What It Is
Volvo's popular 5-passenger SUV on steroids, but without the anger and "backne."
The Polestar performance package adds power without sacrificing MPG.
Cluttered center dash is confusing.
Almost the best is much better than most.
On a bright and cold, windy day in late April, I met Volvo's PR chief for BBQ and a local college baseball game. My alma mater--a regional powerhouse having a down year--was playing his alma mater--the other regional and more distinguished powerhouse--for what usually amounted to the most exciting conference series of the season, and one which usually determined playoff rankings.
My team surprisingly took the first game of the three game series, but didn't start off well for the second game. His team capitalized on a series of miscues, and by the third inning, the game was well out of reach. In a way, my team's performance reflected what happened to Volvo at the turn of the century. There were many early successes in the United States, but a dismal second act while controlled by Ford nearly erased that legacy, putting Volvo in the precarious position it's now in. Will the post-Ford resurgence, which begins in 2014 with the arrival of a new premium sedan and SUV, be enough to spearhead the Swede's rise from nascent-premium automaker into an unquestionably desirable brand, regardless of manufacturing origin? And what do we make of the post-Ford but pre-resurgence vehicles right now?
By the middle innings, the PR chief and I got to chatting about a rival premium automaker, and he scoffed at what he perceived was that brand's weakness, despite strong sales numbers. "I'm just not interested in driving an appliance," he said. By all accounts, the rival vehicle is a very good one, and it has been mighty successful for that manufacturer. But I could sense frustration in his tone, and perhaps a tinge of jealousy. Volvo is one of the smallest "premium" manufacturers and there's some resigned acceptance in a "David and Goliath" analogy here. It's pretty much Volvo vs. everyone else, but the little guy hasn't yet felled the behemoth.
We didn't stick around to see the end of the second game, but before leaving, the PR chief said, "We need to get you into an XC60." It was a comment marked in confidence without the airy or arrogant swagger of boastful assertions. "Yes," I replied, eager to see how Volvo's best-selling vehicle stacked up against the competition.
What We DroveThe 2012 Volvo XC60 T6 AWD R-Design is the range-topping two-row crossover in Volvo's lineup, and it contains equal parts of unassuming modesty (Base model XC60 starts at $34,175, including destination), factory interesting (T6 AWD engine and drivetrain, starts at $40,325), and night-sweat-inducing insanity (R-Design, $44,875). Shake, then pour over ice, and the result is a concoction of sophisticated, tire-shredding elegance for $53,375.
At that price, you'd expect the XC60 T6 AWD R-Design to impress with features, and it does--starting with a 325-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 that has been massaged by Swedish performance tuner Polestar for an additional 25 horsepower over the XC60 T6. Our XC60 T6 AWD R-Design came with a six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, traction and stability control, smart anti-lock brakes, exclusive 20-inch wheels, chrome skid-plates and exhaust tips, and various R-Design trim bits scattered around the interior.
Our tester was handsomely equipped, and included the following options: At $4,450, the Platinum package adds voice-activated navigation, backup camera, power operated tailgate, parking assist, and a couple other niceties; at $3100 extra, the Climate- and Technology Packages add heated front and rear seats, heated windshield-washer nozzles, adaptive cruise control, collision warning with full auto brake, pedestrian detection with full auto brake, lane departure warning, and a distance alert and driver-alert control. You would think that the Technology package would include blind spot mirrors, but it does not. Those are an extra $700, and so is the $550 metallic paint.
Since it's a Volvo, the XC60 T6 AWD R-Design goes above and beyond the usual safety gadgets with devices like Volvo's City Safety, which detects impending collisions in city traffic, and can even panic brake the car to a stop. Of course, the R-Design is also equipped with a host of airbags for the front and rear passengers from knees to hair, height-adjustable seatbelts, whiplash-protection seats, and LATCH child seat attachments.
The CommuteEvery member of the Automotive.com staff walked away in some manner impressed with the XC60. It's the R-Design part that some felt was a bit… much. Depending on which staff member you asked, the Volvo XC60 T6 AWD R-Design was either a dream to commute with, or an unnecessary hassle.
Functionally, the XC60 is a versatile platform, capable of a multitude of demanding duties. But for the commute, the R-Design with Polestar package, a factory performance upgrade to the engine computer that retains factory fuel economy and warranty, is very aggressive. In addition to the extra 25 horsepower, the R-Design adds a stiffer suspension and large 20-inch rims with low-profile tires. These additions are well suited to windy roads (more on that below), but some on the staff felt it too harsh for the Interstate and around town.
Inside, though, the two-toned, leather bucket seats are a pleasing mix of soft, comfortable, and supportive, and the electric blue rimmed, machined-metal gauges looked modern and were easy on the eyes. The navigation screen was angled for the driver's line of sight and displayed bright, sharp graphics that were easy to read and follow. While gridlocked, the premium, 650-watt audio system provided impressive depth and brilliance from its 12-speaker arrangement, though the satellite radio reception was horrid, cutting out for every overhead bridge, walkway, and tree in its path. The steering wheel and its controls were also well partitioned and accessible, enabling us to control a number of functions.
But not every interior treatment was met with praise. We unanimously felt that the center stack was busy and cluttered. Never mind the portly, chrome climate controls. Specifically, the number pad seemed outdated and misplaced, and the function buttons surrounding it were hard to read, hard to reach, or unfamiliarly labeled. While it is something one could get used to, the question is then would you want to?
We were decidedly split on that issue, but even the dissenters felt that overall, the base-model XC60 T6, at $10,400 less than our R-Design, is a smart contender for the segment crown. But there is one surprising observance about the T6 AWD R-Design that--for me--set it apart.
