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2011 Volvo XC60 R-Design: Swedish for fun, which means practical, too

Performance version of compact crossover mixes power, off-road ability
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, R-Design features pump up the look and performance of Volvo's compact  
XC60 crossover, including exclusive wheels, exterior chrome trim and  
dual chrome exhaust tips.

I first encountered the 2011 Volvo XC60 R-Design at Mudfest, the annual test of off-road vehicles conducted by the Northwest Automotive Press Association. This year it was held on a farm with a modified dirt bike track in rural Clark County. The course had two legs - an easy one through a wooded area and a harder one with steep climbs, abrupt drops and sharp switchbacks. The XC60 made quick work out of even the most difficult one, a testament to its high ground clearance and tenacious all-wheel-drive system.

In fact, the only disconcerting note was worrying about tracking mud into the vehicle's luxurious interior, which included two-tone leather seats and an alloy-trimmed sport steering wheel.

I picked up the same vehicle for a week-long test drive a few days later. Tooling around the region, the interior was a joy, not a distraction. The comfortable driver's seat made even long trips easy.

The only odd thing was feeling like I could drive such a refined vehicle over anything in my way, including curbs, light rail stations and small cars.

Such is the dual nature of Volvo's compact crossover. It will take you places you'll probably never go because you don't want to scratch the paint or alloy wheels.

The XC60 competes against a broad range of crossovers. The compact class ranges from the affordable Hyundai Tucson to the upscale Acura RDX. The XC60 is at the upper end of the scale, both in terms of technology, quality and price, especially the R-Design version. Other companies fielding luxury compact crossovers include Audi, BMW and Mercedes.

Volvo uses the term R-Design to designate sporty versions of various models. In the case of our terst model, the package included a turbocharged inline six cylinder engine, a sport-tuned suspension and steering system, 19-inch alloy wheels, special interior trim features and exterior chrome highlights. The result is one of the snappiest looking station wagons on the market today.

In fact, the XC60 R-Design should probably be consider a sport wagon, a classification Volvo virtually created in 1972 with the 1800ES, a wagon version of its iconic P1800 sports car.

The interior is also well laid-out, with the center console slightly angled towards the driver. Controls are a mix of knobs and buttons, with the knobs operating major functions like stereo volume and heat, and the buttons reserved for more specialized jobs, like front and rear window defrost and heated seats. Materials included high-quality leather, flexible plastic and machined metal, giving the cabin a refined, upscale - but still functional - appearance. The only "flaw" is the chrome figure in the middle of the dash that directs air to the head, torso and legs of the front seat occupants. Although easy to understand and use, it looked more silly than useful.

There is a good amount of storage room behind the rear seats, including hidden compartments for valuables. A pop-up panel includes an elastic strap to keep grocery bags from falling over, a thoughtful touch. Larger items can be easily accommodated by folding down the back seats.

On the road, the XC60 R-Design performed extremely well in day-to-day driving. The stiffer suspension was a little jittery over broken pavement, but felt supple on smooth streets and made driving on twisty roads fun. The steering was precise and the brakes were easy to modulate. With 300 horsepower on tap, the 3.0-liter engine moved the XC60 quickly off the line quickly and made freeway passing a breeze. The company has recently begun advertising its turbocharged S60 sedan as the "Naughty Volvo." If that's true, the turbocharged XC60 is it's like-minded older cousin.

But for all its speed, the XC60 also comes with Volvo's traditional array of safety features, including multiple air bags and blind spot warning system that signals when another car iis pulling up beside you. Our test model also had the City Safe system that automatically stops the vehicle before hitting anything at speeds below 19 miles per hour. The system worked well in parking lot tests.

The base XC60 starts at $32,000 or so, which is very reasonable, considering its quality construction. Our test model topped $48,000, but that included the all-wheel-drive system, the R-Design touches and such premium options as the rear-view camera and navigation system. Anyone interested in a well-made premium compact crossover should check it out.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 XC60 R Design

• Manufacturer: Volvo.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive

• Style: Five-door wagon.

• Engines: Turbocharged inline 6 cylinder (300 hp., 325 ft. lbs.)

• Transmissions: 6-speed automatic with manual mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/22.

• Price: $32,000 to $48,000 (as tested).