Many industry insiders were understandably concerned for the future of Volvo when the Swedish manufacturer was sold off by Ford in 2010 to the Chinese concern Geely Automobile, feeling that while the alliance was a welcome short-term fix, its long-term future was questionable.
In fairness to the Chinese, the acquisition was a very good one for a number of reasons: firstly they bought it for just $1.8 billion, a knock-down price considering Ford had paid $6.45bn for it not ten years previously; secondly, it immediately gave them access to a variety of technologies and manufacturing processes it would have taken them years to develop themselves; and thirdly, it gave them access to a premium automotive brand - one they had no hope of establishing themselves.
But western pundits being the sceptics they are, it was felt that the Chinese would not simply sit back and allow their new Swedish purchase to continue doing what it was good at doing and that the meddling of the new management would soon spoil the broth and see the valued name of the brand diminished beyond possible resuscitation.
Well that has not happened and as it turns out, the Chinese have been wise beyond reputation. They have largely left well-enough alone and, despite a few understandable appointments at board level, allowed the Swedish designers and engineers get on with what they do best. Of course it has taken a little time for everything to settle down in the new regime, but largely Volvo has been able to re-group and re-invigorate and is now looking for expansion on a large scale.
With the Chinese market growing faster than can be credited, the new owners are obviously keen to exploit it, but they also have an eye on existing markets in the US and Europe to expand the brand’s range and popularity and the recent hugely successful launch of the latest XC90 is the kick-off point for a whole load of new cars.
On top of that they have created the new D4 engine range which is the launch point of a whole new family of engines based around two litre, four cylinder architecture (both in petrol and diesel formats) which will ultimately replace all their current powerplants.
It is at this point where we enter the fray with the new D4-powered S60 saloon which is being pitched by the company directly at all its main premium rivals - the Germans.
It will compete with such as the Audi A4, the BMW 3 Series and the Mercedes C-Class and aims to beat them with a combination of performance, economy and price, which is no mean task.
But, on the evidence of what we saw recently the Sino/Swedish alliance is on target with its aims and will undoubtedly be causing ripples on the otherwise calm waters at Ingolstadt, Munich and Stuttgart respectively.
The S60 got a major facelift last year and in its current guise now has more of a look of a coupe than a saloon, with the recently installed design guru Thomas Ingenlath obviously having had a large say in matters. But this is supposed to be a serious contender in the family car/repmobile (sorry, business) segment and thus enjoy all the practicality that goes with the brief.
And so it does: it is commodious both for passengers and cargo; it very definitely has a premium car feel in terms of the materials used to make it and the construction and application of the interior furniture; and, it now has an engine which trumps is main rivals on performance, economy and emissions.
While the rest of the car is largely good and up to scratch in all the necessary areas to allow it call itself ‘premium,’ the engine is the real star of the show here and I think I can honestly say it’s been a while since I have been impressed with what is essentially a mainstream powerplant.
The naked facts tell us that the maximum power output is 133 kW (181 bhp) at 4,250 rpm, with a maximum torque figure of 400 Nm between 1,750 and 2,400 rpm. This in turn translates into a top speed of 230 kph and a 7.4 second 0-100 kph capability.
That latter figure is interesting in that in days of yore, a hot-hatch GTi would have been praised to the rafters if it achieved that sort of performance level and it give you an indication of the sort of ground Volvo has made up on its rivals - premium and otherwise.
But then you throw in a 3.8 l/100 km fuel consumption figure (which, yikes, is 73.6 mpg) and a 99 g/km emission level and you’ve got yourself a truly inspirational thing indeed.
The combination of all those figures tells us that what Volvo has constructed here is a car which does exactly what it was intended to do – it beats the opposition’s directly competing engines into a cocked hat on performance, economy, emissions, tax-friendliness and, at only slightly north of €38k, on price too.
On the road the S60 also has a lot going for it. Many purchasers might not even think of this car being either sporty or dynamic, but they are doing it a major disservice because, truly, it is a lot better in this regard than most might credit.
Sure there is a hint of understeer because of the front-drive layout and you will also develop wheelspin in higher gears if you’re too eager with accelerator applications.
But the Volvo impressed greatly with bags of grip and spot-on handling which allows you to be very precise with steering inputs and the ride quality really is up there with the best in the premium class.
A great engine, excellent chassis and top drawer comfort levels left me walking away from the S60 with renewed faith in the brand.
This is a excellent car and one which delivers a lot more driving satisfaction than might reasonably have anticipated.
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