ROAD TEST - VOLVO S60 T4 POWERSHIFT:
I'm sure we've all known of a mid-life-crisis dad who suddenly bought a Harley and grew his hair to prove to his teens that he's cool; or a geek who turfed the text books and glasses, got a tat and started trying to infiltrate the 'cool' crowd.
Or of a Swedish car company that was renowned for making safe, comfortable and luxurious sedans suddenly deciding it wants to be sporty - to take on those dynamic German cars that everyone seems so smitten with.
Volvo is turning its cap backward and the latest S60 is the biggest proof of this so far. Heck, even its ad agency can't stop using the word 'naughty' in its campaigns.
Can it run with the dynamic pack?
The design is a good start. Not radical enough to upset anyone but in my week with the S60 T4, I did hear a few comments along the lines of “that's really neat” - not words I'm used to hearing while testing a Volvo.
The S60's talent also shone through around the bends, where it impressed with its point-and-squirt agility and overall composure. Even the steering had a positive and relatively communicative feel. While not in the same league as a Beemer in either of these respects, it's still impressive for a front-driver.
While we're talking steering, it did sometimes put up a slight (torque steer) fight when pulling off with a heavy foot - particularly when turning.
Granted, the engine does deliver a lot of punch right from the word go. In fact, it feels quicker than its 1.6-litre capacity (it's turbocharged, of course) or 132kW/270Nm outputs might suggest. The dual-clutch automated Powershift gearbox is nicely in tune with this engine - it shifts smoothly and responds on a dime to the engine's needs.
Even the cabin has the kind of ambience to it that you'd never have expected from a Volvo - it has a distinctive and high-tech style about it and the materials look and feel like they cost a bit. It almost feels a little too dark and sombre inside there, and rear legroom is not particularly ample, although this is the naughty Volvo, isn't it?
All considered, the S60 definitely has a sporty and high-quality feel to it, but it doesn't feel quite as dynamic as its German foes in the mechanical department. A good step forward for Volvo though.
But wait a minute.
What of those traditional Volvo qualities? After all, it's not uncommon for a mid-life crisis to turn into a family-neglecting episode or, horror or horrors, a reformed geek to start flunking.
Sadly, there are a few small areas where Volvo has neglected its traditional qualities.
The first is that the suspension's set up for handling and while the resulting ride quality is not exactly rock hard and is generally tolerable on everyday surfaces, it is notably firm.
There is no excuse for the next gripe though - unless they're trying to prevent people from falling asleep. The previous S60's seats were among the most comfortable I've ever sat in - the fact that I remember it almost ten years later surely attests to that. But you won't find these mobile arm chairs in the new S60. That's not to say that its seats are uncomfortable in any way, but they're just average.
Thankfully, the Volvo family's traditional second name, Safety, has not been left off this S60's birth certificate. In EuroNCAP's stringent crash testing, its V60 sibling achieved a 94 percent score for adult occupant safety (82 percent for child safety) and even its active safety features earned it a 100 percent score for accident avoidance features. We could double the length of the test just mentioning all that stuff, including the ghost-in-the-machine 'auto-brake' function that works below 30km/h.
Annoyingly, the pillars in my familiar parking spot actually caused it to kick in while I was parking, but I'd probably be praising it if had prevented a fender bender.
I'm pleased to report that Volvo has not lost its good old safety obsession. This 'transitional' Volvo is otherwise a good all-rounder, but I wish they'd left a bigger price gap to the Germans.
Audi A4 2.0T Multitronic (132kW) - R369 000
BMW 323i Steptronic (140kW) - R374 071
Honda Accord 2.4 Exec (148kW) - R360 400
Mercedes C200 7G-Tronic (135kW) - R393 600
Suzuki Kizashi 2.4 CVT (131kW) - R310 900
Volvo S60 T4 Powershift (132kW) - R348 300