As much as I try to approach each test drive with a clean mental slate, I find it hard to shake off my images of Volvos I saw when I was growing up. The Swedish automaker's boxy and square cars were reliable and safe, but never styling trendsetters.
Volvos were the favorite wheels of choice for the "I'm sensible, but boring" brigade who did not have the means to claim ownership to ostentatious German luxury models sold by Mercedes, BMW and Porsche. Many Volvo owners, faux elites with lower incomes but highly educated, settled on Swedish austerity by insisting that "safety" is the car's main point; you could complete the package with a few sprinkles of excitement tossed in, but at a very conservative dose.
The boxy-and-utilitarian "Ikea on wheels" image came crashing in during the late 1990s when the Swedes finally joined the styling parade with the introduction of evocative designs in the S80, S70 and S60, this week's test car. In the S60, Volvo has again taken a chance with this year's model and has succeeded in creating the prettiest Volvo sedan yet that still retains the "I'm safe and sensible" image intact.
The car nods to current fashion with the coupelike arch of its roof while the rest of the car takes now familiar Volvo cues – the slender hood, sprinter's stance, flared rear haunches and a pert, cliff-hanging rear deck.
The car is reasonably priced – $31,750 for the front-drive T5, while the turbocharged T6 All Wheel Drive lists for $40,450. Combined with a bevy of high-tech safety net driver aid options, the S60 is now nipping at the heels of established performers such as the Audi A-4 and the BMW 3-series in terms of driving fun and features. Volvo is also gradually capturing what it calls "premium intenders" – younger professionals moving up from mainstream brands. Last month's sales reports indicate the S60, Volvo's sales leader and the first new model since Ford sold Volvo to the Chinese automaker Geely, rose 15.1 percent from December 2011 and are the best since 2007.
We tested the S60 for a week in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland. Compared to similarly equipped models from Acura and Volkswagen (the TL and VW CC), the S60 holds its own. Inside and out of the District, on country back roads and I-66, the S60 T5 offered a nice blend of smoothness and comfort. The Volkswagen CC's trunk is slightly larger than the S60's and the Acura offers more back-seat and trunk space, as well as more standard interior features. The CC also offers similar safety and fuel economy ratings.
The 2013 Volvo S60 seats five and has standard front-wheel drive. S60 T5 models come with a turbocharged 2.5-liter engine, while T6 models feature a more powerful turbocharged 3.0-liter engine and standard all-wheel drive. A total of nine trims are available, which range from the base T5 to the T6 R-Design Platinum.
The S60 offers crash test scores and standard safety technology that exceeds many cars in the class. Last year, the S60 sports sedan was one of only two midsize luxury vehicles to earn the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) inaugural Top Safety Pick plus award.
Of special note is Volvo's City Safety system, which can automatically apply the brakes to help lessen the severity of a low-speed collision. Also included is Pedestrian Detection, a camera- and radar-based system that can automatically stop the S60 to avoid striking someone at speeds below 22 mph. At higher speeds, the system markedly slows the car before impact, possibly the difference between a fatal accident and a trip to the hospital.