Volvos have always been for smart people. They were traditionally professor’s cars, cars of people who were just iconoclastic and independent-minded enough to want something different than the usual cars from Japan or Germany. They were cars of people who maybe had odd reasons for why they bought them, like if they thought a Volvo 240 seemed like a car Mies van der Rohe would have built. The all-new 2018 Volvo XC60 shows Volvos are still for smart people, especially if they like a clean windshield.
(Full disclosure: Volvo flew me all the way to Barcelona to try out this car, and gave me shelter and food and gin and tonics served in what appeared to be fishbowls. Also, they only got a little peeved when I told them I was staying an extra day to drive some old Spanish cars.)
I’m mentioning that windshield washer a lot because it genuinely is good and it encapsulates a lot of what works best about the XC60; a car where many small but important details have been considered, and serious attempts to do those little details right.
This Volvo isn’t without its flaws, but the overall package is a very well-crafted and capable vehicle, well-suited for the job it’ll do and the people it’ll serve.
Even though Volvo is owned by Chinese automaker Geely now, the only way this car could be any more Scandinavian would be if you had to empty meatballs out of the catalytic converter every six months. The interior has the airy, crisp, blond-wood feel of the best pages of an Ikea catalog, and the perceived quality of the car feels tastefully luxurious and premium, in a restrained way, that’s impossible not to equate with Scandinavia. It’s like if you raised a Lexus with strict Lutheran parents: the quality is there, but it’s been trained not to be too showy.
What’s the big deal about the XC60?
The XC60 crossover has been Volvo’s top-selling vehicle in the U.S., and now, finally, the old Ford-partnership-era platform is gone, which means this all-new XC60 is built on Volvo’s new Scalable Product Architecture platform—the same one as the bigger XC90. It’s smaller and lighter than the XC90, of course, and while it’s a bit wider and longer than the old XC60 platform, it doesn’t weigh any more, and makes much better use of interior volume.
As Volvo’s intended best-seller, this all-new car (crossover? SUV? CUV? Shit, I don’t even know, anymore) is very important, and it’s going into a crowded field with capable competition from Audi, Mercedes, Lexus, BMW, and others.
How’s it drive?
I got to drive the XC60 around Barcelona for a few hours, on highways and curvy back roads, and even a couple of rugged unpaved rocky almost-roads of the type that nobody who buys these will ever be caught dead on.
There’s new suspension all around, with a double-wishbone front and at the rear there’s an interesting transverse composite leaf spring. Volvo’s PR people liked to talk about the “dynamism” of the car, and how it’s a “driver’s car,” and how it has “inspired confidence.”
All those terms are so clichéd and vague that I can’t really confirm or deny any of them, but I can tell you that, really, this is a car built for comfort primarily, and that shows. It’s a very comfortable car to drive.
As far as it being a driver’s car full of dynamism and confidence that’s, well, inspired, I’m not so sure. I’m also not sure it matters, since I suspect very few of these will be sold for the purpose of autocrossing. (Prove me wrong, readers.)
The handling and roadholding are fine, but not exactly exciting, and if you’re looking for a car with a lot of visceral road feel through the wheel, this isn’t it. The power steering setup can be adjusted, but those adjustments are really a range from “way too much power assist” to “well, that’s a bit better.” Still, you have to remember that this car’s job is really to make driving comfortable, and that it does very well. And there’s no shame in that.
There’s also an optional air suspension system (about $1,800 extra) that lets you raise and lower the XC60 by around 2 inches or so. That helps take the ground clearance from an already decent 8.3" to almost 10". I cranked it up to the highest level when driving off-pavement, and it seemed to help, since I managed to not crack any of the expensive-looking lower plastic bits on rocks.
It also just makes the whole vehicle look a little tougher.
What makes it go?
Volvo is offering the same set of engines in the XC60 as in the larger and heavier XC90, so if your goal is maximum power-to-weight, go for the smaller and cheaper Volvo.
All of the engines are inline four-cylinders, mounted transversely, driving all wheels with either an AWD system or an electric motor on the rear axle. All have turbos, with some having a small supercharger as well, with the supercharger’s primary job being to give a boost in the interim before the turbo spools up.
