When and where I was growing up in the 1980s and early ’90s, the Volvo 240 wagon was the default car for a family to have. Well, other than minivans. Volvos were spacious, comfy and had a reputation for being very safe. You know, the safety cage thing. The closest thing to that today is the new Volvo V60 wagon.
Given the memories of my youth, you can imagine my dadish excitement when a V60 showed up in my driveway for me to put my own kid in. There it was, its big, sexy chrome grille glinting out front. A nice, wide, back seat beckoned for my son’s state-required astronaut chair.
But after a few days driving around in the V60, the romance evaporated. This was not the ideal family car my rose-tinted reminiscence had depicted for me. There were too many electronic bugs that made it feel unsafe, and–worse still—unpleasant to drive.
(Full disclosure: Volvo let me borrow a V60 T6 AWD Inscription for a week and dropped it off at my house with a full tank of gas.)
Naturally, that led me down a rabbit hole of thought concerning Volvos, at which point I arrived at some unflattering memories of the ones my father owned when I was a boy.
Fact: His mid-’80s Volvo 240 wagon was often in the shop for repairs, and he complained about the high cost of imported parts. Fact: The 1973 Volvo 242 coupe he owned when I wasn’t yet able to speak much more than unintelligible gibberish was also often under the knife, as it was that week he spent working on it under our rented coastal Carolina vacation cottage while the rest of us frolicked—dadless—in the Atlantic Ocean.
But the V60 is a brand new Volvo. Shouldn’t have any problems. It should be perfect, I reasoned. Reason was replaced by blind rage and profanity every time I tried, gingerly, to back the car out of my driveway. Whenever a car came by – which is often on my road –the car slammed on its brakes and, on a few occasions, shifted the transmission in neutral, leaving me flailing helplessly before oncoming traffic in a car that wouldn’t move.
The torrent of involuntary filth that spewed from my mouth at those points couldn’t have been good for my son’s linguistic development. He, too, is in his gibberish phase. God help him if he ends up with my Billingsgate vocabulary.
For a parent, the most important part of any car, really, is its cargo hold. It doesn’t matter what else the vehicle does. It can be capable of flying to the moon and driving across the lunar maria, but if it doesn’t have a place to stash the kid’s stroller, his diaper bag and a boatload of groceries and other odds and ends that always seem to accompany the roving parent, the whole thing goes up in smoke as completely useless. Bearing that in mind, the V60 is marginal at best.
Its 23-cubic-foot cargo area (almost 51 cubic-feet with the rear seats folded flat) is more space than most sedans offer, but the V60 isn’t a sedan, and this car costs more than its S60 sedan counterpart.
It’s a wagon that’s got less cargo space than the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, which has more than 30 cubic-feet behind the rear seats. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, those darlings of boring practicality-enamored schlubs everywhere, both boast more than 37 cubic-feet of junk stashing volume behind the back seats.
Since there aren’t a lot of luxury wagons on the market for comparison, let’s look at the Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon. That is a voluminous vehicle, but only boasts 35 cubic-feet of cargo space.
Unlike the boxy Volvos of years past, the V60’s svelte, sloping roof lines dig into the cargo area in a real way. That’s the problem here. This longroof was no match for a weekend visit to my mother-in-law’s house, where it is assumed that we will need to take advantage of the ever-so-slightly lower grocery prices 100 miles from where we live to facilitate an end-timer-worthy restocking of non-perishables.
Now that I’ve got the cargo vexation off my chest, I can breathe a sigh of relief and tell you that the rest of the V60’s interior is utterly charming. The seats, both front and back, are roomy and supple, and the leather and woodgrain-trimmed dash made my wife and I feel more wealthy than we actually are. (I suppose that’s a good thing if it doesn’t affect your actual spending habits.)
Volvo’s LATCH child safety seat anchors are a breeze to use. They’re easily accessible behind little plastic flap doors that offer a full range of approach angles for the car seat’s unwieldy clips.
The V60 also has very long back doors, and the roof doesn’t really start to slope much until it hits the aforementioned cargo zone. That means getting the seat into place, and more importantly, getting the bambino into his seat, is as trouble-free an operation as it can be.
I have my issues with the Autobrake system. It didn’t make me feel safe. Quite the opposite, actually. But I should clarify that I did attempt to fix this problem.
First, I consulted the car’s dense owner’s manual. No help there. So I emailed Volvo, and they sent me a list of menu-by-menu instructions detailing how I could adjust the sensitivity of the braking system.
I’m going to pause right here and tell you that my car-testing methods are as accurate to real-life conditions as possible. I don’t mean they’re formulated in a lab based upon the the latest American Communities Survey family unit data. I mean that I’m a parent, have little time for unnecessary bullshit, and like what I call “infrastructure items” to be as simple as possible. In other words, I don’t want to read a technical manual or program a goddamn computer every time my car does something I hate.
Personally, I pine for the days when cars were little more than rolling platforms for seats with cushions on them. If you were lucky, you got an AM radio. So if I have to deal with an infotainment system it should be–as it is in, say, a Mazda or a Toyota–as easy as possible to figure out and use without doing any reading whatsoever. As we all know, a good automotive engineer will anticipate the feckless obtusity of the average end user and design accordingly.
