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Automotive Traveler Magazine: 2011 08 2012 Volvo S60 R-Design Page 2

Behind the Wheel: One Sexy Swede--2012 Volvo S60 R-Design

The company famous for its sensible sedans turns up the heat with an R-Design version of its top-selling S60. Richard Truesdell hits the road (and track) over 1,000 miles to see if it is a viable competitor to better known German sports sedans.

What's the first thing most people think of when you say "Volvo"? Safety, of course, and sedans and station wagons whose exteriors look as if they were designed with only a straight edge. The perception that Volvos are style-challenged is a holdover from the company's golden years in the United States, before Ford bought the company in 1999. (Okay, all the clichés about Volvo used in reviews are now out of the way.)

The current S60 was definitely not designed with just a straight edge. To my eye, this vehicle is downright sexy. And the new R-Design is now the top model in Volvo's mid-sized S60 series. The S60 powered the Swedish automaker to a 29-percent increase in year-over-year sales in 2011, outpacing the industry and its most direct competitors.

Speaking of competitors, Volvo representatives say the R-Design will compete directly against cars such as the all-wheel-drive versions of the Audi A4, the BMW 335, and the Infiniti G37. They argue it offers more content for less money, with a base price of $42,500.

It's no secret I'm a fan of the standard-edition S60, having driven the car in the Pacific Northwest last year. The R-Design version amps up the external visuals with a few noteworthy changes. These include a more dramatic front fascia, a now-standard spoiler at the rear, a more highly styled rear defuser with larger exhaust outlets, and a set of distinctive-looking 18-inch wheels.

Volvo offers the R-Design in just four colors: Metallic Black, Metallic Silver, Metallic Gray, and my test car's non-metallic Passion Red (Volvo-speak for "Arrest Me Red").

Under the hood, the three-liter turbocharged straight six has benefited from raising the turbo boost from 13.1 to 14.5 p.s.i., while the engine internals remain untouched. The engine-management software was modified by Polestar, which tunes Volvo's race teams in Sweden. This bumps output from 300 horsepower to 325 and raises torque to an impressive 354 lb.-ft. (from 325). With advanced spark timing, Volvo recommends premium fuel (the standard S60 turbo is fully satisfied with regular).

Best of all, the EPA numbers mirror the stock T6 S60 despite the increased output: 18 m.p.g. city, 26 highway. With its 17.8-gallon tank, I was able to drive the 485-mile trip from Yountville, California to my base north of San Diego without stopping for fuel (I averaged 27.9 m.p.g.). The S60 R-Design shows it's possible to get increased performance combined with impressive efficiency.

The chassis underpinnings of the R-Design were modified in several ways. Central are the stiffer suspension bushings that improve communication between the driver and the road. Springs are 15-percent stiffer and lower the car by 0.6-inches, and a front strut-tower brace serves to contribute to a sense that the R-Design S60 is set up for enthusiast drivers.

With a base price of $42,500, the R-Design version of the S60 is priced about $4,600 higher than the previous top-spec T6 version. Yet that is partially offset by the fact that the $1,500 premium package is now standard. The Polestar upgrades add a reported $1,500 to the package. Bottom line: the exterior and interior detail changes and the modifications to the well-sorted chassis add just $1,600 to the S60 T6. Overall, I think the R-Design matches up well against its direct competitors and is a compelling value. (See the Vital Statistics for additional details.)

My test drive in the S60 R-Design had two parts. The first, from the stylish Bardessono, was on two-lane back roads from Yountville north of Napa to Thunderhill Raceway in Willows. Here, the overall composure of the upgraded chassis was evident. On CA-29 and CA-20, two of California's least-potholed byways, the R-Design was in its element. The drive illustrated it is possible to stiffen a suspension without making the ride overly harsh.

At Thunderhill Raceway (host of the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, the longest U.S. automobile race), I was unleashed on a track that provided a sufficient challenge for the S60 R-Design yet was difficult to get into serious trouble on. It was here the chassis came into its own, especially on the several reverse camber turns and the track's sweeping third turn. There, on my first hot lap, I went in deep and fast yet got the car collected without a sweat. With several blind corners, and a few quick changes in elevation, I was able to put the car through its paces.

This pointed out the only weak link in the car, its conventional six-speed automatic transmission. While it provided the ability to shift manually from the console-mounted shifter, it lacked steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Volvo does not currently offer a manual or dual-clutch option. It would not surprise me if the Swedish automaker was considering an upgrade, though, especially if the company is serious about the S60 being a complete competitor to the BMW 3 Series.

A bit of controversy arose among the automotive journalists assembled at Thunderhill, with the track session cut short due to concern about the brakes. Some reviewers at the launch event felt there were issues with the car's brakes towards the end of the track session.

By downshifting the six-speed autobox manually, I didn't experience any brake fade over my last six laps. This was due in part to staying on the best line, using all of the track's 35 feet of width, using the brakes judiciously, and giving the car a proper cool down lap between each of the three hot laps.

Thunderhill is a challenging circuit that places a premium on taking the right line through significant changes in elevation. Such a track puts cars under the kind of stress few drivers will ever summon. I suspect that typical Volvo owners will be quite happy with the performance of both the chassis and the brakes.

While best known for its sensible sedans and station wagons, Volvo has stepped out of its comfort zone over the years with some highly tuned sedans. Most notable? The cult-classic, 155-m.p.h.-capable, 1995 850 T-5R. Of the 5,500 built, 904 were shipped to the States, a number not far off from the 1,000 S60 R-Design models expected stateside for 2012. (The 240-horsepower turbocharged five was co-developed with Porsche.)

The S60 R-Design is a true driver's car--not in exactly the same way a BMW or even an Audi is, but in keeping with Volvo's well-crafted brand image. The car feels as solid as a tank, yet athletic on its feet.

I finished off my last hot lap at Thunderhill thinking Volvo hit the sports sedan bulls-eye with this one. The S60 R-Design is the most emotionally appealing Volvo offered in the United States since P1800, and the most powerful, best-balanced Volvo offered to the U.S. market ever. High praise indeed.

Sidebar: Bardessono Hotel and Spa

A "significant national model of green building and operating practices," according to its marketing materials, the Bardessono Hotel, Restaurant, and Spa proves that environmentalism and luxury can go hand in hand. Located in downtown Yountville, the property is an ideal base for exploring California's Napa and Sonoma wine country.

The resort's 62 pet-friendly rooms combine a contemporary, environmentally friendly design with outstanding in-room entertainment and connectivity capabilities. Its signature feature is a rooftop pool. Rates include the use of carbon-fiber bicycles for touring the area.

The green theme is extended to the hotel's restaurant where diners enjoy fresh ingredients from local farms--fitting since the property itself was once a farm.

Sidebar: Thunderhill Raceway Park

Back in the Eighties, the Laguna Seca and Sears Point/Infineon tracks were under siege from anti-racing environmentalists. Fearful the activists might kill serious road racing in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sports Car Club of America made a pre-emptive move, working with enthusiasts to build Thunderhill Raceway Park three hours to the north in Willows, California. The 2.8-mile road course has been called by race driver Randy Probst the best new racetrack built in the United States in the last 20 years.

Vital Statistics

Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 182.2 inches
Width: 73.4 inches
Height: 57.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,900 pounds
Engine: I6, 3-liter DOHC, turbocharged and intercooled
Horsepower: 325 @ 5,400 r.p.m.
Torque: 354 lb.-ft. @ 3,000 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 18/26
Base price: $42,500
As-tested price: $46,875, including $750 destination
Also consider: Audi A4, BMW 335i X-Drive, Infiniti G37 AWD