Here’s the breakdown of the engines: T5 AWD (just a turbo, 250 horsepower/258 lb-ft; T6 AWD (turbo gets a supercharger pal, 316 hp—Volvo says 320 hp, but it seems to be 316, actually—295 lb-ft), and T8 eAWD (supercharger, turbo, and an electric motor on the engine crank, and one at the back axle, for a total of 400 hp/472 lb-ft.)
I drove the T6 AWD one, and it’s plenty quick. Acceleration is strong, and while I wouldn’t suggest racing a Hellcat for pinks, most of the people who buy these will be able to zoom out of the scary, un-gentrified neighborhoods as quickly as they want.
All of these engines, by the way, are connected to eight-speed automatics. That’s torque-converter autos, not fancy dual-clutch ones that this car frankly doesn’t really need.
How’s it look?
Volvo has refined and developed their design vocabulary a great deal since the earlier XC60, and I think this new one is quite handsome. The proportions are very nice, with a satisfying hood-to-body ratio, and some nice subtle detailing that’s restrained enough to feel like tailoring.
It’s not a showy or striking design, which fits with Volvo’s philosophy. That does mean that in profile, from a distance, it can get pretty anonymous-looking, though Volvo’s commitment to novel lighting design does help save it from bland obscurity.
The front, Thor’s Hammer headlights are arresting and dramatic in the right way, even if they’re so expensive as to be dramatic in the wrong way. Volvo’s also remained committed to the massive, vertical taillights they’ve used since the 700 series, though now they have incorporated a horizontal element as well, and when the taillights are on, they describe a pattern that sort of reminds me of ancient Scandinavian runes. Maybe that was intentional?
What about the inside?
The interior is the best part of the XC60. The material usage is excellent, especially in Volvo’s choice of a driftwood-like light-grey porous wood for the trim and dash.
It’s lovely and feels different from what most other premium carmakers are doing; it has a more furniture/interior architecture feel, which suits the tone of Volvo perfectly.
The PR team made a big deal about how the grain of the wood was oriented to the direction of travel, like that was something any human ever gave a shit about, ever. I mean, that just means the axis of the grain is parallel to the car, which could also mean it’s oriented opposite the direction of travel. So there.
Also, when’s a manufacturer finally going to put wood on the floors? The XC60 with a wood floor would be unstoppable.
The interior on the car I drove is also two-tone, light and dark, which is great. I think getting this car with an all-black or dark interior is a waste.
The use of space in the car is good, even if the PR team, comparing it to the XC90, found themselves using all kinds of euphemisms for smaller: intimate, fitted, ‘more connected to the car.’ Whatever. It’s smaller inside than an XC90. Duh.
Helping out with the feeling of airy interior space is that every XC60 comes with a panoramic sunroof, standard! That’s fun. I like how common those are becoming.
There’s a pair of smart little cubbies under the rear seats specifically designed to hold tablets, phones, and other electronics, complete with no-slip rubber inside. That’s a very good idea. The cargo area is a good size, and the rear seats can be dropped from controls at the rear, which is always a welcome thing, too.
The interior is great. The look/feel/tone of the interior of this car, along with the massaging seats, satisfying diamond-pattern knobs, large LCD screens, and clever storage is what’s most likely to sell this car, I suspect.
All the screens and computers and stuff
The XC60 is well-crammed with cutting-edge tech, like a cybernetic burrito.
The instrument cluster is a single LCD screen, and, while Volvo’s on-screen design language feels clean and modern, they’re still skeuomorphically trapped into making fake analog gauges, something which I’m waiting for carmakers to grow out of.
The center-stack display is now portrait-oriented, a trend that was started by Tesla and seems to now be A Thing. The UI is uncluttered and clean, but very text and menu-driven, and the text is a little small and the target poking areas are a little small for comfortable use while driving. Also, whenever the passenger adjusts their seat, the seat controls take over the whole center screen, which I found mildly irritating.
All the UI niggles are sort of mitigated by the fact that the Volvo supports Android Auto and Apple’s Car Play, so you can bypass Volvo’s UI for lots of things.
One nice thing is that, because Volvos come from places where people are cold all the damn time, the touch screen works with gloves as well as bare fingers, thanks to an infrared tracking system.
It’s also got a 360° camera system, as well as a bunch of safety/semi-autonomy features, which deserve their own subhead.
