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An all-new diesel engine aims to give the S60 saloon class-leading stats

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Don’t worry, the introduction of an all-new Volvo S60 has not passed you by. Volvo's business saloon is less of the story here than what powers it.

Volvo’s decision to sweep away the eight engine configurations that it currently uses and replace them with a single four-cylinder architecture (sub-divided into diesel and petrol variants) is intriguing – and worthy, we think, of a closer look.

Some cars are instantly impressive. I can’t help thinking the Volvo will get more likeable over time

Strategically, it means that the comparatively small Swedish (but Chinese-owned) firm, which has always claimed to represent an alternative to the big premium German manufacturers and the compact Jaguar XE, must now fight its corner without the prestige – and profit – derived from larger engines.

If Volvo did not have much of a stake there to lose, it has chosen to bet the farm on overcoming its rivals in an extraordinarily competitive class.

Volvo has a proud history of building petrol engines, but its experience with diesels – beyond the heavy-duty industrial kind built by Volvo Powertrain – is more recent.

For two decades before the millennium, it was content to licence Volkswagen Group engines for use in its cars – right up to the five-cylinder 2.5-litre TDI that was offered with early Volvo S80s.

This practice was halted in 2001 by the 2.4-litre five-cylinder diesel developed by Volvo itself – one of the units now made obsolete by its four-cylinder replacement.

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The four-cylinder turbodiesel is now the backbone of European sales, and the individual units that are its vertebrae are now fiendishly fast, refined and cheap to run. Volvo claims, in a stroke, to have advanced beyond any of them

There’s a range of four engines, and manual and automatic versions available on all Volvo S60s. Engine capacities are all 2.0-litres, but at the heart lies the aforementioned company car tax-friendly 118bhp Volvo S60 D2 model, which produces 88g/km when paired to a manual 'box.

Five trim levels feature, ranging from the Business Edition through SE Nav, SE Lux Nav and R-Design Nav to R-Design Lux Nav models. R-Design designates a sportier version, with bigger wheels and appropriately athletic bodywork addenda.

So is Volvo's bold move to focus on a new diesel a masterstroke or megaflop? Read on to find the answer.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Volvo S60 front grille
The upper grille is wider and cleaner-looking than before

Along with several siblings, and following the arrival of new styling boss Thomas Ingenlath at Volvo in 2012, the S60 got a big mid-life facelift.

The styling changes, clearly intended to give the car a bit more visual muscle next to fresher German opposition, consisted mainly of stronger horizontal body creases and larger features.

The S60 is a saloon but it's designed to look more like a coupé

SE-spec cars, as pictured, aren't as bold as the R-Design models, which get an even more widely altered look. It struck most testers as neat and pleasant enough, but not quite as appealing – and certainly not as distinctive – as the outgoing S60.

The 2014-model-year facelift also brought some key interior revisions, including a new multimedia system, new seats and new instruments – all of which we’ll come to. Among the new safety highlights added to the options list, and fitted to our test car, are the ‘permanent high-beam’ camera-based active headlights.

That lot would all be window dressing without the headline addition: Volvo’s Drive-E 1969cc all-aluminium twin-turbocharged common-rail diesel engine. It’s no exaggeration to say that this engine has been the saviour of Volvo’s European fortunes, so much so they have created a range of different output versions.

Along with its petrol counterpart, it has been in development since 2008. It will feature throughout the firm’s model ranges and eventually replace every other oil-burner. It has been designed with hybrid applications in mind but in the S60 the T4 produces 188bhp.

In this sub-£22k S60, it emits 99g/km of CO2 and allows for sub-11.5sec 0-60mph and 74mpg-plus claims.

Almost all of which statistics are not just mighty impressive for a four-cylinder diesel compact executive saloon – they’re unequalled.

From its numerous water pumps to its parallel twin turbochargers, there’s plenty of interesting innovation behind the class-leading statistics that Volvo’s Drive-E diesel produces. But the engine’s single most interesting feature is its high-pressure common-rail i-ART injection system, supplied and developed in collaboration with Denso.

The ‘i-ART’ stands for intelligent accuracy refinement technology. Most similar injection systems are moderated, via the ECU, using pressure sensors located in the injection rails, but i-ART has individual pressure sensors for each cylinder.

