Fans of the boxy Volvo wagons and sedans from the 1970s will look at the 2011 S60 and assume it is a new Lexus. When they notice the Volvo badge, said fans will shake their heads mournfully, the same way they did when Dylan went electric.
The new S60 represents the ongoing transformation of Volvo into a modern car company. And as such, it has also been through a couple of ownership changes, most recently ending up in the hands of Chinese automaker Geely. But the S60 was developed and built under the auspices of Ford, which largely let Volvo be Volvo.
The direction represented by the S60 should surprise fans of the earlier Volvo cars, as this vehicle is nothing short of a BMW 3-series competitor. Its turbocharged straight six delivers an abundance of power, its suspension gives the car nimble handling, and all-wheel drive increases grip. The main area where it falls short is the fact that it cannot be had with a manual transmission.
The S60 is a very good-looking car, with a strong beltline and curved roof. The designers sculpted out areas in the front to house the headlight casings and unique marker lights. The grille juts forward, almost aggressively.
And in futuristic fashion, a pod on the grille houses a radar antenna, and cameras sit in a larger case at the top of the windshield. These sensors give the S60 21st-century safety technologies, such as the ability to see pedestrians and slam on the brakes.
The S60's Technology package brings in Volvo's City Safety feature, something we tested earlier in an XC60. City Safety looks for vehicles or people, and slams on the brakes if the driver doesn't touch the brake pedal. The main problem with this system is that it only works at speeds below 20 mph. During cruising on city streets, we typically had the car going between 25 and 35 mph, and could think of few instances where we would be creeping along under 20 mph.
For those faster speeds, the S60 still has collision warning. While driving in traffic, the S60 projects a red light on the windshield when it thinks you are following too closely. It comes on at a pretty conservative distance, so its red glow became quite familiar to us. If traffic stops ahead and there is no brake input, the S60 flashes the light and sounds a warning tone, a feature that should prove useful for perpetually distracted drivers.
This being a Volvo, there is yet more on the safety front. The Technology package includes adaptive cruise control, which lets the driver set a speed just like normal cruise control. When the car's radar senses slower traffic ahead, it matches speed, following at a distance set by the driver. The S60's adaptive cruise control will actually bring the car to full halt if traffic stops ahead, but it won't start moving forward again as the traffic picks up, leaving that up to the driver.
A couple of other safety features include headlights that turn into corners with the wheels and drowsiness prevention. This latter feature monitors driving behavior, and if it thinks the driver is falling asleep, will sound an alert. On a similar front is the lane-departure warning, which sounds a warning tone if the car crosses over lane lines without the driver hitting a turn signal.
The backup camera is also nicely done in the S60, with an overlay that shows distance and the trajectory of the car based on steering input. Oddly missing, and not even available as an option, is blind-spot detection, a technology Volvo developed a few years back under the name BLIS, or Blind Spot Information System.
Volvo also used the 2011 S60 to debut an entirely new cabin tech system, featuring a new integrated interface on the car's LCD. This new system looks good, with a high-resolution 7-inch screen in the dashboard and fixed buttons on the central stack for accessing navigation, phone, and audio. But the interface is a little sluggish, responding slower that we would like to inputs.
The car's navigation system also remains DVD-based, strangely old map storage media for a completely new model. However, the navigation system never seemed to have a problem keeping up with the car, and route calculation happened quickly enough. In the driver's choice of 2D or 3D, these maps offer bright colors and clear resolution, but annoyingly only show a few street names. Volvo may have limited street name display as a safety measure, to keep drivers looking at the road, not the map.
The maps do show traffic flow and incidents, and route guidance warns about traffic jams, letting the driver request a detour. The rotary input for making alphanumeric inputs is a little tedious, although the car does a good job with predictive text. But the control knob for the whole system is a little problematic.
This knob sits on the right side of the stack, opposite the stereo volume knob. The dial action of the knob, and its two inset buttons labeled OK and Exit, control all infotainment inputs. The limited nature of this interface makes it less than intuitive, although quite a bit can be done with voice command, at least for the phone and navigation systems.
One issue that cropped up is that, with the interface controller and the passenger side climate control knob the same size, it is easy to blindly reach over and turn up the heat instead of tuning in a radio station.