The Swedish marque takes on the big guns of Germany. Noel Ebdon tries out the challenger.
2011 Volvo S60
In life, you really have to pick your battles wisely. Famous philosophers have encouraged people to take the path of least resistance, but no one tends to listen and history is littered with far more broken dreams than giant-killing heroes. There are some battles that even the most foolhardy do not want to get involved with. For example, if you want to break into the world of software development, don't try to create a new version of Windows. Microsoft won't like it and chances are they'll squash you with all their corporate might. Similarly, if you fancy winning a game of football, you'll probably have more hope turning out for your local social club than asking Real Madrid for a bit of a kickabout.
This holds true in the motor industry, but it seems Volvo obviously likes a bit of a punch-up and isn't scared of walking into a bar full of England supporters while dressed like Maradona. Volvo's latest creation, the S60, has been openly developed to directly target the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-Class. Poke the big bear with a sharp stick, why don't you? Taking on two of Germany's biggest automotive brands and running your new model up against one of its key models is tantamount to a declaration of war. But with true Swedish aplomb, I'm sure it's all been done with a broad smile and a flick of golden hair.
The new car is sleek and certainly a strong challenger to its two Germanic rivals. Volvo has, over recent years, created a fantastic design philosophy that is slowly working itself across the whole range. Personally, I love the exterior treatments, although I'm not so keen on the interiors. The sweeping "snow field" dash and floating centre console are a little too bland for my taste. The front is a little fussy, but flows well into the signature Volvo grille. At the rear, the designers have really gone to town and the S60 will provide a fair few people with a fantastic view if buyers opt for the powerful T5 engine under the hood.
The car also boasts some amazing new safety developments, something I've now become used to with Volvo each time I test one of their cars. This time, the company has developed a system that recognises pedestrians from other roadside detritus and takes over if a collision is imminent. The system can even tell the difference between a dog and a small child, which is often better than I can manage.
The driver still maintains control of the steering but braking is taken over at the very last moment, releasing if the driver swerves to avoid the person. I'm not a fan of these systems as I tend to keep a good eye on the road. However, I can see the advantage of taking over from most of the drivers I see attempting to drive on the UAE's roads. On the tarmac, the S60 is lively, planted and - in T5 form - great fun on a twisty road. I love a car that comes alive in Sport mode and the Volvo gearbox, unlike many others, doesn't get lost in its shifts when you push it. In the bends, the car doesn't feel like its about to bite you, letting you get on with enjoying whichever road you're on. It's also great fun listening to the turbo popping and whistling while you play.
The chassis is well set up and the suspension does a great job of keeping everything inside the car comfortable and smooth. You'd hardly know you were pushing it at all. And therein lies a small problem: with some sportier saloons, you actually want to feel a little bit of the road bumping underneath you - that's what keeps you in touch with the tarmac and feeds back info to you as you drive. If anything, the Volvo chassis is too insulating.
Unfortunately, Volvo won't be making an M-rivalling fire bre-brand for a company solely aimed at keeping us all alive, no matter what. That's a big mistake, as people buy cars on the promises made by the hero models at the top; serial 3 Series buyers do so because of the M3, not despite it. With no aspirational model to tame the Nürburgring and make people go "ahhh", you're never going to crack the market. There's a pretty compelling reason why Mercedes has AMG and BMW its colourful M sport divisions.
And that's the whole story, really. The Volvo S60 is a great car and thoroughly enjoyable to drive. Volvo owners will love it and people who would possibly have bought a Passat or Audi A4 may well be tempted, but to lure people away from their Bimmers and Mercs requires something a little naughty. The buyers whom Volvo want to tempt want "sexy", and without a bit of tuned craziness it simply isn't going to give them a bit of what they fancy. As long as Volvo resolutely refuses to drop its "no sports cars" and "no racing" attitude, the S60 is probably doomed in its mission despite being bloody good.
The S60 will arrive in the UAE in the fourth quarter of this year. firstname.lastname@example.org