2011 Volvo S60 – the naughty Volvo?

December 20, 2010, 10:13 PM UTC

2010 was an annus horribilis for Volvo cars, and whether the future will be any brighter remains an open question.

After 15 months of uncertainty, Ford sold Volvo to Zhejiang Geely Holdings, the parent of Chinese automaker Geely, for the bargain price of $1.5 billion.

It was a humiliating comedown for the 83-year-old company whose competitive advantage from its strong safety reputation eroded under Ford’s 11-year ownership by unimaginative product development, inroads by competitors, and the high costs of Swedish manufacturing.

Almost immediately after the sale closed on August 2, 2010, bickering broke out in the automotive trade press about the virtues of Chinese manufacturing and Volvo’s future product strategy.

Should Volvo, now considered a sub-luxury brand like Acura, try to move upscale and compete with Mercedes-Benz and BMW? How would it cope with stricter fuel economy regulations — by building smaller cars, developing hybrids and electrics, or both? And how quickly should it move its manufacturing out of Sweden?

Into this maelstrom, the new S60 made its debut with a deafening silence.

The lack of buzz wasn’t surprising. With uncertainty about its ownership, Volvo sales have shriveled. Through November, dealers had moved only 49,192 vehicles. In an overall market up 11% from a year ago, Volvo sales are down 12%.

Besides, the S60 is a sedan, and passenger cars have all but become an afterthought at Volvo. Formerly known as a station wagon company, Volvo has now become the crossover SUV company. The XC70 is its top seller, ranking just ahead of the ten-year-old XC90

The S60 deserved better. It is Volvo’s answer to the BMW 3-series and the Audi A4 and is priced aggressively to compete against them.

The suggested list price for my turbocharged six with all-wheel drive was $37,700. That’s an attractive number for a car half of whose parts come from the high-wage countries of Sweden and Germany — and that’s not even counting the British engine or Japanese transmission.

Somebody, however, forgot to make heated front seats part of the standard equipment, a major failing for a car some of whose customers live north of the Arctic Circle.

When the seats are added to other uplevel equipment in the premium, technology, climate, and multimedia packages, the S60s as-tested price rose to $46,200.

That’s still a good number for what is without question the most exciting-looking Volvo ever. With its coupe-like profile, dramatically drooping front end, and aggressive bumper cutouts, this is a Volvo that can draw a crowd.

Who knows? It may give all those defiant Volvo owners of their old 240s an excuse to trade in their 20-year-old cars.

Given the attention that has been lavished on its exterior appearance however, the interior design of the S60 is a disappointment. Volvo wins praise for its waterfall center stack, but to me it seems plain and is not particularly functional. The dials and switches look as if they have been lifted from an older model and are hardly appropriate for a car that is advertised as the “naughty” Volvo.

The test car came equipped with Volvo’s new pedestrian detection with auto brake system. Using radar and cameras, the system detects foot traffic in front of the car, warns the driver, and automatically activates full braking power. It can stop the car at speeds up to 22 mph.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any pedestrians with which to evaluate the new system. I can see where the system would be helpful in school zones or parking lots, but I wouldn’t want to activate it in a city like New York, where pedestrians enjoy constantly challenging drivers for right-of-way. The alarm would be sounding non-stop.

This is a Volvo that is fun to drive. It is a lean 3,900 pounds, and zero to 60 miles per hour is estimated at a brisk 5.8 seconds. Unlike earlier Volvos, whose truck-like dynamics made then feel like they were exacting a price in exchange for their political correctness, the S60 invites you to take it for a spin. The in-line turbo-six delivers 300 horsepower quickly and smoothly — if not particularly efficiently. Fuel economy is an average 18 miles per gallon city/26 mpg highway.

What awaits Volvo under Chinese ownership is still a bit of a mystery. Geely had the good sense to hire hard-driving Stefan Jacoby away from Volkswagen to run the company, and he will likely have the resources he needs to redefine brand for the 21st century — as long as the new owners stay out of his way.

Jacoby will have one particularly strong selling point: In a country with 1.6 billion people and some of the world’s worst traffic jams, Volvo’s pedestrian detection system should come in very handy.