By The Lenspeed Team
Volvo isn’t the first brand that comes to mind at Lenspeed when we talk about driver’s cars, but the surprising proliferation of efficient and powerful turbocharged engines (and some twincharged!), plus the addition of an Aisin 8-speed transmission in new Drive-E models, have made us sit up and pay more attention.
Under Chinese ownership, Volvo has seemed to have lost none of its Scandinavian roots, betraying none of the source of its new-found lease of life. Like how Tata has managed Jaguar Land Rover, Geely has largely kept its hands off the operations at Volvo, providing only the funds that have allowed Volvo to innovate and modernise. The new XC90 is the first car Volvo has launched since being bought by Geely, and from first impressions it looks fantastic inside and out. It’s the same story with the technology we find in Volvos nowadays, which can surprise even Wall-E.
We’re curious to know how all of this new tech underneath has translated to the driving experience, so we took a XC60 T5 Drive-E to find out.
The XC60 was always a handsome looking SUV, and those charmed by Twilight may remember Edward Cullen driving one (I had to Google his name, by the way. Definitely not a Twilight type). Its lines are clean and yet captivating, which is an achievement – how this is done is perhaps the reason why it all seems so right: the designer of the XC60 was inspired by flowing water in a river near his home. Naturally-inspired design never age, as they are made to last a lifetime!
One slightly disappointing change, to my eyes, from the pre-facelift to the current car, is the front cosmetic change which now feature single headlights instead of the more interesting two-part design in place before. Now this looks like a simplification that removed a little sophistication (see below for the old headlights).
Moving inside, the interior is a slightly off-beat mix of durability and luxury. Everything feels like it’s built to last the triplets and their growing up battles (dropping ice cream, soiling, etc) but yet the soft leather and well-judged materials are definitely a step above what you may find in, say, a Volkswagen. This juxtaposition extends to the centre console and instrumentation, where the former feels decidedly aged next to its rivals with its myriad of buttons and a slightly frivolous ‘manikin’, while the latter is a super high-tech switchable digital gauge that is frankly a bit pointless. I just stuck to my favourite gauge and didn’t bother about it anymore. I doubt any owner would be changing his gauge designs very often, if at all. Taken as a package the interior feels like a mix of old and new, comfortable but not quite luxurious. Of course all of this does fade into the background once you sample the seats – which are very supple and soothing – and start driving, as everything does work perfectly intuitively.
You sit pretty high in the XC60, but Volvo has made it easy to get in and out of, which wasn’t a problem at all for the parents. In fact, driving around urban areas was a cinch thanks to great visibility all-round. However, you do feel the size of the car when it comes to parking, although with a reverse camera it helps to make sure you don’t back up too far. Also, while the XC60 feels more car-like than MPV, its slow-witted steering is ponderous and feels as if it is hampering the rest of the car, which is eager to be driven more spiritedly.
Now on to the major changes of the Drive-E model: with a brand-new 2.0-litre four-cylinder developed in-house at Volvo, the engine is good for 245bhp and 350Nm. It features friction reduction measures such as ball bearings on the camshaft and high-speed continuous variable valve timing. Admittedly, it’s as good a turbocharged engine as the best out there, with a strong and linear delivery that can shove this SUV to pace with ease. Because it is FWD only, the engine can efficiently pull the XC60 along without any weight and drivetrain debt of a AWD vehicle, giving commendable fuel economy for a car of its size. A win-win in Singapore really, if you insist on having an SUV. One thing I rather dislike about the engine though, is the sound it makes – more vacuum cleaner than cutting-edge engineering, it is at times as noisy as a diesel on idle and maybe even more so on load. Not a pleasant workhorse to hear by any means, but at least it does an exceptionally good job while at it.
There is also little to fault about the Aisin gearbox. It is fast, seems to be wired directly to my brain and exceptionally efficient. Although not strictly a Volvo engineered device, it is at least very well-paired to the engine. Interestingly enough, you can at the same time also get a XC60 R-Design with an older 4-cylinder turbo engine equipped with a 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox dubbed powershift, but having experienced both gearboxes we’d much rather have the Aisin box.
An interesting thing about the ECO+ mode in the XC60 that sets it apart from other Start-Stop systems is that it cuts off the engine even before the car comes to a complete stop. Although I’m unsure how much more fuel this will save as compared to a conventional Start-Stop, it does work pretty unobtrusively and is slightly unnerving, in a good way.
Another feature in the Drive-E model is Volvo Sensus Connect, which taps onto your mobile phone to activate web surfing and internet radio in the car, the former limited to only up to 7 km/h. We didn’t get to try this feature when we had the car, although we got a demonstration of an engine remote start, which might come in handy to get the interior frosty before actually stepping in!
When we returned the car, we were a bit sad to give back a car that balances utilitarian and style in a way that only Volvo can manage. It’s certainly an appealing proposition for families, and in our view there are really no direct competitors in Volvo’s segment that is not quite mass yet not quite luxury. And maybe for that reason alone, the XC60 would find its niche of buyers. Yet, because of its stellar drivetrain that brings the XC60 up to speed with its German and Japanese rivals, it might even attract a clientele beyond that niche…