It’s therefore capable of much wider and more subtle combustion control than rival systems, injecting fuel at up to 2500bar and through up to nine individual injections per cycle, when necessary – but normally operating with just three or four.

The upshot is that the ECU can keep much more precise and discrete control of every individual injection phase, and every induction and subsequent combustion stroke, that the engine makes. In turn this creates more power, as well as a two per cent improvement in fuel economy all on its own.

INTERIOR

Volvo S60 dashboard
The front seats in the standard SE models are large, comfortable and adjustable

Time has been kind to the S60’s cabin, as was always likely. Volvo continues to resist the influence of many short-lived trends in premium car interior design, preferring instead to focus on systems and features intended to make your motoring experience better, rather than distracting you from the business of driving.

You’ll find no MMI-style rotary controller here, no fingertip touchpad, no head-up display and no widescreen multimedia interface. It has few of the more garish styling touches that have infiltrated the cockpits of various BMWs, Audis and Mercedes-Benz of late.

For all the seats’ long-term comfort, they are short on lateral support

The S60 is instead characterised by simple, effective design flourishes, such as the sweep of satin chrome trim that neatly makes a highlight of the interior door handles. Substantial and tactile but tastefully underplayed materials also feature, as does a pragmatic emphasis on comfort and ease of use.

An Audi devotee might label the button-filled alphanumeric control console a wasted opportunity to declutter, but a Volvo buyer would value the straightforward simplicity of operation that it brings. And so do we.

We’re less convinced by the S60’s second-row headroom, which remains a bit tight, and by some features – such as the displaced central air vent and the storage cubby hidden behind the centre stack – that you’d describe as either quirky or strange, depending on how charitable you were feeling. For the most part, though, this is a very pleasant, smart and practical space. 

The S60’s standard cloth seats are large, broadly adjustable, supportive and very comfortable. The new digital instrument display is clear and features Elegance, Eco and Performance display modes.

The Volvo S60 range is divided into five trim levels: Business Edition, SE Nav, SE Lux Nav, R-Design Nav and R-Design Lux Nav. Each model is reasonably well equipped. The entry-level Business Edition and you will find cruise control, automatic wipers and lights, rear parking sensors, and hill start assist, while inside there is climate control, electronic windows and a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with DAB radio, Bluetooth and sat nav.

Upgrade to the SE Nav model and there is a touch of chrome, leather upholstery and 17in alloy wheels, while the SE Lux Nav trim adds keyless entry, xenon headlights and electrically adjustable driver's seat.

The R-Design Nav and R-Design Lux Nav models add some sporty details including a rear diffuser and lowered sports chassis, while the latter receives a rear spoiler and leather clad sports seats.

Volvo doesn’t discriminate when it comes to safety kit. City Safety, which reduces the severity of low-speed shunts, stability control and myriad of airbags are all fitted across the range.

The Volvo's Bluetooth is easy to pair up to your phone, call quality is good and the menu makes navigating your call lists simple. The seven-inch multimedia display isn’t touch-sensitive, so your inputs have to go through the rotary knob in the top right quadrant of the centre stack. It’s easy once you’re familiar with the logic – probably easier and just as fast as a touchscreen system on the move.

Volvo's Sensus Navigation system comes with full European mapping, which you can update twice a year for free. The seven-inch display isn’t stunning, but it’s as big as it needs to be and maps are detailed enough. Programming would be quicker at a standstill via a touchscreen. Voice control makes menu navigation easier and less distracting on the move.

You get DAB radio and internet radio as standard. DAB reception isn’t great and, in our experience, internet radio reception was equally mixed. The audio system seems powerful and crisp, though.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volvo S60 rear quarter
Volvo offers the S60 with a range of four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines

The Volvo S60 had once a rather bewildering array of engines but now it has been condensed down to four units, which illustrates perfectly why the firm wants to streamline its range. In time, buyers will be offered one petrol or one diesel engine in a variety of power outputs. Simple.

Until then, there are currently one petrol and three diesel models to choose from. The petrols use a ‘T’ prefix, and the diesels use ‘D’. Just don’t be fooled into thinking the numerical suffix relates to the number of cylinders.

Volvos always brake well, and the S60 is no exception

Kicking off the petrol range is the T4, which uses a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine to make 188bhp and 221lb ft and overall it is quiet, refined and smooth.

