Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2015 Volvo S60 T5 Drive-E

Maybe it's Subaru's fault for stealing Volvo's core clientele of cross-country skiing, Birkenstock-wearing, outdoorsy granola-crunchers during the 1980s. Or perhaps it's Ikea's fault for forever associating Swedish design with the cheap-and-cheerful college crowd. But for whatever reason, Volvo is now arguably the most overlooked and underrated of all the premium marques. Folks shopping for a BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Lexus or Cadillac seldom consider trying a Volvo. And that's a pity, because Volvo is making some pretty impressive cars these days.

Take the S60. Introduced for the 2011 model year, Volvo's second-generation S60 is a compact executive sedan that's thoroughly competitive with – and refreshingly different from – the hordes of BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C Class sedans out there. It's available with a range of different engines and either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, to satisfy everyone from the thrifty-minded commuter to the power-hungry performance enthusiast.

Folks shopping for a BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Lexus or Cadillac seldom consider trying a Volvo. And that's a pity, because Volvo is making some pretty impressive cars these days.

For 2015 Volvo has given the S60 a bit of a facelift, with a new front fascia and grille, new hood and fenders, new headlights, and new integrated exhaust pipes at the back. Interior changes include a new adaptive TFT instrument display in some models, new paddle shifters in the T6 AWD and R-Design models (also available optionally on the T5), upgraded transmission programming with Advanced Quick Shift in Sport mode, and a bevy of new available technology features including pedestrian and cyclist detection with full auto-braking.

The new front-end styling takes a conservative approach, looking less insect-like than before but perhaps a little staid, with a wide expanse of grille dominated by a large Volvo "Ironmark" logo. The underlying structure remains as rock solid as ever, and in combination with all the available safety technology this earns the S60 a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS.

Under the hood, the 2015 S60 is available with a couple of efficient new "Drive-E" four-cylinder turbocharged engines, each displacing 2.0L and developing either 240 horsepower in my test car's T5 guise, or 302 horsepower (thanks to an additional supercharger) in T6 guise. Unfortunately, however, these new engines are only available in the front-wheel drive models. All-wheel drive models get either a 2.5L five-cylinder developing 250 horsepower (T5 models) or a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline six cranking out 300 horsepower (T6 models). Oh, and there's also the T6 R-Design, which has all-wheel drive and a more powerful I6 that serves up 325 horsepower. It makes for a rather dizzying and confusing lineup on Volvo's website, but essentially, once you decide whether you want front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and whether you want reasonable power (T5) or plentiful power (T6) then Volvo will decide which engine you get to accomplish that, and you can concentrate on choosing the trim level you want.

I've driven both the front-wheel drive T5 Drive-E with the turbo-four (the subject of this review) and the all-wheel drive T6 with the I6. On the whole I think the smaller four-cylinder engine is the better choice, even though I rather liked the mad power offered by the turbo-six. The T6 AWD will whip you up to 100 km/h in 5.9 seconds, but my T5 Drive-E test car was hardly any slower, accomplishing the same task a mere 0.1 seconds later at 6 seconds flat. Partly this is because the T5 is lighter than the T6 AWD (1,658kg for my T5 Drive-E test car, versus 1,749kg for the T6 AWD), and partly it's because the Drive-E cars get eight-speed instead of six-speed transmissions (the T5 AWD shows up its dual weight-and-gear ratio disadvantage with a 6.6 second 0-100 km/h run).

The T5 Drive-E's advantage in weight and gear ratios ratios pays off quite handsomely at the pump too, where it is rated 9.8 / 6.6 L/100km (city/hwy), versus the T6 AWD's 11.6 / 8.2 rating. My own mixed-driving fuel consumption averaged 10.7 L/100 km in the T5 (with a best trip of 7.9 L/100 km), versus 15 L/100 km in the T6 AWD, which is a difference of almost 50 percent.

The problem is, selecting the smallest and most efficient engine currently means giving up the all-wheel drive and settling for front-wheel drive. It's a bit of a dilemma, and one that will only be solved once Volvo gets its all-wheel drive system sorted to work with the new four-cylinder engines – which apparently the company plans on doing, since it has announced that in the future all of its engines will be four-cylinder units.

Underpinning its mechanical bits my test car had the optional $1,700 Sport Package with bigger 19-inch wheels and sport suspension. This setup offers a ride that's firm to the point of slightly harsh over bridge expansion joints and similar sharp bumps, but provides buttoned-down and responsive handling in return. The T5 Drive-E has a flat cornering attitude and enough reserve grip (backstopped by torque-vectoring corning traction control) to prevent excessive plowing even when thrown aggressively into sharp corners. The steering is quick and accurate, although it doesn't telegraph road feel all that well – so yes, you can feel what the front tires are doing, but only just.

