Volvo S60 DRIVe R-Design 1.6 litre turbo diesel review

4 out of 5
£22,785 (basic model) £34,100 (as tested)

For

Beautifully styled, incredibly comfortable, great technology available, decent fuel economy, one of the safest cars on the market

Against

Small engine in this review car isn't very exciting, quite expensive when you add in options, automatic gearbox isn't that responsive

Why not buy a German car? We'll tell you why not, because you can have a Swedish one instead. Of course there are a lot of German car lovers out there, so it might be a tough sell to get them to make the switch.

But that's a shame, because cars like the Volvo S60 have an enormous amount to offer. Although they're not all that cheap, starting at about £22,000 and heading up to the mid-£30Ks, which plonks it in the same arena as the BMW 3-series (which, by the way, we adore).

Design

We don't have much bad to say about the styling of the S60. This is a car that looks different from all of its competition, but can still turn heads. One person we drove in the car said: "I would never have known this was a Volvo." A comment like that will simultaneously dismay and delight Volvo executives, because it implies that people don't like the look of Volvos, or think they don't. Either way, it's not much for them to worry about, because everyone who sees the S60 thinks it's a rather lovely looking car.

But what do we like most? Well, the LED running lights at the front are positioned in an interesting place, and they look great, as do the headlight clusters, which have a sleek and sporty look to them. The Volvo logo is large and bold, and dominates the modest front grille.

We had the R Design pack on our car, and it looks utterly fantastic. The problem is, it's not a cheap addition, and we think if it was our money that we were spending, we might rather have a better engine instead. You could probably pick up the alloy wheels cheaper elsewhere - or at least some that look similar. The alloys do look brilliant though and give the car a whole new stance on the road.

Inside, things continue to impress. Given that this car is about the same price as a BMW 3-series, we'd hope that it would be a nice place to sit. In fact, the S60 is one of the nicest places you can spend time, especially in this price range. We reckon its interior is more comfortable than a home sofa. Given that there's a decent entertainment package, including Freeview TV, it's hard not to consider moving out of home and into the S60 instead of buying a new house.

The leather seats in our test car were a joy. You can opt for electrical adjustment but, to be honest, we think heating is more important for those cold winter mornings.

The central part of the dash is dominated by a large keypad, with four dials around it. Here you can adjust all of the car's electrical toys: Air conditioning is directed via some chunky buttons that look like a person in a seat. There's a fan power dial too, which although a little bit too small, features an "auto" option that will have the car maintain the cabin temperature at a certain level. Like a lot of modern and environmentally responsible cars, the air conditioning doesn't seem quite as ferocious as we'd like. It's cooling, but not as extreme as that found in VW Golfs from the last decade.

The dash also houses various buttons to control the entertainment options. What you get here will depend on the spec, but you can quickly switch between radio, navigation, "media" telephone and "my car". Media holds several options, such as DVD playback or live TV - if your car has that option fitted.

As you might hope, and expect, there are lots of Bluetooth and USB options too. You can plug in music stored on pretty much any device. We used a Motorola Razr with the system and it sounded brilliant on the Volvo's upgraded sound system. You also get a line-in jack too, so it's easy to connect any older MP3 player too.

Our test car also had a DAB radio, which sounded excellent, but on a trip down to Goodwood it revealed the shortcomings of in-car DAB, and digital radio in general. We lost signal going through the new tunnel on the A3, and it never came back after. If you live in a DAB area, it sounds brilliant, but we'd suggest caution before you spend money on this option.

There's also the option for a remote control. But it's £70 and we don't really think you'll want the kids having control of your in-car entertainment from the back seat.

It's also worth pointing out that the much-derided sat nav of older Volvo cars has been improved. The one in this S60 is very good indeed - it certainly directed us where we needed to go without any problems at all. The screen is well located, and although it's not touch sensitive, the controls - via the dials - are responsive enough. You might need to spend some time learning how to use it, but the system is mostly foolproof. 

Safety

When it comes to differentiating itself from most of the competition, it's really the safety equipment that makes the S60 most worth considering. There are some technologies here that should keep you, other road users and pedestrians very safe indeed. The car has yet to go through the formal Euro NCAP rating, but its estate brother, the V60, has, and got the full five star award, so there is no reason to expect that S60 won't get the same, as the cars are the same, under the skin. 

For example, our test car had the BLIS system fitted. This consists of cameras mounted to the wing mirrors that keep an eye on your blind spots. If there's a car, or motorbike hidden there, then a light is illuminated to warn you.

