2019 Volvo S60 First Drive Review: Lustful Luxury And Dynamic Driving

First Drive

Hold the 'made in Germany' sticker, sometimes Scandinavians just do it better.

It was the kind of Santa Monica day that makes one think about the scent of sandalwood, the tone of sun-kissed skin, and the feeling of fine sand exfoliating every bare foot strolling the beach. The grills inside of Michelin stared restaurants were heating up in preparation for A-list clientele and somewhere down the boulevard you could hear the howl of a Ferrari—definitely a Spider—confirming that yes, Eden really is a place you can point to on a map.

Instead of strolling the nearby boardwalk with an overpriced coffee in hand like the rest of the Angelenos, I was to be found in the parking lot of the Shutters Hotel that Volvo had flown me to, inspecting the lean muscle mass rippling underneath the sheetmetal of the 2019 S60. A glance is all it takes to realize Volvo made the right choice when it picked one of Los Angeles’ ritziest neighborhoods to let us loose in a fleet of all new S60s.

Design For The Instagram Era

On the streets of Santa Monica where one must hide behind an exotic badge to fit in, a silent war between automotive styling houses persists. Without the familiarity of Audi’s straight edges, the angered organic form of a BMW, or the contemptuously gothic grin of Mercedes’ Panamericana grille, the Volvo S60 puts up a fight against the German incumbents by peppering polite Swedish simplicity with hints of confidence and a tablespoon of aggression.

Stuck in traffic while piloting the S60, it felt nice seeing Jaguar XF and Mercedes E-Class drivers eyeing the S60 with approval. Equipped with the familiar flat-headed and six-sided grille framing the diagonal stripe-straddling Volvo logo, the S60’s look is enhanced by making the grille stick out ahead of the standard LED headlights that are arranged to look like Thor’s hammer, allowing the character lines stemming from the top of the grille to flow backwards across the hood.

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Handsome cheekbones are formed by the foglight housings while two character lines, one originating above the headlights and another behind the front wheel well, trace across the side of the body and make their way over the rear quarter panel. These lines expand to form a rear profile that’ll please design aficionados while the boomerang-shaped taillamps help the trunk lip better convey its gentle masculinity.

The biggest contributor to the S60’s visual lightness and confident aesthetic comes from its change in footprint. Like many of today’s vehicles, the S60 is longer than its predecessor—in this case by 4.9-inches (3.8-inches of which goes to the wheelbase and in turn, rear seat leg room). Aside from a rear overhang that’s been extended by 4.9-inches to avoid making this S60 look smushed like the last one, the rest of the changes come in the form of subtractions to the front overhang, height, and width by 3.7-inches, 1.8-inches, and 0.7-inches respectively.

An Eco-Friendly Punch

Thanks to Volvo’s SPA-based (short for Scalable Product Architecture) platform, visual weight moves to the rear, allowing the S60 to rest ready on its hind legs and give a more accurate reflection of its unique powertrain. All S60s rely on the same 8-speed auto to manipulate torque, but from there the mixing and matching begins.

Base T5 models come with a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four that relays 250 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels only, but it’s the T6 and T8 powertrains that should interest enthusiasts given that they send power to the rear as well. Both the T6 and T8 see their turbocharged 2.0-liter powerplants gain a supercharger, bringing total power output to 316 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque.

The T8 takes it a step further by adding an electric motor to the rear axle, pushing total output to 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque and allowing the S60 to lay claim to 21 miles of electric-only range and a plug-in hybrid designation.

Sit behind the wheel and it quickly becomes apparent that Volvo based the S60 on a different philosophy than it used for previous iterations, all with the intention of letting drivers make use of the power. It’s not an ideology that compromises the brand’s heritage and puts safety in second place, it’s an ethos that prioritizes a driver’s level of entertainment in a way that best answers the question: what does Sweden’s best crack at a grand tourer drive like? Turns out, it’s pretty great.

Even in the midst of LA’s infamous rush hour traffic the comfortable seats, a centered and ergonomic driving position, and a properly tweaked chassis that feels as tightly wound as a BMW’s without the cumbersome bottom-heavy sensation, makes driving the S60 around town feel mindless. It’s not that the ride is unengaging, but the S60 wisps around town as seamlessly as a soft Gothenburg snowfall, relaying changes in G-force as if they were suggestive shoves from a bouncer wearing silk gloves.

