Payne: Volvos defined safety, the S60 adds sexy
Flashing down the canyon roads north of Los Angeles in a red, all-new 2019 Volvo S60 sedan, I nearly ran over a red 1980s-vintage Volvo 240. Instantly recognizable from the rear with its skeleton rear headrests, the ol’ Swede lumbered along. Built like a tank with the aerodynamics of a cardboard box.
Ugly duckling, meet swan.
The new, South Carolina-manufactured S60 is a fashion plate: Thor’s hammer headlights. Body of Chris Hemsworth. Powerful turbocharged engines. Alternately fun to drive on mountain roads and quiet as a sofa-bed on the freeway, the athletic Volvo is no longer a role player, but a well-rounded all-star in the mold of Audi or BMW.
Volvo has come a long way from its roots as the safety-obsessed Swede. Introduced to Americans in the 1950s, the brand was a pioneer in passenger protection. It was first with the standard three-point safety belt, rear-facing child seats, childproof locks and collapsible steering column. Volvo was Ralph Nader in the back seat on your family trip.
Ralph has been replaced by Mario Andretti. Volvo has an engine lineup that encourages bad behavior: Take your choice of a 250-horsepower, turbo-4; 315-horse supercharged turbo-4; or 415-horse, supercharged turbo-4 hybrid powertrains.
Farther along the L.A. canyons, I crowd a Porsche Boxster through the twisties. Thor’s hammers looming in his mirrors, drive mode dialed to Dynamic for maximum torque, chassis taut through the switchbacks. What’s next? A Volvo race team?
The S60 is fine not boring you with a safety lecture, though sometimes I wish it would.
In this era of galloping digital advances, Volvo is not the cutting edge of safety anymore. Acura class competitor TLX offers the same standard suite of adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep assist and collision-mitigation braking as the Volvo. Heck, even the smaller, 2019 ILX offers it — for $10,000 less.
I recently tested a loaded Mazda 6 for the same price as the base Volvo with the same horsepower, same safety systems — plus. Plus blind-spot assist, plus head-up display, plus driver-display mounted 360-degree monitoring system.
The old Volvo would have made these features standard and reminded you on billboards. But the new, more well-rounded Volvo has other talents it wants to share.
Like a standard panoramic moonroof. Ooooooh. Get the wagon version of the S60 — called the V60 — and it’s the biggest moonroof I’ve ever seen, stretching beyond the rear seats into next week.
While we’re on the subject of wagons, let me note that the gorgeous V60 is prettier, faster and cheaper than the Volvo XC60 SUV with more hatchback space and better roof access. Just in case you want to climb down from the taller XC60 and take a look.
Back to the S60. Volvo no doubt wants its pano-roofs to shed light on other standard features in the cabin like digital instrument display, elegant, 10-way seats and two-zone climate control. And, of course, a signature 9-inch, Tesla-like touchscreen.
The touchscreen is another vote for sexy over nanny Volvo.
Uncluttered by buttons, the screen is integrated into Volvo’s spare, Scandinavian cabin design: rich landscapes of wood, matte black, and aluminum accents.
It's beautiful. And like Sweden’s Alicia Vikander, it's distracting. The screen is low in the console, not high like tablets in the Audi or Acura RDX. While its logic is quick to master, it requires diverting your eyes from the road. Screens are accessed by swipes of the hand. Features controlled by buttons on other cars — lane-keep assist, head-up display, temperature controls — are located in the screen.
Volvo is aware of the distraction and has constructed helpful commands you can bark at the voice command. “Set the temperature to 70 degrees!” for example. I suggest setting your preferences at the house, then using voice commands to tweak settings on the road.
More in Volvo’s safety character is its Pro Pilot Assist, an adaptive cruise sidekick (for $2,500) that works as a semi-autonomous system in rush-hour traffic. Descending from LA’s canyon roads into its interstate-traffic hell, I toggled the Pilot Assist button. Below 30 mph in stop-and-go traffic, the system left me alone (like Cadillac’s SuperCruise, and unlike other nanny systems) so that I could check email and texts on my phone — or, um, fiddle with the touchscreen settings and navigation.
Speaking of navigation, the Volvo nicely integrates smartphone apps Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into its big screen so you don’t have to pay the $2,500 navigation upcharge for Volvo’s glitchy nav system.
It’s one of a few, rare glitches in this all-around athlete’s debut. Despite its German-stomping horsepower, the S60’s drivetrain still lacks the Teuton’s refinement. Downshifts can be lazy or abrupt.
Opt for the S60’s all-wheel drive T8 plugin-hybrid model, and the rear electric motor smooths out the drivetrain kinks like a comb through a blond Swedish mane. With healthy total system power of 400 ponies, the hybrid is a joy to drive fast.
Upgrade to the wicked-looking black Polestar T8 and you get 15 more horses, gold brake calipers and gold seat belts that look like they came right out of Q’s lab. Mr. Bond, your Polestar is ready.
Like safety, Volvo is synonymous with green, but the plugin-hybrid model contradicts that simple stereotype just like the safety boilerplate. Goosed with turbo and supercharging steroids, my hybrid, four-cylinder S60 averaged less than 20 mpg over a day of fairly civilized Metro L.A. driving.
As tempting as the pricey plugin may be, Detroit buyers will be perfectly content with a T5, AWD R-Design S60. Allow me to translate the Swedish alphanumerics:
AWD means all-wheel drive for Detroit snow
T5 means the 250-horse engine option
R-Design means the sporty trim package with 19-inch wheels
And S60 means the best Volvo sedan you have ever seen for about $46,000.
Divorced from Ford and now owned by China’s Geely, Volvo produces the sedan out of its first U.S. plant for export to countries around the globe. No longer a Naderite, Swedish curiosity, Volvo has matured to a global automaker with the S60, V60, XC60, S90, V90 and XC90 all built on the same, so-called SPA global platform.
As the brand’s entry-level product, the S60 retains its Swedish personality while speaking the universal language of style and power. Just like the BMW 3-series. Just like the Audi A4.
Just ask the ol’ Volvo 240 receding in my mirror.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2019 Volvo S60 sedan and V60 wagon
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan/wagon
Price: $36,795 base including $995 destination fee ($41,995 R-Design as tested)
Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged-4 cylinder; 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged-4 cylinder; 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged-4 cylinder, plug-in hybrid
Power: 250 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque (turbo-4); 316 horsepower, 295 pound-feet torque (turbo, supercharged 4); 400 horsepower (415 in Polestar edition), 494 pound-feet torque (turbo, supercharged 4 plug-in with electric-motor assist)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds for turbo-4 (mfr); top speed, 145 mph
Weight: 3,657-3,907 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA fuel economy: 21 city/32 highway/25 combined (Turbo-4 AWD R-Design as tested)
Highs: Swedish beauty; standard panoramic moon-roof
Lows: Touchscreen can distract from safety; power sucks gas
Overall: 4 stars