The diesel range starts with the 2.0-litre D2, which takes a leisurely 11.2sec to reach 62mph or 11.4sec if you choose the auto. Next up is the D3 which is a modest performer, with a headline 0-62mph figure of 9.0sec. It’s quicker than it appears on paper, but can become a little loud at speed.

Next up is the star of the show: Volvo’s in-house developed D4 DRIVe engine which uses some clever technology to drive down emissions and boost performance.

This is where the S60 faces its biggest test. Hitherto, the stand-out powertrain in this class has lived in the nose of BMW’s 320d, and has been recently joined by the reinvigorated Audi A4 and Jaguar XE versions.

The BMW recorded a 0-60mph sprint of 7.7sec, its engine intruded into the cabin to the tune of 48dB at idle and 68dB at 70mph, and it returned 56.8mpg on an extended touring run, and 41.6mpg overall.

The D4 motor in the S60 betters the BMW not just in part, but in every single respect. Here is a car that can reach 60mph in 7.6sec despite average conditions and being hampered by the not insignificant fact that it is front-driven.

Meanwhile, it idles more quietly (47dB) and rolls along a motorway more quietly (64dB), not all of which will be down to the engine, of course, but it’s of significance. This Volvo also backed up its 99g/km and 74.3mpg official figure (which few cars get close to in the real world) by returning near as damnit 60mpg on our motorway-replicating touring route and an overall test average comfortably in the mid-40s. Driven carefully, and mainly on motorways, typically you’d see more than 50mpg.

Added to this, response is fine. There’s a little lag at low revs but it’s no more severe than any rivals’ and it spins cleanly and smoothly through to 5000rpm – although, as is typical for a turbodiesel, the last 1000rpm is barely worth bothering with.

Mated to this excellent engine here is a six-speed manual transmission, whose ratios are tall but whose shift action is acceptably easy. It doesn’t snick through with precision but is plenty good enough to slip into the background without you noticing it, which is all you can ask of gearshifts in a car such as this.

Less impressive was the braking performance of our test car – unusual because we’ve never encountered an issue before with the way Volvos stop.

However, the ambient temperature was a moderate 12deg C and the S60 arrived shod with winter tyres, which, operating above their comfort zone, probably explains why they wanted 71m to stop the S60 from 70mph in the wet and a (slightly more competitive) 53m in the dry.

The result, we suspect, says more about the fitting of winter tyres than it does about the S60 in general.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volvo S60 front quarter
The S60 performs in a tidy fashion when driven hard

If you want dynamism from a car in this class, the chances are that you don’t head to a Volvo dealer for a test drive.

And despite this being a magazine aimed at car enthusiasts, the Volvo’s attitude is fine by us, because although it doesn’t have a dynamic demeanour that you would describe as ‘sporting’, it’s quite a pleasing steer.

It’s a league better than other Volvos

The ride, on 50-profile, modestly wide winter tyres, is compliant, and although there’s a little looseness of body control as a result, never would you class it as an untidy handler.

The steering is precise and accurate and, at 2.8 turns from lock to lock, quite fast enough, and all of those things combined – plus well judged control weights – make the S60 a ridiculously easy car in which to drive long distances without it tiring you out. Throw in low noise levels and excellent seats and you have what is, quite possibly, the best car in the class for covering vast mileages in one hit.

Search through a couple of sub-menus and you’ll find the option to disable the S60’s stability control. Partially, at least. And the fact that you’re required to dig deep, rather than it being a single button on the dashboard, tells you much of what you need to know about the S60’s handling: that Volvo does not expect you to be troubling its envelope often.

Nonetheless, the S60 is a tidy drive. Its steers pleasingly but with a little squish and dives only moderately under braking (and with tyres better suited to the conditions, it might have been better at both). Then it turns with the sort of response that you’d expect from a 1600kg car with 60 per cent of its weight over the front axle.

In the dry, then, the tendency is to understeer, in lower–speed corners at least. Leave the stability control engaged and it’ll cut in quickly but subtly, shortly after understeer has begun. Disengage it and it’ll do the same, only with the thresholds set that little bit higher. In both cases, it cuts in and out cleanly.

