Volvo's relaunching a wagon in the U.S. just when we're beginning to have heated debates about wagons vs. crossovers. Having driven the Volvo V60 wagon just now, I wouldn't count the wagon out just yet.
(Full disclosure: Volvo wanted me to drive the V60 so badly that after doing shots of Aquavit with some of Volvo's top brass at the Detroit auto show, they asked if one of us was planning on coming to Las Vegas for the V60/S60/XC60 launch. After a bunch of back-and-forth emails, I scored a last-minute reservation that included a stay at the Vdara, lunch at a beautiful country club in the hills, and a steak dinner at a casino bar where we did some more shots of Aquavit. I passed on the optional Michael Jackson tribute concert, though.)
When I was just a wee lad, my mother and I lived in an apartment complex just outside downtown Detroit that was full of everything blah about late-'80s American engineering. My mother's '85 Mustang, totaled during an unfortunate crash on I-94, gave way to a far more sensible '88 Ford Tempo GL. There were at least three other residents, including our upstairs neighbor, that had Tempos from that era. And you had your Plymouth Sundances, your Chevy Cavaliers and Mercury Tracers.
There was one kid, however, I used to play with whose mom had a Volvo 240 sedan. I just remember it being so big and awkward-looking among the rounded compacts; we'd play hide-and-seek, and he'd often use that Swedish landyacht as a hiding place. Our moms would talk, and soon my mom was intrigued by Volvo ownership. We never did buy one back then, though my mom does still have a place in her heart for some of Volvo's later '90s offerings.
I didn't appreciate the boxy Volvo in those days, but chances are that 240 is still on the road today. I can't say the same for my mom's Tempo, wherever it is after we donated it after the transmission gave out for the last time. And then I noticed: There are a hell of a lot of Volvos from that era still around. Whenever you hear a story about a car knocking over 300,000 miles? There's a good chance it's a Volvo.
The question is, can Volvo recapture some of that magic, 20 years after their last heyday? The Tempo and its successors may not have been the most exciting, but they've helped keep Ford in business. And speaking of Ford, will Volvo finally be able to shake their influence after a few years of bad parenting?
Volvo's answers to these questions come in the form of their new Drive-E engines across the lineup, some more hybridized models in the works, a redesigned XC90 later this year, a new design direction with the Concept Coupe, and bringing the wagon back to America in the form of the V60.
Relatively speaking, the V60 is a low priority compared to the aforementioned initiatives. But since we're having this debate over whether we should kill the crossover in favor of a wagon revival, Volvo might be in a prime position to lead the charge if it can convince buyers that a wagon is just as fun to drive as a sedan but still has the capabilities of a crossover.
So this was a little hard to judge because technically, the V60 is not new. It's a lightly refreshed version of something that's been in Europe already.
Here's what I like about the V60: It serves its purpose as a wagon. It's long enough to escape that gray-area "hatchback-or-mini-crossover?" space the Kia Soul and Fiat 500L fill. Like any wagon derived from a car, you can see its origins clearly. It's got a lean profile, but doesn't try to go for the sharp, aggressive looks of every other sedan out there. The V60's closest counterpart might be the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen, which has a dull, rounded profile. I like the clean lines on the V60, which shine with this awesome blue color.
The V60 loses points because it's a little busy around the C-pillar and because of the new Volvo grille, which frankly looks dated. Chevrolet Venture, anyone?
We'll start with this: The V60's cabin is very comfortable and stylish. Even after a few hours driving through the Nevada desert, I never felt beat-up or overtaxed. Volvo's cushy, cradled headrests are here, and heated seats are available.
That's all great if you're up front. Riding in the back...ehh. I didn't have to, but I spent some time in the backseat. My knees were cramped, and as a 6'2 guy, I wouldn't want to spend a ton of time back there if both driver and passenger were the same height. There is headroom in the back, however, eschewing the slightly coupe-ish styling out front.
Volvo's got a new digital display behind the wheel, and you can alternate between an "elegant" display (a soft green and black), an "eco" display (more green) and a "sport" display (red, because sporty = red, obviously). Elegant and eco have your standard needled speedometer/odomoter reads (but eco tells you what your mileages are), while sport swaps out the speedometer for a simple numerical readout of how fast you're going while showing gauged RPMs. All are controlled with buttons on one of the two steering wheel levers.
For the first time on both sides of the Atlantic, the V60 gets paddle shifters. There isn't anything else behind the wheel so you won't get confused; there are radio and volume controls on the front of the wheel. Both models get a softer-touch steering wheel that's still heavy and firm underneath. (A heated steering wheel would be nice just as an extra selling point, but I won't complain too much.)
