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Volvo needs this car to be good. More than good, in fact, because it doesn’t matter how many SUVs you can flog, if you choose to operate at the premium end of the mass market without a fighting-fit mid-size saloon, you’re headlining without a front man. 

Autocar readers – people who care about driving – are also unlikely to lend your brand much affection if you can’t successfully engineer such a timeless formula as a sports saloon, but that’s something we’ll come onto in a moment.

So, the new S60. Despite the fact Volvo sold only 1276 examples of the outgoing model last year (more McLaren 720Ss left the showroom in 2017), it’s the most keenly anticipated car of its kind in recent memory. You might disagree with that, but there are several very good reasons why most won’t. Not least of which is that this – the first American-built Volvo – looks for all the world to finally provide us with a decent excuse to send money somewhere other than Stuttgart, Munich or Ingolstadt. Or, indeed, the Midlands.

In this class it’s fresh and exciting – and, let’s face it, instantly desirable to behold – but the third-generation S60 nevertheless feels familiar. Volvo builds this car on the same Scalable Product Architecture that already underpins the S90, that model’s V90 estate sibling, the XC60 and XC90 SUVs and also the V60 to which this new saloon is so closely related (and which we like very much).

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As such it’s no surprise to find suspension consisting of double wishbones at the front and an integral link setup with a transverse, composite leaf spring at the rear. There are coil springs and adaptive dampers at each corner, and that’s your lot, because air suspension has yet to be democratised at this level. 

Something else is missing, though, and that’s diesel power. In line with plans to electrify every new car it launches from 2019, the brand’s Scandi-pure aura is increasingly built on its ecological conscientiousness. It means the S60 is the first modern Volvo offered exclusively with petrol engines. None displaces more than two litres via anything other than four cylinders, either, and if that sounds a bit dry, perhaps that’s because it is.

How does the S60 range look without any diesel engines?

For the T4 and T5 models most likely to reach the UK, power will come from turbocharging alone, with no less than about 190bhp on offer. Most likely we’ll also get ‘Twin Engine’ T6 and T8 models, which will have that first level of forced induction respectively supplemented by an Eaton-built supercharger and that same supercharger plus an electric motor. Is it any wonder Volvo's modular engine-building strategy is such an economic success when it can combine those three elements as it sees fit?

The range-topping T8 sounds particularly tasty. It makes 385bhp and hits 62mph in under five seconds, though there is a way to go even faster in T8 S60 if you’ve prepared to spend a bit more, and we’ll come onto that shortly. Either way, it’s a car nipping at the heels of BMW’s M3 and rest of the super-saloon cohort when it comes to on-paper performance.

Funny how a ‘Russian doll’ styling approach is used to beat Audi over the head and yet Volvo, which has adopted precisely the same strategy, escapes criticism. 

Could it be because the Swedish cars are more imaginative? In the metal the S60 is broad-shouldered and, frankly, pretty thuggish, and yet there’s a subtle but definite cab-rear silhouette that along soft edges aplenty lend it no small degree of elegance. It is, in short, a damn fine looking saloon – probably the prettiest money can buy, and prettier still if you go for the T8 Polestar Engineered. 

It is the Polestar Engineered we’ve driven here. The flagship is distinguished from the standard T8 by gold brake calipers, a 12mm ride-height squat and a set of dazzling 20in Y-spoke alloys shod in 245-section Pirelli P Zero tyres. Power is also up to 405bhp, with roughly 90bhp of that delivered by the rear-mounted electric motor, and spring rates are up five per cent compared to Volvo’s existing R-Design sports chassis.

What is the S60 like to drive on the road?

Volvo touts this model as the best driver’s car it currently makes. Admittedly, that’s like calling a victoria sponge the healthiest cake at the bakery, but the Polestar genuinely impresses so long as you don’t pigeon-hole it as an M3 rival from the get-go, tempting as that may be.

With two distinct methods of propulsion and a 200kg battery pack running down the spine of the car, it weighs the thick end of two tonnes, and so never leaps forward with quite the urgency you’d like. Or the aural pleasure, for that matter. The eight-speed automatic can also feel lazy by comparison to the BMW’s dual-clutch ’box and, fairly obviously, a car that delivers most of its power to the front axle is never going to feel inherently rear-driven.

And yet there are things this Polestar-tickled S60 does superbly well. The manner in which the beefy body remains cushioned and controlled almost over any kind of undulation, resisting significant float but absorbing road ripples and the like, is conspicuously good. Breathtakingly so, in fact – and as well it might be with Öhlins DFV dampers at each corner. Oddly they’re manually adjustable through 22 clicks, which is more Oulton Park than outside lane of the M4, but along with the rigidly inherent to this SPA platform in its most condensed state, they lend the S60 a composure unmatched in any car this refined.

And then there are the brakes. Rarely will you push the Polestar Engineered hard enough to call upon the full force of the standard-fit six-piston Brembo calipers with 371mm discs, but do so and they’re effective to the extent you’ll instantly forgive their grabiness when you’re crawling along.

But to drive the T8 everywhere in Power mode – with the EPAS steering weighed up, the throttle response is sharpened, the gearshifts quickened and the electric motor permanently engaged – would be to tell only half the story. 

The other half begins with a car that steps off the mark in crisp silence thank to 28 miles of pure electric range and then cruises with the permanency and luxurious detachment of something in the class above. It’s that Öhlins witchcraft at work again, though this time supplemented by minimal wind or tyre roar and the high-sided comfort, elegance and security of Volvo’s interior design. Certainly, on those frequent occasions when there are 200 soggy motorway miles between test location and home, the S60 is a car to get road testers squabbling over the keys. 

Is the V60 Polestar Engineered a true performance car?

So exactly how good is the S60? The T8 Polestar Engineered won’t arrive in the UK until mid-2019 and when it does it’ll cost between £50,000 and £55,000. Depending on how you look at it, that’s rather a lot for an overweight, under-engined performance saloon or absolutely fair cop for a broad-batted plug-in hybrid that’s enviably refined, satisfying to drive and distinctive in a way an Audi A4 never will be.

Were the powertrain as inspiring to exercise as the bodywork is to behold and the handling more expressive, this car would be knocking on the door of five stars. As it is, the T8 Polestar Engineered sits comfortably among the ranks of its German peers and deserves to be regarded as more than a curio. In fact Audi, BMW and Mercedes could all learn a thing or two from Volvo about fusing comfort with control. Design, too. Not a bad mix of talents, is it?

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