June 4, 2014

News & Features

Auto review: Volvo leaves boxy behind in V60 wagon

New York Times News Service

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The 2015 Volvo V60 has a sporty design. (Volvo)

Say "Volvo," and what image springs to mind? A station wagon, right? And not just any wagon, but one as square and imperishable as a Saltine, and as much a staple of the suburbs.

So when Volvo stopped selling wagons in America, it was a seismic event. Like many automakers, Volvo saw the writing on the family wall. With its SUVs exponentially outselling traditional wagons, Volvo slammed the tailgate shut in 2011 as the V50 waved goodbye to America.

Now the Volvo wagon rides again, joining a band of outliers including the Audi Allroad, BMW 328i Sports Wagon, Acura TSX Sport Wagon and Cadillac CTS wagon. And although this lovely 2015 entry looks nothing like Swedish Conestogas of yore, the V60 has the familiar Volvo attributes of safety, ease and practicality — and a new bonus of class-leading fuel economy.

Like its sibling, the XC60 crossover SUV, the V60 heralds the downsized Drive-E powertrains that will soon be offered throughout the Volvo lineup. (Despite the E-name, the cars do not have electric propulsion, although hybrid versions are planned.) The V60 gets a 2-liter direct-injected turbo four-cylinder that produces 240 horsepower and a rich 258 pound-feet of torque. Coincidentally or not, the BMW 328i xDrive Sport Wagon makes the same 240 horsepower, with 255 pound-feet, from its 2-liter turbo.

But with the identical eight forward speeds as the BMW (in a smooth-shifting automatic transmission), the Volvo's outstanding economy rating of 37 miles per gallon on the highway, and 25 in town, actually tops the BMW by 4 mpg on the highway and 3 in the city.

As you'd expect, the Volvo also costs less. The T5 Drive-E test car started at $36,225, about $6,000 below the basic Bimmer, and reached $42,225 with options.

The V60 has shed Volvo's square chrysalis and emerged as a Swedish butterfly. This is the prettiest wagon to come down the turnpike in some time. Even New Yorkers took time to pay compliments.

The roofline drops to a rendezvous with the rising flanks. Volvo's signature flowing tail lamps, which recall a pair of high-back Lucite chairs, draw the eye to a saucy, forward-leaning hatch.

This sporty, compact design takes a toll on utility: If you're expecting a furniture warehouse on wheels, like the defunct war horse V70, you'll be looking elsewhere.

Dropping the rear seats opens a modest 43.8 cubic feet of storage. The similar-size Audi Allroad and BMW Sports Wagon manage a respective 50.5 and 53 cubes, although I found the Volvo's hatch nearly as practical in real-world use, though it is far smaller than the 67.4 cubic feet of space in the midsize XC60 crossover.

Consider the Volvo more a sporty grocery-getter for couples or families who travel light. The rear seat is split in a 40/20/40 arrangement, and folding the center section creates a generously wide pass-through for long gear. The leather-wrapped armrest with cup holders and storage, roughly a foot wide, is perfect for keeping children apart and cooties at bay.

In Scandinavian fashion, the cabin design is minimal yet stylish, including Volvo's falling waterfall console, brushed metal trim and a kind of elephant-hide-grained plastic on the dash. Front or rear, the seats are magnificent (including optional white-stitched Sport seats), so luxuriously stuffed yet supportive that they should win some orthopedic seal of approval.

My test car's $1,500 Sport package added to the looks and performance, with those white-stitched seats, smoke-finished 19-inch alloy wheels and a set of surprisingly robust and tactile metal paddle shifters on the steering wheel.

A central infotainment screen greatly improves on Volvo's usual stingy units, but still trails other systems that are easier to use. My test car, thankfully, came without the optional navigation system. Geely, Volvo's Chinese owners, might bolt in a counterfeit hand-held from a Beijing alley that would do a smarter job.

Volvo needs no such help on safety. Its standard, pioneering City Safety system, now mimicked by some competitors, can automatically stop the V60 at speeds up to 31 mph if it detects potential collisions with cars or pedestrians. The $900 BLIS package added the radar-based Blind Spot Information System, rear cross-traffic alert and parking sensors front and rear.

Drivers can reconfigure the digital driver's display, switching a central speedometer for a tachometer or adjusting colors and effects: If you toggle up the teal-colored Eco display, then press too hard on the gas pedal, the screen glows red like an angry blister. The display is attractive and momentarily diverting, although it's mainly for show as it is not linked to actual performance settings. Consider it Volvo's mood ring.

A separate Eco switch does change the car's behavioral mindset. Like a Porsche system, its eco-coast function uses a clutch to fully disengage the powertrain and save fuel when you're not pressing the accelerator. But I found myself switching off Eco mode because of its obtrusive engine start/stop function, which unfortunately defaults to "on" each time you start the car.

Even without Eco mode, I managed 35 mpg on a long highway cruise. That's 2 mpg shy of the federal estimate, but still outstanding mileage for a wagon with so much power, aided by the discreet-shifting transmission.

Labeling a four-cylinder car a T5 may be confusing. But clarity comes with a 6.1-second sprint to 60 mph, plenty quick for a family wagon. That time lengthens to 6.8 seconds for the T5 AWD model, a $37,725 version that does have five cylinders: Volvo's older 2.5-liter five-cylinder with 250 turbocharged horses. Owners who insist on shaking up the neighborhood can have the $45,225 T6 AWD R-Design, a sport-tuned version with 325 horsepower from a 3-liter in-line turbo 6.

When pushed, the V60 will give chase, with a linear wave of turbo power and surprisingly ample grip from its fat 19-inch tires.

The chassis also strikes an equitable balance between ride smoothness and control, though body motions could be more tamped down. Undulating high-speed pavement, especially, begins to unsettle the V60 like a storm-tossed rowboat.

For all types of driving, the main demerit — as in some other Volvos — are brakes that feel mushy and less than powerful. For a brand whose reputation rests on safety, these wimpy binders should prompt engineering meetings in Gothenburg.

But it seems that even the world's strongest brakes cannot stop Americans from fleeing wagons for taller-riding crossovers. I'm sure Volvo will continue to sell several XC60s for every V60 that leaves the showroom.

But cult status isn't always a bad thing. Drivers who want crossover utility, but demand superior handling and mileage, can have it in a wagon — and break the cookie-cutter suburban mold while they're at it.

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