The EPA lists the XC60 T6 AWD R-Design at 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. As the last of our staff to drive the Volvo, I also got the most time with it. Our first tank of gas returned 20.5 mpg--a combined effort that saw a lot of over-eager throttle mashing and some very conservative highway commuting. This is in line with the EPA's combined estimation. But on the second tank--entirely my own driving--I drove 428.3 highway miles on 13.816 gallons of fuel. That comes out to 31.0 mpg highway, and 8 whole mpg better than EPA estimates.
In fact, while driving on the highway, I never saw less than 28 mpg in the digital meter, and was even able to hit 23 mpg in the city! These are astonishing results for a 325-hp, turbocharged, performance-tuned, six-cylinder engine.
The Grocery RunThere's little to fault on this one. The XC60 T6 AWD R-Design is much larger and more spacious than it looks. With the rear seats up or down, you can easily store a half-month's supply of groceries or an entire little league team's baseball gear. That much is obvious, and you get that with the $34,150 base model XC60 3.2 all the way up to the $49,000 T6 AWD R-Design Premium.
But the R-Design is more than just a safe deposit box on wheels. The cabin is quiet and the passengers are well isolated from roadside noise. The backup camera and sensors worked brilliantly while parallel parking into a small space on a busy street. In parking lots, the sharp turning radius made narrow parking lots a breeze, and with the expansive panorama moonroof, it never occurred to our young rear passengers that they should have had a rear entertainment system. And as mentioned above, a careful foot can indeed better an understated fuel economy rating.
Very few family and gear haulers can sprint to freeway speeds in under six seconds, and that makes this SUV ideal for both the moms and dads who require just a little extra oomph in their daily lives.
The Weekend FunIt's hard not to smile when stomping the gas in the XC60 T6 AWD R-Design. Every one of the 325 turbocharged ponies under the hood beats and whinnies to your intended desire, and a lot of that comes from the Polestar performance package. Sure, the 300-hp, 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 is a great place to start, but the extra 25 horsepower and 29 lb-ft torque make a noticeable difference. And since it doesn't affect fuel economy, I'd argue that owners of any previous XC60 T6 should purchase the dealer-installed upgrade. It's that good.
To put that into perspective, our sister publication, Motor Trend, found that the XC60 T6 AWD R-Design could hit 60 mph from a standstill in just 5.7 seconds. That's quicker than a Lexus GS 350, a Scion FR-S, a Porsche Panamera Hybrid, and is fractions of a second slower than a Ford Mustang GT and Subaru WRX. Which is pretty outstanding for a 4300-lb family wagon...if you're into that kind of thing. But even if you're not, the R-Design's power can be effortlessly used for freeway passing, lane-changing and merging into traffic, and when slipped into neutral, for impressing the lesser dads in the school parking lot (And to the moms--"Yeah, it's a Volvo).
Of course, the R-Design is more than just the engine. Volvo outfitted it with a sport suspension that includes stiffer-wound springs and thicker stabilizer bars that inhibit vehicle lean when cornering hard. That allows you to corner faster and with more confidence, again, if you're into that kind of thing. While the brakes remain unchanged, the R-Design receives handsome, 5-spoke 20-inch alloy wheels and numerous badges to stand out from the crowd.
Perhaps the best thing about diving down the canyons or gunning the freeway on-ramps is that you're doing it in 1) a comfortable crossosver, and 2) a Volvo. That the XC60 T6 AWD R-Design can keep pace with any of the aforementioned sports cars and sedans, and do so without affecting fuel economy, and from the comfort of a modern, plush interior, speaks toward the notion of what we expect from a Volvo.
SummaryThe XC60 T6 AWD R-Design is not your mother's Volvo, though it could be. While it can function like any other crossover on the market--kid and stuff hauling, vacationing, commuting--we felt that most people would be better off with a non-R-Design model, for a lot less coin. Part of this is due to the R-Design's stiffer suspension, which is obviously geared more for sport than commuting. Lower-end models still leave you with the comfortable-but-cluttered interior, but complaining about luxury amenities is little more than being nitpicky.
With that said though, if you're looking for an enthusiast-tinged SUV, and the XC60's charming, understated looks and safety record appeal to you, the R-Design may be the value option. Compare it to the BMW X5 xDrive35i Sport Activity--which starts at $57,700--or the every-mom-on-the-block-has-one Lexus RX 350. A better option, however, is to select the T6 AWD for $40,325 and then add the factory-installed Polestar package (minus the R-Design's buffed-up suspension) for $1,495, a grand total of $41,820, or $11,555 less than the R-Design we drove.
On the Sunday after the baseball game with the PR chief, our teams played out the third game of the weekend series. And true to tradition, it was a West Coast style of offense where an undervalued, fundamental approach took down my team's pitching and defense on national television. That's Volvo, utilizing sound techniques, applying pressure to the defense, and taking the extra base. It's not an approach that will attract a lot of attention, but it inspires confidence and wins respect. More importantly, Volvo--and the XC60--redefines our expectations and leaves us curious for what's next.
Spec BoxPrice as tested: $53,375
EPA City: 17 mpg
EPA Highway: 23 mpg
EPA Combined: 20 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 370 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Poor
Notebook Quotes"The buttons on the XC60's dash are cramped, hard to use while driving, and downright confusing." - Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"The center stack is nicely textured: thin metal lines are diagonally angled, and there's not a single surface in the interior that isn't either soft or solid feeling. But why do the icons for the air vents look like a fat person? Is this the American model?" - Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor
"It took me a minute to get oriented with the interior, but like Swedes themselves, you're intrigued and a bit captivated." - Matt Askari, Associate Editor
"I could not for the life of me see the front of the vehicle when I was parking. I moved the seat up to the point where my head was almost touching the ceiling, but I still couldn't see." - Jacob Brown, Associate Editor