Who's driving the car? Neil Vorano find too many safety features distract from the joy of being behind the wheel.
Road test: 2011 Volvo S60 3.0T Prestige
If you want a sharp-looking car with all the bells and whistles, then Volvo has the perfect ride for you with the new S60.
And I mean that quite literally - bells, whistles, gongs, flashing lights; it's loaded up with so many electronic safety features with audible and visual warnings that you start to wonder who's actually driving the car.
Of course, Volvo is synonymous with safety; it's been using that as its big selling feature for decades, so it should be no surprise that the S60 is chock-a-block with new and industry-leading features. What is surprising, though, is how nice a car it is to drive. There's nothing startling about it, but as a package it does really well.
And it's a very stylish package at that: tall rear haunches, a sloping roofline with sharp creases all around, it's one of the prettiest Volvos every made, I think. The company seems to be getting better and better at creating a form that rivals even the Italians in style. A notable feat, especially considering the brick forms of the Eighties and Nineties - it's a welcome shift.
Inside also carries with it a new flair; it may not be as fancy as other cars, but the interior has a modern, crisp feel. Quality materials abound, with coloured patches on the plush leather seats and doors breaking up the monotony of black plastic. I still feel, though, that the centre dash has far too many buttons, and it took a while to get used to them all and find what I was looking for.
In these buttons and on the info screen you'll find the controls for a long grocery list of aforementioned safety features; some I liked, and some I wasn't too keen on. The active bending lights that follow the turn of the front wheels and the BLIS (Blind spot Info System), with lights on the wing mirrors that blink on if there is a car beside you, are helpful for drivers. The Driver Alert, which beeps when you wander into another lane without signalling, may combat sleepiness but can get a bit annoying - it can be turned off, but its default is on every time the car is started.
The Collision Warning warns you when the car thinks there will be an imminent collision - it starts with a flashing set of lights on the dash, and if nothing is done it will automatically slam on the brakes right before the hit. In theory, this sounds good, but it's rather startling when activated, especially when you're just passing behind a slower-moving car. And I'm a little tossed on the adaptive cruise control, a radar-based system that slows the car down to the speed of the car in front of you when activated. It can be terribly frustrating to be forced to slow down, making it more difficult to pass the car in front of you. Then again, maybe all the cars in this region should have it - it's a definite cure for tailgating.
Here's a tip for Volvo engineers, though: if you're really serious about safety, change the way the stereo selects songs from an iPod. Making a selection means scrolling alphabetically through your list of songs; I have more than 3,000 on my music player, so you can see how this can get a little distracting.
But moving away from the safety technology, the new S60 is a pleasant drive. Its 300hp coming from a turbocharged 3.0L inline six-cylinder engine is adequate though not overpowering, with a smooth, predictable power curve over the entire rev range. It's quiet and refined, a good fit for this sporty-yet-not sports car. The six-speed automatic seems perfectly matched, and hits the right gear when you need it even in more spirited driving.
The handling is biased to understeer: this isn't a pretender to the 3 Series in terms of all-out balance and handling, especially with the all-wheel-drive that runs in front-drive mode under normal conditions, but it shouldn't disappoint most drivers. Besides, Volvo's Corner Traction Control (which uses the brakes separately at each wheel) helps make the car more agile than you'd think. And the steering offers a surprising amount of feedback.
Couple that with a soft ride suitable for the longest of road trips and you have a car that will satisfy the everyday needs of a stylish commuter. I find some of the safety features a bit intrusive - I don't like the feeling of ceding control over to the car I'm actually driving - but they are proven technologies that may help avoid an accident; added bonuses to an already well-rounded saloon.