Inside, the S60 has a chic, minimalist Scandinavian style and some of the most sublime sport seats I've ever sat in. The test car's spec sheet and Volvo's website disagree as to whether the sport seats are included with the Sport Package or are an extra $500 option, but I'd want them regardless. They really are superbly comfortable and supportive – certainly for my 5'11" frame – and they look good too, with their soft leather, unusual curves and contrast stitching. Frankly I could buy the car for the seats alone. The back seats are also comfortable and spacious enough to keep my tall teenagers happy, and they feature 60/40 split folding capability for cargo carrying versatility. With the seats up, trunk space is a reasonable 339 L, and there's a handy flip-up organizer to keep your groceries in place around corners.

The interior materials are all up to par, with soft touch materials on the door uppers and lowers (both front and rear), cloth-wrapped A-pillars, and a soft-surface dash (although I found this a little rubbery looking). The one miss is the lower portion of the door pillars (the B-pillars), which are covered in a material that has a rather drum-like resonant quality. Every time I dropped my wife off somewhere, she managed to retract her seat belt in such a way that the buckle then proceeded to drum noisily against the pillar, and I'd have to reach over and straighten it out.

Nice metallic accents round things out in the T5, and the new alloy shift paddles (included on the T5 with the Sport Package) are a particularly nice touch with their elegantly punched-out + and - symbols. As an aside – and this is an often-underrated attribute – I found that the S60 just smells great inside, all leather and cloth with no harsh plastic smells.

The adaptive instrument display is, in my mind, digital instrumentation done right. It offers three modes – Elegance, Eco and Performance – each with a slightly different focus. Performance, for instance, has a red theme with a big central tach and digital speedo. Eco gives you a central speedometer (I liked how a glow followed the needle around, making it easy to read at a glance) and an Eco Guide off to the left (it tracks how efficiently you are driving, and rewards you with a stylized swirly "e" when you do particularly well). Elegance has a more subdued look with a temperature gauge replacing the Eco Guide.

The infotainment display screen is a little bit smaller than most in this segment, but it's still plenty large enough to be useful and easy-to-read. Likewise, Volvo's decision to skip the touchscreen and mouse controller trends in favour of a simple control dial with OK and Exit buttons (backed up by a full numeric keyboard) dictates a slightly different style of interface than most, but it's ergonomically sound and makes reasonable sense once you get used to it. As for the iconic person-shaped heater mode controller, that's just brilliant and everybody should copy it.

T5 Drive-E models can be had in base, Premier, Premier Plus and Platinum trim, and equipment-wise you can get all of the expected features, plus a few unexpected ones too (really, you'd need more than one short week to thoroughly test all the available features).

The base car starts at $39,815 (including the $1,815 destination fee) and includes 17-inch alloy wheels, Volvo's Sensus connectivity with seven-inch colour display, Bluetooth interface, heated power-adjustable front seats, power-foldable rear headrests, auto stop-start technology (this shuts down the engine at traffic lights to save fuel), leather-wrapped steering wheel, and AM/FM/XM/CD audio system with auxiliary and USB plugs.

Premier trim starts at $42,765 destination in and adds a power moonroof, leather upholstery, auto-dimming mirror, keyless entry with pushbutton start, and the adaptive TFT digital instrument display.

Premier Plus ($43,565 destination in) adds an integrated garage door opener, back-up camera, power retractable rearview mirrors and quick-folding passengers seat, while my test car's Platinum trim ($46,765 including destination) adds navigation, Harmon Kardon premium sound, auto-dimming exterior mirrors and accent lighting.

Much of the available equipment, such as the adaptive cruise control, collision warning, lane departure warning, pedestrian and cyclist auto braking, active high beams, lane departure warning and blind spot information system with cross-traffic alert, can be ordered in a pair of packages: a Technology Package ($1,500) and a BLIS package ($1,350).

There's also a a Sport Package ($1,200) that adds paddle shifters, larger 19-inch alloy wheels and sport suspension, and a Climate Package ($1,350) that adds heated just-about-everything including the rear seats, steering wheel, washer nozzles and windshield. Some folks don't like the fact that the thin, squiggly elements for the heated windshield can sometimes be visible under certain lighting conditions, but I reckon the feature is entirely worth it when coming down a cold mountain after a long day of skiing, which is usually a recipe for a completely fogged-up windshield.

With its range of pricing and available equipment the S60 really does match the best offered from Ingolstadt, Munich, Stuttgart, Nagoya and New York (where Cadillac is moving its headquarters). While the base S60 models such as my T5 Drive-E test car are front-wheel drive rather than rear-wheel drive, this layout will likely suit many drivers who grew up with front-wheel drive, and Volvo's torque-vectoring corning traction control helps imbue the car with reasonably crisp handling regardless. The higher-trim AWD models, in the meantime, offer surprising levels of performance. Combined with Volvo's comfortable Scandinavian style and excellent safety ratings it makes for an appealing package that's well worth a look if you're in the market for a compact executive sedan.

4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance
Model Tested 2015 Volvo S60 T5 Drive-E
Base Price $44,950
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,815
Price as Tested $53,215
Optional Equipment
$6,350 (Climate Package $1,350; Technology Package $1,500; Sport Package $1,700; Blind Spot Information System $1,000; Power Blue metallic paint $800)