2011 Volvo S60: Naughty and nice

Restyled midsize sedan mixes fun, practicality
by: Patrick Cote, Volvo is no longer building well-made cars that are safe but dull, as the styling and fun-to-drive 2011 S60 proves.

Volvo is promoting its redesigned 2011 S60 as the Naughty Volvo, a play on its sleek styling, turbocharged engine, taut suspension, low-profile tires and sporty handling.

But when the first snow storm of the season hit the day after I picked up my test vehicle, the S60 turned out to be a Nice Volvo. The heated leather driver's seat took the chill off, while the standard all-wheel-drive system helped me safely maneuver through the slippery streets. It was also reassuring to know that Volvo is still committed to the highest safety standards in the industry, including the new, optional Pedestrian Detection system that automatically stops its cars to prevent collisions up to 22 miles per hour.

This dual nature makes the S60 a little hard to classify. With 300 horsepower on tap, it accelerates quickly, but not as fast as some V8 sport sedans from other manufacturers. On the other hand, it's hard to complain about the ultra-smooth way the power flows out of the high-revving inline six-cylinder engine.

The same can be said about the suspension. Some competitors feel as though they can be thrown into corners more aggressively. But their rides are harsher over rough roads, negating that perceived advantage.

Maybe that's why Volvo is only calling the S60 Naughty and not Nasty. Whatever, the case, during our week of testing, the S60 was very easy to live with and still enjoyable to push on twisty road. In some cars, compromises feel like compromises. But in the S60, they feel more like balance.

Take the styling. The S60 has all the trademarks of a contemporary sport sedan - bulging fenders, a low air dam framed by air scoops, sculpted headlights, a sloping rear window and a high trunk line with an integrated spoiler. But while some sport sedans call undue attention to themselves, the S60 looks restrained, like it doesn't want to brag about itself.

The interior styling is also contemporary but restrained. The leather sport seats are comfortable but supportive. The dash has fewer tiny control buttons than some rivals. And the Volvo-exclusive pass-through storage area in front of the center console is a neat touch.

On the road, the S60 feels refined and nimble. The ride is supple, the steering is tight, the engine is responsive and the six-speed automatic transmission moves quickly through the gears. It's possible to thoroughly enjoy the S60 without ever pushing the turbocharged engine hard or using the transmission's manual shift mode.

But if you want to drive the S60 aggressively, it is more than happy to comply. Like all turbocharged engines, the power builds as the revs increase, creating ever-increasing momentum as it speeds up. Shifting the transmission manually increases the responsiveness, while the four-wheel disc brakes are more than up to the challenge. Cornering at higher speeds is surprisingly flat, given the S60's smooth ride - another sign of its dual nature.

Volvo is heavily promoting its Pedestrian Detection system and it's easy to see why. The company has always been a leader in automotive safety and the automatic braking system is its most recent innovation. At speeds under 22 miles per hour, the system senses impending collusions and slams on the brakes if the driver is not taking evasive action. Although I can't vouch for its real world performance, the system worked every time in tests with an inflatable dummy and Styrofoam wall, so the principle seems strong. It's no substitute for staying alert behind the wheel, of course, but could prevent some accidents from ever happening.

It's hard to find much wrong with the revised version of the S60. Rear seat headroom is a little compromised by the sloping roofline, but no more than many less-styling midsize cars. The segmented human figure on the dash that shows interior airflow looks silly but easy to understand and use. And although the low-profile tires increase steering responsiveness, I'm not sure how well they would handle serious snow.

Volvo took a serious risk when it changed the looks of its cars from its iconic boxy styling to more contemporary designs in the 1990s. The company had built its reputation valuing safety and reliability over trendiness. Then all of a sudden, it seemed to discover that looks matter, too.

Buyers did not turn their backs on the new models, though. Although some of the earlier aerodynamic models were undistinguished, the current line includes some best-looking cars on the road today and sales are healthy. The new S60 is a good example of how Volvo is doing everything right these days.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 S60.

• Manufacturer: Volvo.

• Class: Mid-size sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door, five-passenger car.

• Engines: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline 6 (300 hp, 325 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 17/26.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $38,000.