In the center, there's a 7-inch touchscreen that doubles as a backup camera. But then there's that console full of buttons that make it seem like you're dialing a life-sized phone. I've never been a big fan of this; it always seems too busy, too distracting if you're trying to drive and punch a few buttons, and too far away from my line of vision.
How It Drives
The V60 gets its engine from Volvo's T5 family, a 2.0-liter, inline-four that makes 240 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque.
It was easy to lose yourself in the V60's 2.0L because it was damn smooth. (So much so that yours truly and a few others were cited for going over the speed limit in Overton, NV, an obvious speed trap between Vegas and the national parks with a sudden drop from 45 mph to 25 mph once you get into town.) The V60 lets loose right off the throttle with no sacrifices. Granted, we're not talking true sports-car acceleration here; it's still fairly conservative for Volvo's bread-and-butter audience. But a thrill-seeker won't be disappointed.
Nothing too outstanding with the brake system. They weren't too grippy, but they weren't underwhelming, either. Not too much distance between the pedal and the floor, and hard braking was adequate. An extra dose of confidence would put it over the edge, though.
When you're driving through a picturesque, mountainous scene like the Red Rock Canyon, you pull over a lot to take pictures — or you pass slow drivers trying to do the same while driving. This meant going over a lot of gravelly terrain or frequently passing over rumble strips, both of which the V60 absorbed nicely. Exterior noise was kept to a minimum; it's not sealed up completely tight, but it's padded enough to keep out the din.
The V60 is no supermodel when it comes to weight, but it was surprisingly well-balanced around corners and more in line with the sporty sedans and wagons it hopes to compete with. It's confident around curves and snaps back in line quickly coming off turns. Steering was just a tad too heavy; loosening it up an ounce or two would complete the package.
Like everyone else, Volvo wants to save fuel and sell customers on new technology. The V60 employs an Aisin-built 8-speed transmission which means yes, it is predictably smooth and unnoticeable in auto mode. It's not a total loss; switch to manual mode and you will get immediate response between shifts, which is its saving grace.
The Toys And Tech
We're still Volvo here, so this means lots of safety and fuel-saving stuff. The V60 has start-stop (a quick system that doesn't dawdle when you want to come off the line), an audible and visual blind-spot alert, backup camera, a low-speed collision-avoidance system and audible alerts for parking. The V60 has two new options unavailable in some other Volvos: Semi-automatic parallel parking and a lane-keeping aid.
Something must be said about all these nannies, though: When my driving partner and I had the opportunity to drive the S60 sedan (a fine choice, by the way) all of them were turned on and it was difficult scrolling through menus to turn them off. There are buttons for some right on the center console, but some turned off the audio without turning on the visual. Other controls were buried in a sea of menus. It wasn't the easiest to navigate.
The sound system was nothing special, but you know what would help? If it had the same premium sound system with more bass (if you're into that thing — I am. I'm 17.) and crisper output that's available in the XC60, one of the other cars I tested there. (We'll revisit the XC60 in a later post.)
Since your options are few when it comes to wagons, the V60 doesn't have much in the way of fair comparison. But if we look at Volvo on the scale of where its brand fits, it's arguable they're closer to BMW than Volkswagen, both of whom offer similarly sized wagons.
The Jetta Sportswagen has a base of $20,995 while the 3-Series wagon has a base of $41,450. The V60 is right there in the middle with a base of $35,300. All-wheel-drive, which you can't get with the Jetta wagon, comes with a $1,500 charge.
Volvo has said they know they're not going to chase BMW's sales, but the 3-Series definitely came up for comparison more times than the Jetta. So let's look at some more 3-Series numbers, specifically the 328i xDrive: 2.0L, four-cylinder engine making 241 horsepower (inching out the V60's 240), 33 mpg highway (compared to 37 mpg without AWD on the V60, 29 mpg with AWD), eight-speed transmission (same as the V60).
The 3-Series has the V60 beat in some areas for sure, but the V60 comes damn close to offering the same dynamics for $6,000 (or more, depending on how much you option-up your BMW) less. Luckily for Volvo, much of its toys and other features are built into the price.
If all wagons were like the V60 and had the performance driving dynamics with the practicality to justify its purchase, maybe the rebirth of the segment will come quicker than expected. The V60 isn't perfect, as the score reflects. But it's a good start to the revival.