A worthy competitor
THE GOOD
  • Supportive seats
  • Strong engine
  • Smooth handling
THE BAD
  • Distracting screen functions
  • Small trunk
  • Pricier than some rivals

Volvo is moving increasingly toward electrification but still has some gas-only products in its garage, including my tester, the 2021 Volvo S60 T5 AWD R-Design.

Mid-pack among the S60’s three gas-powered trim levels (there’s also a plug-in hybrid version), the R-Design starts at $52,350. Mine featured a lot of options, bringing it to $62,800 before tax and its non-negotiable freight charge of $2,015.

The S60 R-Design – and its V60 wagon counterpart – can also be ordered through Volvo’s subscription service, known as Care by Volvo. It’s a type of lease, where you order the car online, pay $969 per month for two years with maintenance included, and after 12 months, have the ability to switch to another new model if you choose.

Styling: 9/10

Volvo used to design cars by attaching wheels to a brick, but for a long time now it’s been making some of the most stylish vehicles on the road, and the S60 is no exception. It has all the right proportions, and a handsome face with Volvo’s so-called “Thor’s Hammer” LED headlights (yes, that’s what the company calls them).

The cabin features elegant Scandinavian simplicity, which looks good but has a minus, as I’ll explain later. The R-Design includes a unique grille, panoramic sunroof, steering-responsive headlights, and 18-inch matte-black wheels as standard equipment. My car was coated with Bursting Blue paint and rode on 19-inch wheels, adding $900 and $1,000 to the tag, respectively.

Safety: 9/10

The S60 is rated as a Top Safety Pick+ with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS); it also earned the top five-star overall crash rating from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), albeit with four stars for frontal crash.

The S60 comes standard with emergency front braking that can detect pedestrians, cyclists, and large animals such as moose or deer; along with rear collision mitigation, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive LED headlights, lane-keeping assist, and a speed limiter. My car was further equipped with a $2,450 Advanced package, which added adaptive cruise control with lane-centring, a surround-view camera system, and a head-up display.

Features: 8.5/10

All-wheel drive is an option on the base Momentum trim, but standard on the R-Design and Inscription models. This mid-priced trim also includes a panoramic sunroof, heated front sport seats clad in Nappa leather, auto-dimming mirrors, four-zone automatic climate control, integrated garage door opener, navigation, and a truly fantastic but very expensive premium sound system.

Still, there’s room for add-ons. My tester included a number of extra-charge items, including adaptive cruise control, a heated steering wheel and rear seats, wireless charger, and a stitched leather dash.

User Friendliness: 6.5/10

I’m not a fan of the let’s-do-everything-through-the-centre-screen approach to automotive ergonomics, and this is where the S60 – actually, all of Volvo’s offerings, for that matter – loses points for me. The minimal spread of buttons and dials enhances that simple Scandinavian design but results in a surprising amount of distraction for an automaker that’s supposed to be all about safety.

The infotainment system takes a while to load, which is even more annoying if you’re waiting to heat or cool the cabin. You swipe the screen to access pages of small icons for functions. You can use voice commands to set the cabin temperature, but otherwise, climate functions are handled by tapping or swiping the screen – nowhere near as simple as cranking a dial. After all that complaining, though, I was pleased to see that the S60 has a real P-R-N-D-L shifter rather than one of those awful electronic things that you push up for reverse, and then hit a separate button for park.

Practicality: 8/10

The S60 offers good room up front and less for those in the rear, although there’s space under the front seat for slipping one’s feet to stretch out a little bit more. No one has a huge trunk in this segment, but the S60’s is smaller than some. Small-item storage up front is good although not spectacular. If you like the S60 but want more cargo capacity, you can move up to my favourite configuration in this series, the gorgeous V60 wagon.

Comfort: 8.5/10

The S60’s chairs are things of beauty. Like most European seats, they’re not soft-and-cushy but supportive, which is far more important. This helps keep your spine aligned, which in turn keeps you comfortable on longer drives.

There’s a console-mounted controller for the drive modes, and while the dynamic setting tightens everything up for more spirited handling, it’s very firm and won’t win you any points with your passengers. For everyday driving, the comfort setting provides a smooth ride without being too soft for handling. Set that way, and with the cabin’s quiet composure, this is a comfortable vehicle overall.

Power: 8/10

The S60 is motivated by a 2.0L four-cylinder that makes 250 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. It’s turbocharged when hooked to front-wheel drive; but in all-wheel, it’s both turbocharged and supercharged. Both these units force in extra air (and, correspondingly, extra fuel) when extra power is needed, but they differ in how they do it. A supercharger is mechanically driven off the engine, and so provides that extra power right away, while a turbocharger is powered by exhaust gases and needs a second or so to spool up.

The combination results in almost instantaneous pep when you need it; and as the supercharger’s power fades, the turbo picks up the slack and keeps it going, including at highway speeds for passing. The output numbers aren’t huge, but the S60 accelerates beautifully and feels very peppy, and the eight-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly.

Driving Feel: 8.5/10

The S60 is set up for smooth and accurate handling, especially with the R-Design’s “sport” chassis tuning. It isn’t quite as sporty-sharp as some of its German competitors, but it’s an excellent balance of everyday commuting with the ability to take you around curves with a smile on your face when the opportunity arises. It feels well-balanced, with a tight turning circle and confident braking power. The all-wheel system is front-biased, and can send as much as 50 per cent of the available torque to the rear as needed.

Fuel Economy: 9/10

The S60 is officially rated by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) at 10.8 L/100 km in the city; 7.2 on the highway; and 9.2 in combined driving. In my week with it, I recorded a very impressive 7.6 L/100 km. It requires premium-grade fuel.

The S60 sits about mid-pack with its competition. The Audi A4 is rated at 8.2 in combined driving; the BMW 3 Series is similar to the Volvo; while the Infiniti Q50 and Lexus IS300 are higher at 10.8 L/100 km.

Value: 7.5/10

At a starting price of $45,250 in base trim and front-wheel drive, the S60 is pricier than the initial tags of competitors such as the Audi A4, Genesis G70, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS 300, and Cadillac CT5. You get a lot of features in the $52,350 R-Design, which will likely be the best all-around choice for most buyers, but you still have to top it up if you want some of the popular items, such as a heated steering wheel or wireless charger.

The Verdict

The Volvo S60 plays in a crowded field of very good competitors. Truth be told, it holds its own but isn’t a spectacular standout. Instead, it’s a solid choice among solid choices, and so when you’re looking at the usual lineup from Germany and Japan, be sure to test-drive this Swede against them to see if it’s for you.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Volvo S60 T5 AWD R-Design
Engine Cylinders I4   Base Price $52,350
Peak Horsepower 250 hp @ 5,500 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 258 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm   Destination Fee $2,015
Fuel Economy 10.8 / 7.2 / 9.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $64,915
Cargo Space 392 L  
Optional Equipment
$10,450 – Climate Package of heated washers, rear seats and steering wheel, $1,000; Advanced Package of head-up display, Pilot Assist with adaptive cruise control, 360-degree camera, 12-volt outlet, and wireless charger, $2,450; metallic paint, $900; Bowers & Wilkins premium sound system, $3,750; Park Assist Pilot and front and rear park assist, $250; 19-inch diamond-cut wheels, $1,000; advanced air quality cleaner, $350; tailored instrument panel, $750