Volvo S60 2019 first drive review
The old Volvo days of garish colours and funny nicknames are over.
Not only is the new S60 sedan the latest addition to the Swedish brand’s line-up, it also marks a clear turning point in the company since its take-over by Chinese brand Geely. Gone is the bold but unsophisticated S60 Polestar produced by the company’s former racing team of the same name.
Instead before the designer and I sits the new Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered, which will be the flagship of the new S60 range when it hits Australian roads in late 2019. Cementing its status as a more mature offering, it’s painted in a deep and rich burgundy.
That alone is a new sense of confidence from Volvo, as if the brand no longer has to jump up-and-down and wave its arms to be noticed among the cool kids - the established German triumvirate of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi.
While based on the same ‘SPA’ underpinnings as the V60, XC60, S90 and XC90, the S60 won’t be built in Sweden like those models. Instead it’s being produced in a new factory in Charleston, South Carolina - making it the first Volvo car built in the USA.
One of the key reasons for that is the sustained popularity of sedans in the US market, where SUVs are rising but the traditional four-door is still preferred by many luxury buyers.
As the S60 isn’t due down under until the fourth quarter of 2019, Volvo Australia isn’t even talking about pricing yet.
The initial line-up is likely to consist of the entry-level T5 Momentum somewhere in the $50k bracket and T6 R-Design at around $70k before the arrival of the T8 Polestar Engineered as the flagship model, which is expected to feature a six-figure price tag as a rival to the likes of the Mercedes-AMG C43 and Audi S4.
Obviously final specifications aren’t locked in yet either but the cars we drove in the US were well equipped with all the typical Volvo amenities. One new possibility for the brand that the S60 may introduce is Volvo’s On Call service, where users car press a button mounted on the roof just above the rear-view mirror that links back to a Volvo call centre in the event of an emergency.
What's the hybrid drivetrain all about?
The focus on America means there won’t be any diesel engines offered in the S60. Instead there will be a variety of iterations of the company’s latest generation 2.0-litre petrol engine.
At the US launch in Los Angeles last week, Volvo had two examples for us to test - the T6 R-Design and the T8 Polestar Engineered.
The T6 has the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine with both a supercharger and turbocharger, giving it enough oomph to produce 235kW of power and 400Nm of torque. It’s paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission and drives all four-wheels via a mechanical all-wheel drive system.
The T8 Polestar Engineered version starts with the same combustion engine, producing slightly more power and torque (245kW and 430Nm of torque). But that’s only the beginning though, because the T8 engine is paired to a 10kWh battery (mounted in the transmission tunnel of the car) and an electric motor on the back axle.
Volvo says the electric motor is good for 65kW and 240Nm, which, gives the petrol engine an extra kick of performance and total combined outputs of 298kW and 670Nm.
The S60 Polestar does away with the mechanical all-wheel drive system in order to accommodate the battery, allowing the petrol engine to drive the front wheels while the electric motor drives the rear wheels, so it retains all-wheel traction.
There are a variety of drive modes but because it’s a plug-in hybrid all utilise the electric motor in different ways, meaning the Polestar can be rear-wheel drive but not front-wheel drive only. Set the Drive Mode to Pure and the S60 can run for up to 46km on pure electric power. The Hybrid setting uses the petrol engine when needed in combination with the electric motor, while dialling up Power mode forces the petrol powerplant into life all the time, for maximum performance.
It’s a clever powertrain that gives owners a lot of flexibility - from petrol-free urban commuting to high-speed open road blasts.
And it works, because it certainly feels like a quick car, with respectable performance off the mark as the petrol engine and electric motor work together. However, it doesn’t have the same sort of punch you get from its most likely rivals, the Mercedes-AMG C43, Audi S4 and BMW M340i.
Those cars feel sprightly while the S60 in Polestar is slightly dulled by the weight of the battery pack, which tips the car over two tonnes in this flagship variant.
The flipside to that is what it lacks in outright performance compared to its competition it makes up for with its flexibility to switch between an EV and hybrid.