That said, I never did bother changing the Autobrake settings, and became more and more furious every time it left me hanging as I backed out into the stream of impatient motorists honking at and cursing me as they careened by my immobilized press car.
Beef number two came on the freeway, and was much, much scarier. Having turned on Pilot Assist—which is essentially adaptive cruise control with steering guidance—I settled into a rhythm of gliding along, slowing down for traffic in my lane and fighting the steering wheel for control as I attempted to navigate around slow-moving cars.
Whoever designed this system did so for motorists operating their machines where people generally observe left lane discipline and respect the space of another driver who signals before changing lanes. This is not an assumption that works in the U.S., where drivers regularly plod along 5 mph below the speed limit in the passing lane and speed up when you signal to change lanes. This is why I tend not to use adaptive cruise control systems, which were intended for some non-existent utopian highway and not America, where self-absorbed assholes outnumber sensible drivers by a margin of at least nine to one.
Anyway, Pilot Assist, which keeps Autobrake on standby in case of emergency, didn’t like lane closures as it turned out. As I approached a line of orange plastic barrels pinching the two lanes down into one, I gradually slowed the car and began to merge over. That’s when the car decided it would be best to SLAM on the brakes.
No warning, nothing. It slammed the brakes while I was going 60 mph in moving traffic. My wife–who had been asleep–woke up with a start, and in her half-asleep confusion, assumed I had done something unsafe and began screeching at me about the baby’s life and driving tired and all that sort of stuff. She apologized once she realized what had happened. The baby was indifferent, having slept through this episode without so much as stirring.
Beef number three has to do with deceleration and handling. In a normal car, driving under normal conditions, you let off the accelerator pedal and allow the car to decelerate a tiny bit before applying the brakes coming into a turn. That’s how you affect a smooth transition between one velocity vector and the next.
Update Aug. 1 — Volvo takes exception to my experience with its safety systems here, and sent us this statement:
Volvo cars are some of the safest on the road, backed by more than 16 world firsts in safety innovation and a vision to eliminate serious injury and fatalities. Recent data from Consumer Reports and JD Power confirm Volvo owners feel safe in their cars and are very happy with their purchases. An IIHS study found:
“City Safety reduced rates of rear-end striking crash involvements by 41 percent, rear end striking crash involvements with injuries by 47 percent, and rear-end striking crash involvements with third-party injuries by 48 percent. Additionally, City Safety was associated with reductions of 14 percent in crash involvement rates, 13 percent in multi-vehicle crash involvement rates, 12 percent in injury crash involvement rates, and 8 percent in third-party injury crash involvement rates. Reductions in rates of all rear-end striking crash involvements, those with injures, and those with third-party injuries were largest at speed limits of 40-45 mph (54%, 65%, and 66%, respectively), followed by speed limits of 35 mph or less (39%, 43%, and 49%, respectively) and of 50 mph or greater (25%, 30%, and 27%, respectively). Conclusions: City Safety appears to be highly effective at reducing rear-end crashes and associated injuries reported to police, even on roadways with speed limits higher than the system’s operating range.”
In all cases, Volvo cars will always prioritize driver input over Pilot Assist and all other ADAS functions.
When I let off the accelerator pedal in the Volvo, it didn’t really decelerate much at all, so there was no natural slowdown as I went to apply the brake into a turn, leading to a more dramatic change in speed when the brakes were applied and the turn executed. The suspension never had a chance to settle and the results from familial passengers (particularly the spousal one) were a more subdued version of the above.
The rest of the time, the car’s 316-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission were smooth and powerful and returned decent fuel economy numbers. I averaged 30 mpg on a mostly highway trip, and the EPA estimate for combined city and highway driving is 25 mpg. In-town mileage isn’t great, but for a car that can get to 60 mph in just over 5 seconds, it’s acceptable.
Although the V60 wagon has not been evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, IIHS gave the S60 sedan version top marks in its battery of crash testing. IIHS found the midsize Volvo’s lights to be marginal and, for some reason, its LATCH anchors to be average. (I thought they were great.) The federal government has not yet rated the V60.
I put a lot of stock in the testing done by agencies like IIHS and NHTSA, but to me, the Volvo V60 was too hostile toward the driver for me to consider it as a very safe car. Perhaps it is safer than the average non-automated death trap, but personally, I like to at least feel like I have ultimate control when I get behind the wheel of any vehicle.
Maybe when my son is old enough to drive, there will be license classifications that absolve you from responsibility when your automated car screws up and causes a wreck. For now, my driver’s license means the buck stops with me.
Wrapped in gorgeous body work and outfitted with a lush interior, the Volvo V60 looks like it could be the perfect car for the luxury-oriented family. But the sum of all its parts sustain major penalties when the squeezed cargo space, dubious handling and buggy active safety features are taken into account.
When the ledger is tabulated, the V60 is, it turns out, a non-starter, particularly not with a price tag that comes in well over $60,000. If I were looking for an ever-more-rare European luxury wagon for my family (not an SUV or crossover), I’d be more likely to cast my gaze in the direction of the Audi A4 Allroad (even if its cargo hold is small) and likelier still to take a look at the soon-to-be-discontinued VW Golf Alltrack.
Correction: The original version of this review said the V60 tester was a T5; it was in fact the more powerful T6. We regret the error.