But there's more than that too. For example, the Volvo S60 can also warn you if you're too close to the car in front. It does this via a glowing light mounted near the windscreen, where it passes the dashboard. This means it gives you a heads-up type display, with the lights reflected via the windscreen. The lights fade in and out too, so it's quite a gentle warning, but we found it surprisingly effective.

But the distance warning system is also tied to other features. For example, at low speed - below 20mph - the car will detect pedestrians and brake if you they step in front of the car. It's an incredibly clever system and can track several people at once. Obviously it's worth bearing in mind that the system doesn't work in all light, or weather, conditions - there's a new version coming which, apparently, will track up to 60 people and work in even more testing conditions.

The other part of this system is that, in conjunction with cruise control, it can keep your car at a safe distance from the one in front, even in traffic. All without your needing to mess about with the accelerator. You simply set the speed and the car takes care of the rest. We used this a lot through rural traffic, and it works a treat. Obviously, you need to take over at junctions, but for the most part it's a very capable system, and it isn't scary either as it uses a good stopping distance and always feels in control. It may not be the best for fuel economy though, which is worth bearing in mind.

Performance

The S60 handed over to Pocket-lint was a fully-loaded option with all the extras, but had Volvo's fairly modest 1.6 litre diesel engine. Although the engine felt smooth and refined behind the wheel, this is not a powerhouse in any regard. It's designed to be economical, easy on the wallet and a sensible car if you're trying to get a company vehicle that doesn't cost the earth in tax.

At motorway cruising speeds it feels quiet, smooth and there's enough in reserve to get you around that slow moron in the middle lane. It's around town where the engine feels less nimble, and putting your foot down generally doesn't do much at all. Once you've waited for the automatic gearbox to change down and the car has got itself going many seconds will have passed. But then this isn't the engine to buy if you want a fast car.

We feel that the auto gearbox and this engine don't go together all that well. Especially given the extra cost of the latter. Our feeling is that you should go with a bigger diesel, and either forgo the automatic gears to pay for it, or otherwise lose some of the other extras for the sake of cost.

After all, this car looks like a performance car - especially with the R-Design kit - so opting for a smaller diesel engine really doesn't make much sense, especially for private buyers.

We still think that the S60 is one of the most comfortable and enjoyable places to be on the road. The extra features, like the cruise control that allows you to follow cars at a safe distance and is one of the most relaxing additions to any car. Somehow, it takes away the frustration of being stuck behind a slow driver, and instead lets you just enjoy the experience of the car.

There's an app for that car

Volvo has also taken the plunge with app support, and it's possible to connect to your S60 and ask it to send you information about how it's feeling and how you've been driving. You can ask it to warm up your seats too, all from the comfort of your own home.

This requires that you pay for an additional Volvo service called On Call. It is in itelf another great Volvo safety feature that allows you to call for assistance - like breakdown help, or unlocking your car in an emergency. It also automatically calls an ambulance if you have an accident in which the airbag deploys, and there's an SOS button in case you see an accident and need to summon the emergency services.

The app for iOS is excellent, well laid out and there's plenty of information and options. We love the fact that you can see how much fuel is left in the tank, and there have been plenty of times when we'd have used that feature.

Verdict

When it comes to style, the S60 is in a league of its own. It's not copying any other car, and it looks phenomenal from pretty much every angle. The Germans can do a lot of things well, but mould-breaking style doesn't come naturally.

With the S60 model we tested, we found the automatic gearbox to be quite tedious and even the sport mode didn't help much, largely because of the 1.6 litre diesel engine and its lack of power. But the PowerShift gearbox installed in our test car was probably not worth the £1,500 cost. No doubt, with a bigger engine, it would be worth its weight in gold. With all that said, for a 1.6 diesel, this is a surprisingly capable car and while it's not super-fast, it's still an enjoyable drive.

Then there are the technology options which are jaw-dropping. The S60, at times, feels as if it doesn't really need you there at all. It's more than happy following other cars at a safe distance, and bring you to a safe stop when they come to a halt.

In short, we adore the S60. The high-spec interior may make it quite costly, so we'd opt for a bigger engine and drop that PowerShift box for a manual. When it comes to comfort and available equipment though, we really can't fault it. It's quite likely, had we driven the S60 with a bigger engine, it would have got an extra half-star.

NOTE: the first version of this review claimed that the S60 was not a 5-star Euro NCAP car. We have since been told that the score on the site is for the older model. We've updated the review to reflect that.