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Volvo S60 Road Test

April 2001

By the end of a week I was beginning to appreciate the S60 as an elegant and refined machine which kept its composure even when being hustled along complicated roads with some enthusiasm. But it took a long time to get to this stage, and now it's gone I'm still left with a few doubts.

I have to say that these doubts were not shared by The Lads, who started drooling as soon as they saw the car. Although the basic shape of the S60 is pretty smart, I've never been too sure about the back end. I can't work out whether Volvo decided to make it look like a Vauxhall Vectra and then added that strange hump in the middle, or if the hump appeared at an early stage and the decision to bring in the Vectra similarity came along at a later stage. And I'm in no way convinced that the black paint scheme of the test car did it any favours at all.

By the time I had finished explaining this, The Lads were on their second lap, cooing about how wonderful the S60 looked, and marvelling that somebody who seemed completely unable to hold down a proper job got the chance to drive such wonderful machinery (forgetting, as they usually do on these occasions, that they have also seen me at the wheel of dreadful bug-eyed city cars which made them laugh till they choked).

When they first saw the Volvo, I had already been in possession of it for several days, by which time I was on to another level of criticism altogether. This one concerned the driving experience, which in a car of this type ought, you might think, to be one of the highest priorities.

Why Are We Weighting?

A motoring writer who is also an expert on aeronautics once told me that chaps who design planes are always very careful to make sure that all the major controls are similarly weighted - in other words, the amount of effort needed to open the throttle (or whatever the equivalent term is) should be about the same as you would need to steer the thing.

He told me this when we were discussing the Alfa Romeo 156, which passes that particular test with an A-double-plus. I hadn't thought it out before in so much detail, but what he said made me realise partly why I enjoyed driving that car so much.

It also made me realise, within twenty yards of my first journey in the Volvo, why it is so unsatisfying. The weighting of the major controls is a shambles. Boy Wonder, when we went out in search of good times and riotous living one evening, noticed part of the problem almost immediately. He had seen the racy-looking gearlever with the shapely metal surround which follows it as you move through the ratios, and at my first gearchange he said, "It looks likes the shift should be much more precise than it actually is."

Dead right. The gearchange quality is probably the lowest I have come across this year. In contrast, the steering is extremely light, which means it is quite possible to jerk into corners until you have got the feel for it. But the steering is nowhere near as sensitive as the brake pedal (I tried to demonstrate this, accidentally overdid it, and nearly sent Boy Wonder's nose through the windscreen). Your right foot has to be as sensitive as a brain surgeon's scalpel if you want to slow down smoothly, yet at the same time it has to deal with a throttle pedal which is heavily damped and has a long travel; you can push it for several inches without making a significant difference to the rate of progress.

The Power Is There

It's possibly that throttle action which fooled me at first into thinking that the two-litre turbo engine doesn't have much go to it. A colleague warned me in advance that it did not seem to perform well until you were revving it hard, which is hardly normal turbo behaviour. I thought the same for a few days, but I've now come to the conclusion that this is actually a pretty meaty engine in the mid-range; it's just that you virtually have to stamp down on the pedal before anything serious begins to happen. (Lord help you if you do the same on the brake when the time comes to slow down again.)

You may spot a flaw here. A journalist will usually drive a test car for a matter of days before moving on to the next one. An owner will probably use it for a number of years, and will become familiar with its oddities. Sure enough, prolonged use of the S60 revealed a number of delights. Once I'd got the hang of using bizarrely varied amounts of physical force on the gearlever, steering wheel and pedals, I took the car on a favoured 100-mile route which includes as many changes of direction and gradient within that distance as you could hope to find in the entire country.

And it was very good indeed. It flowed smoothly through every bend, it whooshed easily along the straights, it was smooth. I covered the ground as swiftly as I felt I wanted to without coming close to finding out which end would lose grip first when the time came. The high-quality seats meant I was relaxed and comfortable at the end of the trip, by which time I had gained new respect for whoever was responsible for setting up the suspension.

But there were more mundane trips still to come, and when I finally handed the car on I didn't feel particularly sorry. It was a reasonable experience but not a memorable one, and my lasting memory of the car is still one of trying to deal at the same time with over-light steering and an over-heavy gearchange. A pity, because the S60 is an excellent driving experience waiting to happen.

Price: £22,195
Capacity: 1984cc
Power: 180bhp
Maximum speed: 140mph
0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
Economy: 39.8mpg extra urban, 30.7mpg combined
CO2 emissions: 220g/km
Insurance: Group 14
Volvo figures.

Second Opinion:
Once again, I did more in the way of long-distance cruising in this car, and less on sporting routes. Wafting along A-class roads and motorways, it was smooth, quick and relaxed. I'd say one of the snags is that there's more throttle pedal movement than you think for the first few miles of driving. In fact, the last couple of inches of throttle travel seem to be at a rather awkward ankle angle. There's plenty of power there, though, and the 2.0 T has loads of mid-range torque. Well presented interior in the current Volvo style, although the trim colours sometimes seem a bit weak. Unexpectedly good rear headroom, although legroom isn't so generous. I miss the tight turning circle of the long-gone rear-wheel drive Volvo saloons, and the present-day cars certainly aren't anything like as good at shuffling around in tight spaces.

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