Friday, May 9, 2014

Test Drive: 2015 Volvo V60 T5 Drive-E Premier

Update: See how the Volvo did against its competitors in our Bike Month Wagon Comparison Test.

While Volvo has long had a reputation for making great wagons (the V70Rs of the last two generations come to mind), it has been many years since they had a proper wagon in the US. The last true wagon, the V70, was well received by the press and Volvo fanatics, but the general public just is not interested. The result was for the wagon to go on hiatus. Volvo continued to produce the SUV-ified Cross Country (XC) branded vehicles like the XC70, but there was not traditional wagon. But now, with an infusion of cash from its new Chinese owners, Geely, the wagon is back and it is better than ever. Best of all, Volvo's reputation for safety remains intact as well, but they have not forgotten how to have a little fun.

Honestly, I cannot say enough about how this thing looks. The broad upright grille and large headlights pull back across a taut sculpted hood. A character line carries from just behind the headlight all the way through to the taillights. The profile is a bit slab-sided, but with just enough detailing to keep it interesting. The roofline manages to taper just a bit to meet the rear hatch - not great for luggage capacity, but fantastic for the looks. The 19-inch two-tone wheels that are a part of the sport package, in partnership with the lowered suspension, give the car just the right muscular stance. Even the Ember Black paint on our tester, which shimmers a reddish-brown in bright sunlight, has amazing depth. I cannot put my finger on exactly why, but somehow the look just works. This wagon is, dare I say, damn sexy.

Open the door and step into the Scandanavian minimalist interior trimmed in a gorgeous looking brown (Volvo calls it "beechwood") leather. The two-tone pattern keeps the brown from becoming overwhelming and offers a great contrast to the rather Zen-like simplicity of the rest of the interior. Volvo's now signature waterfall center console adorns the space below the smallish 7-inch screen for the Sensus system and is decorated in a brushed metallic surface with a satin metallic surround. The rest of the interior is trimmed in soft-touch plastics that largely feel a cut above competitors interspersed with the occasional dabble of slightly cheap looking hard plastic such as that used on the door switches. The interior may not be to everyone's liking, but to me, it is simple, intuitive, well-crafted, and very comfortable. The sport seats are absolutely fantastic and probably the most ergonomically sound seats of any car I have driven. Directly ahead of the driver is a thick-rimmed 3-spoke steering wheel trimmed in smooth leather that nicely frames the TFT-LCD instrument panel. This digital cluster offers several different "themes" that change the color scheme and layout of the information displayed, offering a level of customization unmatched by competitors.

In back, the premium feel of the materials from up front carries through. Even the door panels, where most other manufacturers skimp by switching to hard plastics below the grab handles, is made from the same soft-touch plastic as most of the rest of the interior. Space is adequate enough for two slightly above-average sized adults, though three across is bound to get a bit tight. One fun feature is the electronically folding rear headrests, which are great for bopping unruly rear-seat passengers on the back of the head. Behind those second-row seats is a spacious and versatile cargo space. Drop those second-row seats forward and it opens up a huge expanse of unobstructed space that is perfect for fitting in my road bike without any wrestling required. At 43-inches wide and 67-inches deep with the seats down, the space is totally flat and absolutely nothing intrudes, unlike some of its competitors. All of the add-ons, such as the cargo nets and cargo cover, have their own special cubbies under the floor along with a bit of extra storage for smaller items. That sloping roofline does cut into the total cargo volume a tiny bit, but in the vast majority of situations, goes largely unnoticed and is a small sacrifice for the exterior styling. Conspicuously absent, however, is a power closing rear hatch, though the weighting of the hatch is just right and swings down easily with just a bit of effort.

Back up front, a stab of the push-button start rouses the new Drive-E motor to life. This 2.0L motor is breathed upon by a turbocharger and produces an impressive 240-hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Mash the throttle to the floor and an overboost function kicks in for 10-seconds of an additional 22 lb-ft of torque, making passing a breeze. The result is a motor that is extremely tractable at city speeds and impressively smooth cruising on the highway all while returning class leading fuel economy on regular gasoline. Yes, that's right, this is a premium car that does not require premium fuel. The engine is mated up to a fantastic Aisin 8-speed automatic that is among the best sorted automatics I have driven. No matter what I threw at it, it never got out of sorts and was totally seamless during regular driving while shifting crisply when called upon in sport mode. In Eco+, the transmission is even able to disconnect from the engine under certain conditions, essentially allowing the car to coast in order to conserve more fuel. Acceleration is impressive for the size of the engine and the torque steer is well-managed given just how much torque is made. Off the line, even in fuel-sipping Eco+ mode, the car never once felt slow or lacking in power. One knock again the powertrain is the auto start/stop function, which can be a bit rough upon restart, though a button is present to easily shut it off and it automatically disables itself when the car is in Sport mode. The brakes are also a touch soft on initial application, but firm up nicely as more pressure is added and the initial feel can be chalked up to the regenerative function that takes load off the alternator by recharging the battery, another fuel economy oriented feature.

Now, while those 19-inch wheels look gorgeous, they are a part of the sport package which offers a sport-tuned suspension that also lowers the car about a half-an-inch. Compared with the standard touring suspension, the sport suspension is definitely stiffer and the lower profile tires add to that feeling. At no point does the wagon ever feel uncomfortably harsh, but it is definitely quite a sporty ride. It is very composed, however, and the handling is fairly crisp around town while remaining decently balanced when the pace increases. This is helped by a system that uses the brakes to vector the power and rotate the car into corners. It also certainly does not hurt that the steering is well-weighted and fairly communicative, though not nearly as chatty as that of my TSX.

On whole, the package is an impressively well-rounded one: excellent versatility, power, and handling with a comfortable and quiet interior all wrapped in a gorgeous exterior. All of the expected technological accouterments are there (smart entry, push-button start, infotainment with color display, and memory seats) and it all comes standard in even the base car. The V60 pretty much exemplifies what a modern sport wagon should be. It is not quite flawless, especially the auto start/stop feature that could use a little more time in the oven. Of course, that one minor foible can be overlooked given how decidedly solid the rest of the package is. Best of all, my road bike is guaranteed to fit in easily without needing to remove anything. It is too bad that Americans generally do not like wagons and even Volvo realizes that it is not going to sell that many of these a year. Still, in characteristically Swedish fashion, they don't seem to care and are quite content to continue to go their own way. That admirable independence shines through in a product that is well-rounded, versatile fun with just a little quirky in all the right ways.

Tags: automotive, review, test drive, Volvo, wagon