Midsize crossover combines look and performance with reputation for safety

The 2013 Volvo XC60 T6 AWD competes well against the European luxury crossovers.Remember the Maytag repairman, the advertising character who was always bored because his company’s washers and dryers are so dependable? A Volvo factory representative once told me a similar story a few years ago. He brought a brand new Volvo to a Volvo owners’ club meeting in his area. The idea was to interest them in the current lineup. Everyone said it was nice but no one was in a hurry to trade in their existing one. They were all running just fine, thank you.

Too bad for them. In recent years, Volvo has shaken off its reputation for building safe and reliable but dull vehicles. The company’s new cars and crossovers are still safe and reliable, but they are also stylish and fun to drive.

Case in point, the 2013 XC60 T6 AWD, a midsize luxury crossover that competes well against such trendsetters as the BMW X3 and Audi Q5. In a week of test driving, we found Volvo’s entry to be sharp looking, well designed, remarkably stable on the road and — thanks to its turbocharged 300 horsepower 3.0-liter engine and responsive six-speed automatic transmission — surprisingly frisky when prodded.

We also know from a limited test drive that the higher performing version — the 325-horsepower R-Design — is even sportier looking and more fun to throw around. Those who think that only the Germans can build such vehicles need to give their Swedish competitor a try.

Given Volvo’s image as the vehicle of choice for tenured university professors, the company’s willingness to raise the stakes may seem surprising. But it's really a matter of survival. All automotive manufacturers are improving the looks, utility and performance of their lines these days. The range of models, power plants, drive trains and options is truly mind-boggling. Companies that cannot adopt quickly — like Saab — are quickly being left in the dust.

Volvo has not compromised the unique character of its vehilces in the race to compete, however. The exterior styling of its cars, wagons and crossovers is still distinctive. The old box on box design has been replaced with sensuous curves and clever creases. The traditional corporate grill on our XC60 was well integrated into the slightly sloping front end. The sides swelled up to a nip-and-tuck rear end that verged on the Italian.

The interior still exuded the Scan Design feel that has marked Volvo’s for so long. Form and function flow together perfectly. The deeply sculpted leather front bucket seats were both beautiful and comfortable. The metal-faced center console was slightly angled towards the driver. All instruments were easy to read and the controls were logically placed. Though efficiently desgned, the feel was much warmer than an Audi or Mercedes.

Volvo is also the only manufactuer offering a turbocharged gasoline inline 6 engine. It is remarkably smooth, and the power comes on with a rush that makes you wonder why there aren’t more of them on the market.

Reviewers have called the XC60 both a small and mid-size crossover. It is certaintly larger than a compact crossover but does not have a third row of seats. It seats five comfortably, although leg room is a little tight in the back seat for adults. There is plenty of head and shoulder room however. Cargo space behind the back row is more than ample and huge when the seats are folded down.

As usual, our test CX60 was loaded up with options, pushing the price to above $48,000. Base versions with a naturally-aspirated 3.2-liter inline 6 and front-wheel-drive begin at around $34,000. Well-equipped T6 AWD versions start at just over $40,000. Our XC60 was the Platinum version that included a variety of appearance, comfort, entertainment and convenience upgrades that increased the enjoyment of the driving experience. They are not absolutely necessary if price is an overriding concern, however.

Some manufacturers seem to coast on their reputations a little too long. Volvo could probably have continued stressing its safety innovations and creature comforts for a while longer. Instead, it started taking risks a few years ago and producing vehicles that appeal to the heart and not just the head. The 2013 XC60 T6 AWD is one of them.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 XC60 T6 AWD.

• Manufacturer: Volvo.

• Class: Mid-size crossover.

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

• Style: Five-door SUV.

• Engines: 3.2-liter inline 6 (240 hp, 236 lbs-ft); turbocharged 3.0-liter inline 6 (300 hp, 325 lbs-ft); turbocharged 3.0-liter inline 6 (325 hp, 354 lbs-ft).

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

• EPA estimated city/highway/average mileage (engine/drivetrain): 19/25/21 (3.2/FWD); 18/24/20 (3.0T/AWD).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $34,350 ($48,145 as tested).

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