On The Road Review: Volvo S60

{youtube}GzvcJelpmEA&feature{/youtube} March in Maine is sort of a bridge season. One day Mother Nature punishes us with remnants of winter, and then showers us with hints of spring the next day. This ying-yang effect not only teases the psyche, but destroys our fragile road network.

Such is the lot of Downeasters; torturous springtime driving is a rite of passage. Mainers must maintain their dexterity behind the wheel as potholes, sinkholes and frost heaves challenge not just your driving skills, but the very soul of your vehicle.

Who among us hasn’t endured the pain in your neck after slamming your noggin against the headliner after a particularly nasty frost heave?

Who hasn’t felt the tinkling vibrations in their seat from the punishing surface below, the shakes, shimmies and impacts working their way throughout the chassis, into the body, and releasing their energy right into your spine?

And who hasn’t worried about the damage to their vehicle as the steering wheel shudders in our hands after that water-covered pothole apparently did mask a deep pond. You might feel this impact for weeks as your handsome alloy wheel is now probably bent, or at least dented, and will inevitably roll and bounce down the road with the subtle sophistication of a wooden wheel until you summon the courage to stop at the tire store and bear the ridicule of the replacement cost.

The winter of 2013 has given us a healthy dose of demented pavement, and patches, that seem to be much worse than a faded memory can recollect. Sections of road that used to seem “normal” have fallen into such a state of disrepair that it would almost be laughable if you weren’t forced to drive over it every day. For gosh sakes, it makes no sense for automakers to build expensive ‘test tracks’ for chassis composure when they could just bring their vehicles to Maine and ‘test-drive’ them like real car owners do — every day of the week.

{gallery}s60{/gallery} These winter-savaged roads actually reveal a lot about the new cars that come to visit, impressions that you might not learn on that 15- to 20-minute ride around the dealership’s neighborhood as you try to discern if any particular vehicle is worth going into hock for another five, six or seven years.

This is a long lead-in to say that I probably punished this week’s Volvo more than most cars that come to stay for a few days deep in the woods of Maine. We didn’t tie straps to the bumper and try to pull down poplar trees or tow pickups out of a ditch or any kind of punishment like that. But I did lean on the throttle perhaps a bit more than you might have given the road conditions, and the fact that you might have driven a little easier since you would more than likely be making payments and would like to see the Volvo last until those payments were done. I don’t have those concerns, at least not for very long.

Impressively, the Volvo S60 handled this abuse with nary a protest. There wasn’t a whimper, a squeak, a rattle, or any kind of protest as the compact S60 leapt from frost heave to yes-ma’am, dodged nasty sinkholes and crumbling pavement edges with light-effort on the wheel, and otherwise worked like a premium sports sedan would if the road were more suited to earnest travel. The electric all-wheel-drive hardware even engaged occasionally as one wheel or another lost contact with planet earth — little lights in the info panel blink that data at you — while the stability and traction control system worked overtime to harness both the vigorous power from the turbocharged in-line five cylinder engine, as well as the demented operator nestled behind the wheel.

When the pavement seemed to be normal, the S60 displays a ride that is a bit firmer, a bit less compliant than its primary rivals, cars such as the BMW 3-series, Audi A4 or Mercedes’ C-class. Steering feel is not quite as accurate either, but it would be safe to say that the typical Volvo buyer is less concerned with strafing apexes than arriving safely at his or her destination without deploying any of the vast safety resources that Volvo still touts among its arsenal. Given that context, the S60 satisfies.

The S60 T5 — the base model of three — carries a distinctive interior design that is visually alluring, yet rather simple in execution. Conventional stereo functions seem so precise, so simple and so convenient it makes one wonder what the heck we are doing with all of the other complicated systems that distract so readily. Flick the windshield washer into action and your headlamps get cleaned too — doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for from a winter-focused AWD sedan, does it? How come others don’t offer?

On the flip side, the S60 (base price of $31,900 with front drive) lacks a back-up camera — a feature found on almost every budget-priced compact car nowadays. You do, however, get push-button ignition with passive locks and perimeter lighting, LED taillights, power seats with memory, satellite radio and dual automatic climate settings. Check the boxes for the electronically activated AWD, $2,000, sunroof, rear spoiler, 17-inch alloy wheels and the climate package with heated leather seating and the price escalates to $38,170.

The S60 is less expensive than comparable German sport sedans, yet the Volvo is tighter inside. Rear seating is snug for most adults, while any passengers over 6 feet tall will have to bend and contort to gracefully enter any seating position. The trunk is smaller than the competition too, by 25 percent in some cases, leading several observers to comment that the Volvo feels much more “compact” than the BMW, Audi or other small luxury sedans.

The Volvo does earn accolades for its eager powertrain, supportive front seats, composed handling and all-wheel-drive traction, plus its simple, efficient interior layout. Our white test car’s contrasting saddle leather seating was very handsome.

Built in Belgium and owned by the Chinese, Volvo can no longer be considered the national treasure of Sweden. For all of its competence, the S60 is a tick behind an expanding segment. Its current price advantage will help sales — only $23,500 last year in the American market — yet some buyers might question whether or not a Subaru Legacy or some other well-outfitted sedan might offer similar performance for thousands less.

No one wants to see the Volvo lineup become irrelevant, yet sales volumes must increase in order for the brand to remain relevant in a rapidly changing marketplace. The panache of the Volvo brand has taken some dings via various owners of late, yet the brand has basically remained true to its original philosophies.

That may not be enough going forward.

S60 measures 182.2 inches long on a 109.3-inch wheelbase. The BMW 3-series and Audi A4 are larger inside and outside. The Volvo weighs 3,548 pounds.

Three models: T5 with 250-hp 2.5-liter turbocharged in-line five-cylinder engine, T6 with turbocharged 300-hp 3.0-liter in-line six cylinder engine, plus the T6R with a 325-hp version of the turbo-six. All are backed by a six-speed automatic with front-wheel drive standard, AWD is optional. EPA fuel economy for the T5 is estimated at 21/30-mpg for FWD, 20/29 for AWD. Test car averaged 24 mpg during a wintry visit.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.