Safety has been the hallmark of the Volvo brand for many years, not a bad quality for an automaker. But here and there little bouts of sporting madness have arisen in the Volvo lineup. Consider the Bertone-designed 262C, or the turbocharged 850 T5-R. It's as if Pelle Petterson, the designer of the P1800, sneaks into the plant occasionally to add his own model plans.
But he probably didn't have much to do with the 2012 Volvo S60 R-Design. Although the R-Design label is inherited from the 850 T5-R, it doesn't turn the S60 into anything particularly special. Oh, sure, there are a few performance mods, but the S60 R-Design won't go down in history as a sleeper Volvo, surprising everyone at track days as it blows the doors off M3s and C63 AMGs.
When we reviewed the 2011 Volvo S60, we found a well-mannered premium sedan that felt like a good competitor to the BMW 3 Series. It offered decent power, good driving characteristics, and a comfortably refined cabin, making it an enjoyable car in which to commute or make weekend runs into the mountains.
For the S60 R-Design, Volvo eked 25 more horsepower and 29 more pound-feet of torque out of the turbocharged 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine over the standard S60. That makes a total of 325 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque, the extra boost coming thanks to a reprogrammed engine control module.
And you certainly feel that power when you put the accelerator on the floor. The S60 R-Design takes off easily, then continues to build speed as the turbo winds up. At 60 mph, it feels like it will keep up the acceleration well past the point of Volvo's vaunted safety.
Volvo does not appear to have sacrificed any fuel economy for this extra power, as both the R-Design and the standard S60 with the turbocharged six-cylinder get 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway in EPA testing. Our average, with some long freeway trips, came out to 19.5 mpg.
Aero elements of the S60 R-Design, such as a front spoiler and rear diffuser, help keep the car planted at speed. That stability can be felt as it drives forward. Likewise, a lowered, more rigid suspension helps keep the tires in contact with the pavement.
But in the turns this car's shortcomings become apparent. The suspension may be screwed down tighter than on the standard S60, but it doesn't keep the car particularly flat. Volvo did not upgrade the brakes on the S60 R-Design, so stopping power is not improved. As the forces of inertia attempt to keep the car moving in a straight line, it doesn't feel any more capable than a typical premium sedan.
But what really puts the kibosh on sport performance is the six-speed automatic transmission. Its sport mode only raises the engine speed slightly compared with the drive mode, and it will not aggressively downshift when you brake before a turn. Accelerating out of a turn, it lags in finding a lower gear, leading to a disappointing, low-power exit.
Even in manual mode, gear changes occur with the usual hesitation of a torque-converter-based automatic transmission. Fitting this car with a manual transmission might have saved it, but its automatic transmission consigns it to poseurville.
However, Volvo's torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system gives the S60 R-Design a slight edge. In slamming the car through turn after turn, we weren't impressed by the suspension, but we never lost traction. Over a gravel road, the all-wheel-drive system proved its mettle, digging in with front or rear wheels to keep the power useful.