The torque comes in early and stays late, with a completely flat torque curve from 1950-5250 RPM in the six-speed manual transmission model tested. All 20 intake and exhaust valves are fitted with continuously variable valve timing, with the two-of-everything theme extending to intercoolers, fuel pumps and the dual-section fuel tank. The oil pan is extensively baffled, which is a good precaution given the chassis technology of the S60 R.
Volvo calls it “Four-C” and like many DSC-equipped vehicles is an active system. Where it differs from conventional DSC is in the speed the system reacts and the number of inputs the chassis microprocessor works with. Sensors measure the longitudinal, lateral and vertical acceleration of the car relative to the road, while another set measures rotation speed and vertical movement of each wheel, steering wheel deflection and velocity, cornering (yaw rate), engine torque (calculated) and braking interventions by ABS and DSTC (Dynamic Stability and Traction Control) systems. The hlins-Monroe shocks are “updated” 500 times a second by the system.
How fast can the system react to sudden driver inputs? The multiplexed electrical system sends braking information to the chassis controller several milliseconds before the four-pot Brembo calipers clamp pads to the 13-inch rotors. The system then calculates how much the braking will cause the front end of the car to dip, and uses this information to set the shock absorbers to maximize control and tire grip. Similarly, the system passes on information about a sharp deflection of the steering wheel or sudden throttle inputs.
The S60 R’s electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system also has an extremely short engagement and disengagement time — less than 100 milliseconds. When parking, the AWD system is controlled to prevent the front and rear axles working against each other in tight turns, making the S60 R easy to maneuver.
It’s technology-loaded, but how does it drive? The torque curve is in fact the widest range of maximum torque SSGM has ever tested, and matched to the six cogs available in the close-ratio manual transmission, made the turbo five seem almost V-8-like in its tractability. Lug this engine and it simply motors away, while the Star Wars chassis systems put a different spin on the driving experience, mainly by making the car very difficult to, well, spin. The non-existent lag in the chassis control system means the S60 R doesn’t behave the way you expect it to initially, with minimal squat, dive or body roll, even with sudden stabs at brake, throttle or steering. Firmness is driver-controllable with comfort, sport or really sporty settings, but even on the softest setting it takes some getting used to. The payback is a great deal of poise and the ability to corner at truly frightening speeds if you’re up to letting the S60 R loose. The SSGM tester was fitted with Pirelli 240 SnoSports in the racy 235/40R size on 18-inch wheels, and it handled well, so expectations for the S60 R with standard P-Zero Rosso radials are high indeed.
The interior is full of the obligatory power assists and is Euro-simple with big, easy to use controls and dual zone climate control as well as twin seat heaters. The wild two-tone leather interior is certainly eye-catching, and seating gives lots of adjustability with decent lateral support without requiring a “cherry picker” to get in or out. Rear seat room is reasonable, but I’ll bet the average S60 R buyer doesn’t carry passengers often.
The major gripe is that the S60 R is only available as a ‘loaded” package, which makes the price pop the $60,000 plateau. The air is pretty thin up there and it would be interesting to see if a version of the S60 R with a lower level of standard equipment (but with the high-output turbo engine) could allow this Volvo to grace more Canadian driveways.