Admittedly, I was “forced” behind the wheel of an S60 equipped with the Four-C active suspension system that rides soft in Eco or the default Comfort mode but gets more serious about hugging the road in Dynamic. With a sprightly T6 under the red hood of an R-Design trimmed S60, this trim receiving separate visual cues than the base Momentum or luxury-oriented Inscription line, my torso was shunted into bolstered seats as the curves of Angel’s Crest and unrelenting throttle feel got the set of Continentals squealing.

Despite feedback-free electric steering that’s become an industry standard, the S60 reveals a desire to play through a reflexive chassis and a steering system that adds weight as the digital speedometer needle rises. Putting the S60 through its paces, one quickly discovers that it’s a vehicle willing to jump into the playground with the more unruly among us. Suffice it to say, Germany was the main target here.

Polestar Has A Say

With dynamics like these, it’s a good thing that Volvo built a highly limited S60 that slots above the normal T8. Enter the S60 T8 Polestar Engineered, a sophisticated plug-in hybrid bruiser that sees its seatbelts and brake calipers painted gold to prove that red isn’t the only color a sports car can rock.

Using nothing more than an engine tune to amplify the standard T8 drivetrain, the S60 Polestar Engineered boasts 415 horsepower and 494 lb-ft of torque. Coupled with Öhlins dampers, Brembo brakes, and exclusive 19-inch forged wheels, the S60 T8 Polestar Engineered does its best to eat at the same table as AMG 43s and BMW M Performance models. Unfortunately, it fails to punch too far outside of the weight class of lowlier T6 S60s. The ride is harsher and more dynamic, as you’d expect it to be, but the extra weight hurts the prospect of it being the first pick on track days.

And then there are the more annoying grievances. Come to a stop by soaking up momentum using the regenerative braking system and the required pedal input varies while software tries to decide how hard the brake pads need to bite. The T8’s shifter is also no fun. Unlike the standard unit found in T5 and T6 models, the electrified T8 is equipped with a selector that must be tapped downwards twice to get into Drive and up two times for Reverse.

At least the S60’s infotainment system ranks a notch above average, responding to inputs on the 9-inch vertically-oriented touchscreen quickly and intuitively. One of the few complaints towards the system is that the screen quickly becomes cluttered with buttons when you start to dig into the menus. Not exactly the simplicity we’ve come to expect from a leader in Scandinavian design.

Luxury For Less

A strong suite of driver aids keeps the priority on safety alive within the reinvented Volvo brand, which I learned when diverting my eyes from the road to adjust the HUD display and felt the steering wheel nudge my meandering S60 back into its lane. That’s the handiwork of the lane keeping aid that’s baked into all S60s along with the computer's road sign reading capabilities, automatic emergency braking, cross traffic alert, a drowsy/distracted driver alert, and pedestrian/large animal detection.

The optional Pilot Assist semi-autonomous drive function doesn’t show up until you either spend $2,500 on the Advanced Package or opt for the T8 powertrain where it’s standard. In terms of horsepower per dollar, the S60 delivers what the competition simply cannot. For the mid-grade R-Design, the T8 starts at $55,045 and descends to $47,045 for the T6 and $42,545 for the T5.

With a sport-tuned chassis, dual tailpipes, paddle shifters, black accents, and a more aggressive face and grille, the R-Design equipped with the T6 ranks as the first choice for sporting enthusiasts. Buyers of base Momentum models are still treated to such niceties as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and a standard panoramic moonroof, but it’s the range-topping Inscription that’ll satisfy if pulling off an impression of the S90 is your goal.

Following the rest of the industry, Volvo is giving buyers three ways to get behind the wheel of the S60. There’s the old school method of buying the car outright using cash or a loan, leasing it, or joining the Care By Volvo subscription service that covers the cost of ownership, insurance, wear and tear, and road hazard protection for about $775 per month for a T6 Momentum or $850/month for the T6 R-Design.

No matter which payment method suits you, there’s no doubt that the S60 makes the Volvo dealership a necessary stop when shopping for a luxury car. Looks, as always, are subjective. But in this case they tell a story. Not the tale of European giants fighting for a temporary spot on the throne, but of a smart and sensible Scandinavian that stuck to its roots and added sex appeal to the body and the driving experience in order to show that greatness can come in something that doesn’t have a “Made in Germany” sticker on it.