An automaker becomes defined by its cars, and the longer those cars stay on the road, the harder it is for newer models to change that perception. When people think of Volvo, the boxy 240 wagon comes to mind, as many still trundle down the roads showing off body panels rusted by over 30 years of weather.
But, as the 2011 XC60 makes clear, somewhere along the way Volvo went from a maker of boxy, reliable vehicles to a purveyor of automotive elegance. Where the 240 enjoys popularity among the hipster set for its awkwardness, the XC60 is more the car for family ski weekends.
This five-passenger SUV goes up against the likes of the Lexus RX 350 and the BMW X3, requiring luxury trim materials, all-wheel drive, and technology. And as the premium SUV market is somewhat crowded, it helps to have a gimmick, something that makes a car stand out from the herd.
For the 2011 XC60, that gimmick is safety, a Volvo virtue from day 1. Not only does the XC60 achieve top ratings from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for collision protection, its driver assistance features show an almost obsessive focus on preventing collisions.
Standard on the XC60 is Volvo's City Safety system, which automatically hits the brakes to prevent low-speed collisions. During a test of the system, the car slowly rolled forward at under 20 mph, the top speed for the system. As the system's camera sensed an object up ahead and there was no driver intervention, the car sounded a warning tone, flashed red lights on the windshield, and then slammed on the brakes, bring the car to a complete halt. The system definitely works, but the speed limitation suggests it will mostly prevent bumper taps in stop-and-go traffic.
The XC60 sent to CNET came with an optional Technology package, adding a radar-based collision mitigation system with adaptive cruise control. This system shines a red warning light on the windshield when it thinks you are following the car ahead too closely, and goes into hyper-flashy warning mode if it senses an impending collision.
But Volvo programmed the system so that the red warning light remains on even when other traffic seems far, far ahead. Whether you leave ample room ahead, or call the car Roxanne and sing that it doesn't need to turn on the red light, nothing seems to keep that light from shining on the windshield. If it truly becomes annoying, you can push a button on the console to turn it off, but that also disables the collision mitigation system.
Other electronic safety systems include lane departure warning, which sounds a tone if you cross a lane line without signaling, and a blind-spot detection system. As part of its Multimedia package the XC60 can also be had with a rearview camera, which shows trajectory lines. Distortion in that camera view makes it hard to judge how close objects are to the sides of the car. And, strangely, the camera does not come on automatically when you put the car into reverse. Rather, you have to push the Cam button on the console.
The XC60's cabin trim gives it a premium feeling, helping to justify the price tag of CNET's test car, a model fitted with an upgraded turbocharged engine and Volvo's R-Design package, topping $50,000. In the middle of the dashboard sits the navigation screen, a newer unit for Volvo using maps stored on Flash memory.
The maps show good resolution, and offer both 2D and perspective views. Usefully, the speed limit for the current road displays in a top corner of the screen, and there's even an option to set a warning if you go over a specific speed in the car.
The car receives traffic data over FM radio, but it does not overlay flow or incident information on the maps. Rather, under route guidance it will offer to recalculate the route if it detects a traffic jam ahead.
Although it's not a touch screen, Volvo makes clever use of the buttons and knobs on the console for entering destinations. For example, when choosing a location on the map, you use keypad buttons to move the maps along eight axes.