Is it ever fun? At times. Its handling is always front-led and shorter of agility than a BMW 3 Series or the equally beguiling Jaguar XE, but we found it as entertaining as a cooking Audi A4, which it also out-rides. It is thoroughly fit for its purpose and there is much to admire about that.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volvo S60
The Volvo S60 is offered with an impressive new D4 diesel engine

Volvos have often sat in a hinterland between mainstream and full premium products (between Ford/Vauxhall and BMW/Mercedes, for example), but residual values suggest the S60 is retaining its value more in line with the likes of BMW, Audi and Mercedes than Ford or Volkswagen.

Official fuel consumption figures suggest all diesel models should be capable of more than 60mpg, with the D4 – the standout performer – claiming 74.3mpg with a manual gearbox. Its CO2 emissions are competitive, too: no manual-equipped diesel records more than 119g/km. Again, the D4 impresses most here with its 99g/km rating, which makes it road tax exempt.

Volvo seems to prefer to offer different trim levels than try to tempt you to spec your car with options

Judged through this narrow prism, the S60 is in a class of one. No other premium saloon emits less than 100g/km without the expensive help of hybrid tech. Equally, no other close rival can quote a combined claim of 74.3mpg. In our hands, the S60 achieved 45.8mpg overall.

Volvo's challenge is all the more serious for its sudden determination to compete aggressively on price. The S60’s four original trim levels were arguably priced too closely to its German rivals to conquer much of the capitulated sales ground.

Now, in a guess-who-it’s-for Business Edition trim and with the new four-cylinder engine, the car is more than £5k cheaper than a 320d SE. That model misses out on some desirable items, but the essentials (DAB tuner, climate control and cruise control) are included.

Inevitably, factoring in bigger wheels, more kit, prettier external features and a better-appointed interior does even out the scales – the SE Nav car tested, weighed down with options, was a fairly inconceivable £35,995 – and, objectively, the S60 isn’t a match for the 320d’s handling finesse or its air of sophistication.

But that’s measured on our broad and highly discerning scale, which won’t necessarily be shared by the market.

Specify an automatic transmission and you’ll see running costs escalate, in which an auto boosts CO2 emissions by a costly 35g/km.

Residual values should be good, however; our experts say there's little between the D4 and a 320d after three years of ownership, for example.

 

VERDICT

4 star Volvo S60
Outstanding powerplant lifts this competent and capable junior exec

Is the Volvo S60 most dynamic Volvo ever? Possibly, but that doesn’t underline what Volvo’s latest S60 is about. Instead of its composure on twisting roads, we were impressed most by its ergonomically sound cabin and a fine ability to crush straight-line distances.

It adequately cossets its occupants and offers reasonable levels of interior and boot space. Seat comfort is a particular forte, as is ergonomic excellence.

Now better to drive while retaining Volvo’s traditional strengths

Being a Volvo, it also carries an impressive array of safety and security equipment that has continued to lead the market in many respects.

You’ll also get excellent comparative economy from most models, especially the D4 model. That D4 is also comfortably the fastest model that you’d actually consider buying (the T6 would be quicker, but its running costs are considerably more.

Every model comes nicely equipped, too, with even the entry-level S60s getting a beefy audio system and full climate control. Interior quality, while not quite at BMW or Audi levels, is certainly a notch above the mainstream. And that highlights the S60s pecking order – it’s a cut above a Ford Mondeo or Volkswagen Passat, but not quite a 3 Series or an Audi A4.

As for how it drives, if you think of ‘dynamic’, don’t read ‘sporting’. Instead, just consider it able. Volvo almost risks becoming a victim of its own hype, because if you come at the S60 expecting 3 Series-beating levels of dynamics, you won’t find them.

What you will find is a saloon car that is more able, composed and competent over bad road surfaces than any Volvo before it.

It’s also unusual for us to road test a car whose stand-out feature is not a new body or structure but solely what sits beneath its bonnet, in this case the new D4 engine.

However, the S60 is an exception that, as it turns out, has proved worthy in every way imaginable: it’s more frugal, quicker and quieter than the previous stand-out powertrain in this class, which is a cracking result for this new engine and bodes remarkably well for Volvo’s upcoming powerplants.

It’s mated to a car that remains as likeable as ever. Small updates since its launch have maintained the S60’s competitiveness, and although it’s far from the most dynamically rewarding car in the class, it’s a remarkably easy one with which to rub along.

Given that’s what most company car drivers want, the S60 – with low noise levels, comfortable seats, agreeable dynamics and, now, a world-class engine – makes a compelling case for itself.

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Volvo S60 2010-2018 First drives