IAIN ROBERTSON

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We all have to believe that the world would be a worse place without Swedish Volvo, a car company renowned for its stance on several major issues, highlights Iain Robertson, but which never loses its conservative potency.

 

It would be incredibly easy to compare Volvo with its perceived Germanic rivals, from BMW, Merc and Audi. Yet, to do so would be quite wrong. Although Volvo never insisted that the Teutonic Threesome were ever its ‘targets’, an inevitable desire, bolstered by the motoring media, to create product shortlists, would lead to Volvo being classified as a premium brand.

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Fortunately, an edict zapped out by the Swedish firm to all and sundry in the automotive scene, only a couple of years ago, put the record straight. Volvo wished it to be known that it was emphatically not a ‘premium’ product. While failing to underscore what it wanted to be, or at least what people’s perceptions of it ought to be, I threw my lot into the ring and suggested that Volvo is Volvo and there’s an end to it!

 

DSC_1842_editedTake one look at how nervous the aforementioned triplets are, as unrelated as they might be, with successive product introductions. BMW launches a new 3-Series and, within moments, Audi responds with a new A4…actually, I should not include Mercedes-Benz in this stupid trilogy either, because it has never been a slavish follower of trends, although its cyclical replacement of certain models puts the willies up both Audi and BMW. Yet, those three, individual brands can be classified as ‘premium’, or up-market, despite their extensive use as run-of-the-mill taxis all over Europe.

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To be fair, I have always harboured a sneaky admiration of Volvo, from my earliest memories of the ‘Amazon’ model of the 1960s. While the company did not invent seat safety belts, a pleasure that resides with English engineer, Sir George Cayley (more than 200 years ago), they were first offered as options on Nash (1949) and Ford (1955) motorcars in North America, while Saab was the first vehicle manufacturer to specify them as standard equipment in its cars from 1958. However, within a year, Nils Bohlin of Volvo had designed a three-point safety restraint system (all previous designs were lap-only types), specifically for cars, which provided chest, as well as hip restraints. The die had been cast and Volvo did it.

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The Swedish firm’s much-vaunted ‘passenger safety cell’ has kept drivers around the world safe from many own-fault injuries, let alone those ‘crumps’ that occur when somebody else makes the error. The company introduced ‘city-safe’ technology and both SIPS (side impact protection system) and BLIS (blind spot information system) among a host of eminently worthy acronyms that its aforementioned perceived rivals bandy about like sweeties at a Halloween bun fight.

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Yet, in the midst of all the incident research and damage limitation lies a stern promise that, by 2020, no person will die in a Volvo…unless of unavoidable shortage of breath, or an anything-but-simple death-wish, whichever comes first. The fact that Volvo is ‘on target’ to achieve its goal is much to its credit, even though I cannot agree with its allegiance to ‘autonomous driving’, which might remove the individual from the equation altogether.

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It is this latter aspect that disappoints me so much. You see, the latest Volvo S60 is an outstanding driver’s car, probably more so than any BMW. Its fluidity of steering, progressiveness of all its controls, cosseting driver comfort and deliciousness of its driving experience would garner the support of any enthusiastic driver and not the person who wants to relinquish grip on the tiller.

 

As a style statement, something that can be overlooked easily but an aspect that is vital to this sector of the car scene, the S60 is the automotive equivalent of Johnny Depp…manly, admirably handsome, yet possessing a strangely alluring asexuality that is eminently desirable. Its ‘melted cheese’ nose is satisfyingly low to terra firma to afford it tremendous head-on appeal, while the coupe-like profile has enough of a hard edge to gift it a city-suit confidence that enables it to take a place within the chairman’s slot in the corporate car park, without passers-by sniffing the air discourteously. Even the reverse ‘hockey-stick’ tail-lights enhance the Horbury-shoulders (Peter H remains Head of Design for the firm) that Volvos have sported proudly for these past two decades.

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Sadly, hike up the bootlid and the resultant space between raised floor (beneath which is sited the skinny run-flat spare) and the top of boot aperture is immensely disgruntling. It is an unnaturally tight space, demanding fitted luggage to gain maximum capacity but struggling with a solitary family suitcase. Considering that one of Volvo’s long-standing precepts has been its wondrous practicality, to offer such a paltry space behind the rear seats is disarmingly insulting.

 

Fortunately, the cabin is a paragon of virtue, with a beautifully designed, soft-touch, high-quality dashboard moulding, the (now) customary centre console stack, which would benefit from the simpler approach taken by the smaller V40 model that removes the multi-button complexity, and plenty of space fore and aft. Yet, there are issues arising in the driver’s seat. Electrically adjustable, it is possible to obtain a supremely supportive driving position, which is wrecked the instant the driver alights from the seat. Any lateral movement over the right-hand bolster will ensure that contact is made between right thigh and the three-position seat memory pad, thus demanding readjustment when next entering the cockpit. It is a right royal pain.

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Sadly, I wish that it were the only negative issue. However, the electronic parking brake switch is sited on the lower right of the dashboard, which demands an uncomfortable arm’s reach to switch it on or off. It is not a natural movement, which seems at odds with Volvo’s otherwise safety orientated pitch. The other negative I can perceive is the height of the foot pedals. On more than a couple of occasions, I found my size-13s grappling with the underside of the clutch, or brake pedal, a factor that could have dire consequences in an emergency situation. For a car that is celebrated by normally tall Scandinavians, this is inexcusable. Yet, I do love the clarity of the instrument panel, with its three-stage colour and display settings. Using TFT technology, it enables the driver to tailor the view readily.

 

Packing the power is the latest version of Volvo’s revised diesel line-up. Displacing 2.0-litres, it is one of the few turbo-Ds that can blitz the sub-100g/km CO2 rating. At 99g/km, it means a VED-free existence (for the moment), which is a boon to both company car and private users. Yet, there is no loss of available punch from the 178bhp unit, which delivers a cracking 0-60mph dash in a mere 6.6 seconds, before running out of steam at 143mph. This is storming performance, supported by an outstanding 54mpg, which makes the Official Combined 74.3mpg look faintly ridiculous. I do believe that some owners might find themselves in 60mpg territory but the OC figure is a clear joke.

 

Finally, I wish to make mention of the ever-so-slightly ‘nervous’ City-Brake system, which illuminates a row of LEDs in the dash-top and even applies the car’s brakes, should its radar sensor detect that the S60 is too close to the vehicle in front, or that you need to avoid an idiot pedestrian stepping into your path. There is no doubt that it works, as I replicated a situation using an even more nervous (but brave) neighbour. Yet, my jury is still ‘out’ in respect of its practicality.

 

Conclusion:   My personal ‘niggles’ about the Volvo S60 are aspects that I feel certain will be addressed with the next generation model, after all, this car was the first product following the brand sell-off by Ford to the Chinese Geely Corporation. Things can only get better. There is still more than enough positive value in the S60, which is priced from around £30,095 in SE Lux trim (the rest of the range starts at just over £20k), as it offers far better value for money than any of its (perceived) rivals. Comfortable, even luxurious, safe and engaging, the S60 is a superb driver’s car and its ‘feel-good’ factor is inspirational. Buyers should not ignore Volvo, because it seems like a ‘leftfield’ choice…it is significantly better than that. Fix the boot space and other minor elements and it becomes a truly great car.

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).