Final specifications haven’t been locked in for Australian S60 models but the US specifications we received indicate the T8 is rated at 9.4-litres per 100km when only using the petrol engine. But obviously, the more you rely on the electric motor the less fuel you can get away with using.
What's the interior like?
Not surprisingly the interior of the S60 is an almost exact copy of what we’ve already seen in the V60 and XC60, which in turn shares plenty of similarities with the bigger S90/XC90. But that’s no bad thing because it’s a very classy and sophisticated looking cabin. The iPad-style infotainment screen is the centrepiece and controls all the key functions, with only a few key physical buttons for the stereo underneath.
The unique elements for the Polestar are gold seatbelts (although more yellow in reality) that is part of the gold and white theme of the performance brand.
The seats are familiar but worthy of praise as they offer excellent support while still being comfortable. After more than six hours of driving we emerged from the S60 feeling fresh.
The rear seats also serve up good space and comfort for a medium-sized sedan. The roofline does taper slightly for a sporty look which compromises rear headroom, but overall the back is a comfortable place to be.
Thanks to Volvo’s ability to package the battery pack in the transmission tunnel, just behind the engine and running between the front seats, it means the boot space isn’t restricted, so there’s still 442-litres of cargo carrying capacity.
What's it like to drive?
While we sampled the T6 R-Design the majority of time spent behind the wheel was done in the Polestar so we’ll focus on its on-road performance.
The difference between this new Polestar and the original bright blue version are dramatic and underline the changes at the Swedish brand in its new era. Whereas the old model was tuned for maximum performance and didn’t shy away from a racetrack, the new S60 Polestar Engineered example is a more luxurious machine.
It’s at its best in fast, sweeping corners on a flowing country road, where its big footprint gives it stability and its engine can stretch its legs. Find some twisty roads and the size and weight of the Polestar becomes an issue and it struggles to change direction with composure and the standard Pirelli P-Zero tyres squeal when you try and hustle it along quickly through tighter bends.
The situation isn’t helped by steering that lacks feeling, particularly just off-centre and has an unnatural and inconsistent weighting to it.
But the biggest problem that driving enthusiasts will likely suffer from is the strange brake pedal feeling. Part of the Polestar Engineered upgrades are six-piston Brembo brake callipers (finished in Polestar’s new hero colour - gold) that clamp a 371mm disc.
While they provide excellent bite the problem Volvo has faced is combining the mechanical action of the Brembos with the hybrid powertrain’s energy harvesting. It results in a unusual sensation as the initial sensation when you hit the brake pedal is a gentle deceleration while the regeneration is in play before a sharp bite from the Brembos.
It's not the only gripe either. As much as Volvo has moved on from the old Polestar days there is one hangover - manually adjustable suspension. Instead of more advanced adaptive dampers, Volvo has opted for Ohlins shock absorbers with manual rebound adjustment via a knob at the top of each damper. That means owners will have to open the bonnet to alter the ride and comfort balance of the Polestar, with 22 clicks between fully open and completely closed to play with. While it's a cool touch for those familiar with track-focused coil-over suspension it doesn’t gel with the upmarket image Volvo is pushing with this new model.
The settings on our test car were on the firm side, hitting sharp bumps with a thump, but they do offer better control and compliance than the passive suspension set-up on the T6 R-Design.
What's the first impression?
It’s hard to make a definitive verdict on the new S60 without knowing the price. What we did learn from our initial drive is it really does live up to the proposition that Volvo is projecting in being a more polished and sophisticated offering than its predecessor.
The Polestar Engineered take isn’t a perfect example of the plug-in sports sedan of tomorrow but it’s a highly advanced and very luxurious mid-sizer that will give buyers the chance to experience both electric motoring and high-speed thrills.
The new Volvo, hey? I’ll still miss Swedish Racing Green though.
2019 Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered price and specifications
On sale: Late 2019
Price: $100,000 (estimated)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo and supercharged with electric motor
Power: 298kW (combined)
Torque: 670Nm (combined)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Fuel use: 9.4L/100km, 48km EV range