Putting the brakes on stereotypes
TRAVELLING with my wife behind the wheel genuinely scares me.
Regularly my right foot makes involuntary braking movements in the vacant passenger footwell in an attempt to gain extra distance from the car in front.
Reminders that we don't need to have a clear vision of the leading vehicle's dash are met with disgust and glares.
This is one of the reasons Volvo is among the favourites on my shopping list (don't tell the bride). For $4990, there is a safety package that features a warning when you get too close to the vehicle in front.
Also adding credence to the Volvo cause is the rapidly improved looks.
The Swedish brand has entered a bold new design world with such velocity that it has blasted the square lines into obscurity.
Volvo's S60 is just one of the recent additions to the line-up that isn't just modern, but downright sexy.
And it has not gone unnoticed. Its trophy cabinet includes the 2011 International Sedan of the Year award from the New York International Auto Show, while it was also named Best Family Car as part of the Women's World Car of the Year awards.
Having sampled the range-topping wagon version earlier this year, we were given the chance recently to drive the entry-level T5, which costs just over $50,000.
Simplicity and refinement come to the forefront in the Volvo cabin.
The same formula has been used across the range and it works well. The driver looks at two main dials, speedometer and revs, both crisp and easy to read.
Four large round buttons punctuate the main operations in the centre dash, where you can intuitively find what you want without requiring the manual.
Steering wheel-mounted controls for the stereo, Bluetooth and cruise complete the functional set-up.
Seats are comfortable in the right places and the steering wheel has telescopic reach, while the only hard plastics to be found are low on the doors and a small amount on the centre console.
Five adults can be accommodated without too many hassles, and you also get a good-size boot.
Our test vehicle had some dark wooden inlays, which reminded us of the Griswold family truckster, but you can opt for more modern finishes.
On the road
Surprisingly strong, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine is an absolute cracker. It's Ford sourced and similar to the EcoBoost donk planned for the Falcon.
While it doesn't lurch off the line with amazing urgency, the power delivery is linear yet particularly punchy above 3000rpm.
It even has a nice sound once you work up into the rev range.
Well weighted steering makes the S60 T5 fun to drive in varying circumstances.
The steering can feel too heavy at low speeds, but it is worth the trade-off as you hit the bends with a feeling of complete control.
Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the four-cylinder and self-shifter have a strong work ethic.
You can feel the need to take control with manual style changes by flicking the shifter across, but there are no paddle shifters.
What do you get?
Standard specification includes leather trim, a power driver's seat, rain-sensing wipers, rear parking sensors, dual-zone air-conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity and a USB connection, as well as a CD stereo.
Safety gear includes the usual array of airbags (front, front-side and curtain) and the full technology suite which comes with stability control.
That also includes the City Safety function, which can automatically stop the car at low speed to avoid collisions.
A worthwhile addition is the $4990 driver support pack, which includes lane departure warning, distance alert, adaptive cruise control, collision warning with full auto brake, queue assist, blind spot warning system and the impressive pedestrian detection technology, which can identify pedestrians and automatically apply the brake if an impact is imminent.
Sat nav and a rear parking camera are part of a $5500 package.
One major omission is the spare tyre - you only get a repair kit.
The S60 has the goods to match it up against the German big guns, like the Audi A4 1.8 TFSI auto ($54,900), BMW 3 Series 320i ($56,100), Mercedes-Benz C-Class C200 ($58,900), Peugeot 508 GT($52,990), and also worth a look is the Skoda Superb 1.8 ($38,990) and Volkswagen Passat 118 ($38,990).
The S60 didn't win its family car plaudits for nothing. Good space in the rear makes carting kids around simple, with easy access to the child seat points.
Dropping the seats is easy, with levers in the boot, which is spacious and good enough for a pram with room to spare.
Despite feeling like a much larger engine, it's still only a four-potter. Official fuel consumption is 8.3 litres/100km although we achieved about nine. Insurance costs should be less than other similar vehicles given the safety features, particularly the City Safety function for those living in urban areas.
Even in basic guise, the S60 is an attractive offering. However, those wanting more sporting attributes can get some extras like a rear spoiler and bigger alloys, or get the R Design derivative with all the sporting bells and whistles for an extra $4200.
Given the performance from this efficient turbocharged four-potter, it's hard to warrant stepping up into the V6 or even the diesel.
The standard specification is impressive and presents as great value that trumps some of the German rivals.
But, best of all, you can feel safe no matter who is driving.
Model: Volvo S60 T5.
Details: Four-door front-wheel drive luxury sedan.
Engine: Four-cylinder, 16-valve DOHC Turbocharged Direct Injection (GTDI) petrol generating maximum power of 177kW @ 5500rpm and peak power of 320Nm @ 1800-5000rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed Powershift automatic.
Consumption: 8.3 litres/100km (combined average).
Performance: 0-100kmh in 7.5 seconds. Top speed 230kmh.
Bottom line: $51,950