Safety And Semi-Autonomous stuff
Volvo is still committed to not having anyone die in one of its cars by 2020, I assume with some exception for serial killers who prey on people in Swedish cars. That, along with Volvo’s long tradition of making safety an important part of their business, means that the XC60 is full of innovative safety features.
The new platform is designed with a carefully-selected set of metals of varying strengths, to let the car absorb force in some places and shield the passengers in others. The seats even have an energy-absorbing crumple zone to protect the spine against forces acting on a vertical axis, such as when the car drops and hits the ground, hard.
There’s new active safety features as well, including a collision avoidance system that works up to 37 mph and a new ‘City Safety’ avoidance system designed to help avoid hitting such non-car things as people, cyclists, big animals, and, I bet, two people in a pantomime horse costume. This system actually uses differential braking to help enhance the steering. We were told that it makes the driver feel “like a really good driver.”
There’s also lane-keeping systems, dynamic cruise, blind spot intervention, and off-road mitigation, which we were told was like “an electric fence,” and then told “but really not,” just in case any of us thought the car may be projecting electric fences out of the side mirrors.
The big thing, though, is the semi-autonomous Pilot Assist system. Volvo is being much more cautious about how this system is perceived than, say, Tesla’s Autopilot. Volvo is quick to make it clear this is just an assist, and in no way can be expected to drive the car all on its own.
The system requires a hand on the wheel, in some way, pretty much constantly. It’s primarily for long, straight, boring highway driving, and in those contexts it works reasonably well. I found it tended to hug the lane closer on the right than I normally would, sometimes even touching the rumble strips, and the self-moving steering wheel occasional felt like it was fighting you when you tried to take control back, but overall it did quite well, even on gentle curves.
What the system is actually for, though, is a bit stickier. Since you still have to have hands on the wheel and be ready to take over, and you have to manually do things like change lanes, you may wonder just what it’s really for, since you’re almost just driving, anyway.
What the system seems to be good at is compensating for someone who’s not totally focused on driving. It’s a system that lets you be a shitty driver who’s not really paying attention and maybe reading a text or two or looking out the side windows or maybe ate something weird and just is a bit distracted.
At first, I thought the system was just going to be another tool to erode driver skill, until I remembered how many drivers are already running around with pretty eroded skill. I see people all the time eating and texting and reading and composing haikus or whatever at the wheel. Maybe this system just accepts that reality, and does something to help?
If you’re off the wheel for too long, the system shuts down, to keep people from abusing the little bit of autonomy the car has. From what I can tell, it’s an ideal setup if you’re, say, eating a sloppy burrito while driving. Pilot Assist should be able to compensate for your half-focus on that drippy, messy burrito.
Finally, the windshield washer!
The windshield washer system on this car is just fantastic. The wiper blades are special: they have, cast right into the rubber, integrated tubes, which have tiny perforations in them; sort of like a garden irrigation hose you’d get at a hardware store.
When you wash the windshield, the fluid flows into the wiper blades and is expressed out in front of the moving blade, meaning that the fluid isn’t wasted spraying over your roof, but is directed right at the filthy windshield and pre-moistens the section the wiper is about to traverse.
Here’s a video of it in action:
Man, that’s some sweet windshield washing action. If a clean windshield is your key buying decision for a car, I think you’re all done here.
My one complaint is that I’m sure those wiper blades will be crazy expensive, and if you live in L.A. those blades are likely to be as vulnerable as any to drying out and becoming useless in, like, six months. No one could tell me the replacement cost of the blades on the event, so it may be worth asking about before you buy your new Volvo.
Okay, how much?
There’s three trim levels of the XC60: Momentum (base), R-Design (Sporty), and Insignia (bigshot moneybags). The lowest level starts right at $42,500, and goes up to $56,700. Is it worth it?
Well, I think so. I mean, it’s certainly on par with the competitors, price-wise, and if you have the money to buy a brand-new premium SUV or crossover or whatever this is, you could do a lot worse than the XC60. You’re getting good equipment and design for your money, and the build and materials quality seem very high.
My only long-term concern might be the high cost of consumables like those fancy wiper blades, but maybe if you have the money to even be shopping for premium cars like this, you’ll be fine with expensive wiper blades.
But, once again, it’s great to see Volvo back in force, making nice cars that are different and innovative and priced well. And their windshields will be crazy clean too.