Friday, December 15, 2017

Turbo soul lives in the 2018 Volvo XC60

There have been many quirky vehicles in The Garage over the years, but one of the coolest remains the 1984 Volvo 240 Turbo wagon that we owned for a few years during the late Nineties. Officially, the longest of the turbo bricks was called a 245T. Our wagon was the exact spec that fans of the boxy speedster lusted after: A silver wagon with the correct Turbo blackout striping, Euro style grill with inset fog lights, GLT wheels and a manual transmission. It even had the dog gate which swung down from the ceiling to keep Fido in his place. Sadly, we didn’t have a Fido in those days but it was still neat to have it.

That wagon was perhaps the best family vehicle of all time. It could carry 5 adults in comfort. Fold down the rear seats and it would carry a 4×8 sheet of plywood. It looked cool as hell to those who knew and could keep pace with a Fox-body Mustang off the line. While it was a bit too big for an autocross course, the car was a joy to hustle down a winding country road, even when fully loaded.

Back in the day, Volvo used the slogan “Boxy but good” and their sporting varieties became know as Bricks and Turbo Bricks. They weren’t exactly sexy, unless you were turned on by straight lines. Fast forward three decades and our tester, an XC60 T6 R-Design couldn’t be more different. While there are straight accent lines here and there, sensual curves are the order of the day. Those curves do however push up towards muscular rear shoulders, in keeping with the brand’s heritage.

The interior of the old girl left much to be desired, as many of its surfaces were as square as the exterior. Nothing flashy or luxurious here, just black plastic and blue cloth seats in a style that only really excited a Volvo diehard. The interior of the XC60 on the other hand is nothing short of World class. Without seeming too modern, the combination of sensual curves and well chosen finish materials, the Volvo has a definite Scandinavian flair. The machined metal speaker covers are particularly striking.

Techie types will be astounded by the XC60’s incredibly user friendly infotainment system, which is centered around a 9″ centre stack touch display which operates with the fluidity of a smart phone or tablet. It gives users control over a wide range of audio and vehicle settings to tailor the vehicle experience to the individual driver.

The audio system in particular deserves a mention, as it stands out in a segment which is full of serious audio gear. The Volvo Canada media fleet guy enthusiastically pointed out that the Bowers & Wilkins system has different modes, including studio for normal music and concert hall for higher quality music. Most often, these systems seem, to my ears at least, to simply muck around with reverb settings to change the sound in the cabin. The system in the XC60 was painstakingly tuned to replicate the sound in the middle of the renowned Gothenburg Concert Hall, complete with displaying a picture of the place.

To test the system, I directed the system to play music from my bluetooth connected phone rather than the Sirius XM feed. I brought up my Google Play app and chose the Evanescence Fallen album, hit play and cranked the volume. The sound was nothing short of mind blowing. The drums or thunder or whatever the rumble is in Bring me to life, quite literally caused the vehicle to shudder. After that, a bit of vintage Pink Floyd confirmed that the XC60 offers one of the best sound systems on the market.

Back in 2014, I had the opportunity to spend a rather silly 22 hours in Gothenburg, Sweden, home to Volvo with the intention of going for a ride-a-long in the company’s first self driving car. Sadly, it was raining and the vehicle’s sensors could not “see” the markings on the road, which it used to stay in its own lane. Autonomous vehicle technology is moving forward in leaps and bounds and much of the tech that Volvo was working on three years ago is now included in the company’s Pilot Assist system.

Volvo’s tech sheets describe the system as “Semi Autonomous Drive System with Adaptive Cruise Control and Active Lane Keeping Aid”. Adaptive cruise is not a new concept and lane assist type of systems are becoming more common in the marketplace. Some of the systems offered by other manufacturers are clunky at best, disruptive at worst. Where Pilot Assist stands out is in its seamless, unobtrusive operation. Once could quite easily, gasp, look down at their phone, confident in the knowledge that the car is going to do what it is supposed to do.

You may think I have lost my mind with that statement, but that action is exactly what Volvo has had in mind with their development of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. During that visit, I sat down with Volvo’s Autonomous Driving Director, Marcus Rothoff, to discuss the reasoning behind autonomous cars. Volvo has set milestone after milestone for automotive safety over the past 50 decades, so imagine my surprise to hear Rothoff say that self-driving cars would create “possibilities to open up more time”, even going so far as to say that the technology would allow drivers to stay connected to the internet while they were on the road.

Don’t worry, I obeyed the rules of the road while driving the XC60.

All of this talk of inside technology might lead one to think that the spirit of the Turbo Brick has been lost to modern gadgetry, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath the hood of our tester was a 2.0L 4 cylinder that is boosted by both a turbo and a supercharger. Yes, you read that right. The combination generates an impressive 316 HP and 295 lb-ft and is fed to all four wheels through a slick shifting 8-speed automatic unit.


If you have ANY Volvo background, a T5 was a turbo 5-cylinder. At what point did some marketing committee decide that a 4-banger should bear the designation T-6? I know, I am crusty and old, but there is something very wrong there. Don’t get me wrong, I knew this was a four-pot Volvo, the way Uncle Olaf intended, the branding just seems off.

What is not wrong is the way the XC60 drives. Around town, with the drive mode in the default comfort position, the XC60 feels like the dreaded nice car. The comfort and technology take the lead. Move out into the country and switch the drive mode to sport however and the spirit of the Turbo Brick quickly makes itself known. Very quickly.

Honestly, during the first few days with the XC60, I was in full responsible Dad mode. The subtle R-Design logo on the rear hatch caught my eye and somehow reminded me that there was likely some fun lurking within this family machine. At the next light, I fully rolled into the throttle and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Swede is seriously quick. Quicker than many cars of the sporting variety.  Sub 6 second 0-60 quick. To put that into perspective, the sort-of legendary 1989 Mustang GT (rollin’ in my 5.0) reached that standard in 6.1. A lot has changed over the years, but a four cylinder Swedish family hauler can still haul ass.

While the XC60 R-Design might not be a track ready weapon like say, a Porsche Macan GTS, it is definitely a vehicle one can have one heck of a lot of fun in and maybe embarrass a few tuner kids along the way.

On a humorous note,  I learned that keeping the key fob in your pocket while washing the XC60 will cause the door lock system to spasm frequently, locking and unlocking the doors, flashing lights and wiggling the side mirrors like a curious puppy’s ears each time the brush or even water stream go near the door handles. Technology can be a weird and wonderful thing.

There was a time when Volvos were driven by science teachers, accountants and rally enthusiasts. In other words, Volvo was the car for the intelligent, the conservative and throw all caution to the wind performance fans. Today’s Volvo is a different animal. The XC60 T6 R-Design is one which still appeals to all three.

from The Garage
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