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Car reviews - Volvo - XC60 - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, cabin architecture, D5 diesel torque and economy, T6 silky performance, competent dynamics, quality overall feel
Room for improvement
Some steering rack rattle, firm ride over some country road surfaces, expensive desirable options, remote GPS controls

10 Feb 2009

ONCE upon a time there was just one Volvo, and it was a solid but stolid family sedan (or wagon) of about Holden Kingswood size that sold on safety, security, and Sweden’s own unique brand of Scandinavian style.

Decidedly unsexy but worthwhile nonetheless, it catered for a small but consistent number of upwardly mobile new-car buyers who were after an alternative to a Ford Fairmont.

That was when ABBA was ruling the charts and nobody had any idea what IKEA was.

Now, the soon-not-to-be-Ford-owned group from Gothenburg has introduced its 10th distinct model. Count them: 30, S40, V50, S60, V70, C70, XC70, S80, XC90 ... and now XC60.

The XC60 is one of a growing number of “compact” luxury SUVs as defined by the BMW X3. That rival manufacturers like Mercedes and Audi have waited about half a decade to take on what has been an undoubted sales success for the Bavarians is mind boggling, and it has taken a minnow-like Volvo to step up to the plate.

So what is the XC60 like?

On paper its credentials look promising, since Volvo is leveraging Ford’s EUCD mid-sized platform that also underpins the fine third-generation Mondeo. Keen drivers would know that this car is a synonym for brilliant steering, handling and ride characteristics.

On the other hand, though, the current Volvo V70, XC0 and S80 – while extremely class-competitive vehicles in their own right – seem to have lost some of that old Ford black magic when it comes to sharp dynamics.

Well, the really good news about the XC60 is that this car, to drive, is probably the most enjoyable Volvo in, well, living memory.

No, it does not quite have the dynamic finesse or impressive body control of a well-sorted X3.

But the standard electro-hydraulic steering system is nicely weighted and linear in its response for handling that is predictable, enjoyable and utterly controllable.

Even when hurried along a long and winding road full of pockmarks and odd surfaces, it takes just simple steering-wheel corrections to keep the XC60 firmly planted.

We drove both engine variants available at launch – the grunty old 136kW/400Nm 2.4-litre five-cylinder D5 turbo-diesel and the slingshot 210kW/400Nm 3.0-litre in-line turbo six-cylinder petrol unit – fitted with 18-inch alloy wheels and 235/60 R18 low-profile rubber.

And while the ride quality was quite firm, we found the XC60 sufficiently comfortable on most of the varied country roads of the launch program and refreshingly bereft of the droning that accompanies most German similarly-attired German vehicles.

Grip levels, too, are outstanding. Unsealed dirt roads proved no obstacle to fast, effortless progress either, with the Volvo keeping its line through fast corners without feeling skittish or nervous, underwritten by the myriad of stability and traction controls.

We did detect differences in the steering, however, in the form of some noticeable rack rattle in the T6. Since we only drove one example of this, we cannot rule out that our car may have been the exception here, since the identically tyred D5 was neither shaken nor stirred in the steering department.

Low wind noise levels are another XC60 strength, with the cabin feeling as cocooning from the outside elements as you might expect a premium brand like Volvo to be.

But the biggest surprise (after this car’s deft dynamics) is the D5 engine.

In other Volvo applications, the five-pot turbo-diesel’s strong mid-range torque is marred by quite prominent engine noise under heavy acceleration, totally undermining the otherwise high levels of refinement that this brand’s offerings are quite renowned for.

In the XC60 D5, however, the diesel goes from gruff to low-level growl when the driver puts the pedal to the cliché. We just happen to be driving an XC70 D5 this week, and we can tell you that the compact Volvo SUV does a much better job of keeping the diesel cacophony at bay.

We drove behind an XC60 D5 in a T6, and we could not keep up with the diesel despite having the Geartronic six-speed auto’s lever in the (T6 exclusive) Sport mode. Once that diesel gets over its initial turbo lag, it simply thrusts forward like a goods-train, and makes minced meat of overtaking duties.

Along with the unexpected refinement, this revelation means that the D5 engine is preferable to the still-impressively strong (and still far quieter) T6 version, particularly when you add the diesel’s significant fuel consumption advantage. We averaged about 9.2 to 9.7L/100km, versus the T6’s 13.3L/100km.

These figures, of course, are all according to the XC60’s trip computer, set in a smart and distinctive dashboard that majors on Scandinavian quality and good design.

After spending hours on both front seats, we did not suffer from aches or pains, while – fiddly trip computer and (optional) satellite navigation controls aside – all switches and buttons are located exactly where you would expect them to be.

Most people should have no problems finding the right driving position, while there is sufficient space for four adults in all outboard seating positions, and a sizeable cargo area behind for all their clobber.

The fact that the five-seater Volvo offers a wide range of personalisation options in the cabin further adds to the XC60’s upmarket aspirations.

After spending a long day driving the XC60 on a variety of rural roads, we feel that BMW and company has a formidable foe on their hands.

We do wish we had a bit more time to assess this vehicle on more urban or city roads, but the fact that we did not tire of the XC60 is a good sign.

So here we are ... around 1000 words into a new Volvo review, and not a mention of the highly impressive city safety low-speed crash avoidance radar that either completely averts or greatly minimises impacts at under 15km/h.

We can tell you that this technology is absolutely fantastic if it saves you the financial and physical pain of a bingle, while the automatic cruise control device and the automatic braking that helps you slow right down is another worthwhile option to help make the XC60 the safest vehicle that Volvo has ever offered.

The fact is, the XC60’s safety message is rightly one of the Volvo’s most compelling virtues, but this vehicle also has appealing style, comfort, driveability and value stories to help lure luxury SUV buyers into the Swedish marque’s fold.

We would like more time with it, but we are willing to stick our necks out and say that the XC60 is not only a leader of its burgeoning class, but also probably the most complete out of the ten distinct Volvo models on offer.

And that it is a long way from the boring old brick boxes of yesteryear ...

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