LAS VEGAS - For decades, Volvo has been known as the “safe” car. It’s been the vehicle of choice for parents and their precious, Gerber-eating cargo — or anyone who took to the open road with the trepidatious belief that most drivers would just as soon plow their cars into others’ side panels as arrive at their destinations unscathed.
Now, emboldened by an $11 billion investment from its Chinese parent company, Geely Automobile, Volvo is no longer playing it safe. It’s betting big on a portfolio of new “Drive-E” engines devised with the idea that a smaller, more intelligent design will relegate V-8s to the scrap heap.
Twinning performance with fuel efficiency, the first two Drive-E powertrains rolled out recently on three 2015 models: the S60 sedan, the XC60 SUV and its new V60 sports wagon.
Calling it the most extensive development of existing cars in the company’s 87-year history, Volvo brass are convinced it isn’t size that matters, but the amount of air that flows through an engine. Despite a name that’s likely to be misconstrued as incorporating some level of electrification, the “E” in Drive-E stands for efficiency. That is to say, 2-liter, four-cylinder engines. The 240-horsepower T5 is turbocharged. The 302-horsepower T6 is turbo-supercharged; it uses a supercharger at low RPMs and a mechanically linked turbocharger that takes over when the engine spools up. Both engines make more power than today’s six-cylinders, while weighing 110 pounds less and using 10 percent to 30 percent less fuel.
Combined in the T6 Drive-E engine, what used to be mutually exclusive systems have elevated Volvo’s routinely abysmal fuel economy to 35 mpg highway. As of last year, the company’s most fuel-efficient model was its S60 sedan, which achieved a maximum of 30 mpg, according to the EPA.
A diesel variant will soon be available in Europe; there are no plans to bring it to the U.S. at present. A plug-in hybrid will debut in the updated XC90 full-size SUV later this year. All the Drive-E engines have the capability to be augmented with electrification in the future, according to Volvo.
What makes the new Volvos simultaneously peppy and fuel-efficient is one and the same. It’s a combination of the turbo and turbo-supercharged engines and an all-new, fuel-saving, eight-speed automatic transmission that’s available with hands-on paddle shifters.
Driving all three Volvos recently, I was impressed by the cars’ sprightliness. All three models can be operated in different drive modes, including the most fuel efficient “Eco” mode. Equipped with stop/start technology, the turbocharged T5 engine in my V60 test car, in Eco, stopped the engine even as the car coasted to a stop from a speed of 4 mph. Otherwise, the start/stop feature works as it does on models from other manufacturers. The engine cuts out when the car is fully stopped and roars back to life as the brake pedal is released.
Start/stop is deactivated only in the most aggressive, un-Volvo-like “sport” mode, which had a lot more guts than any Volvo I’ve driven, and I’ve driven quite a few.
Growing up in the ’70s, my family owned a flaming-orange Volvo wagon. Thirty years later, my memories were so fond that when I started a family of my own, I bought a slightly newer vintage — a 1993 240 DL that I pushed to 210,000 on the odometer before its death by thrown rod on Interstate 5. On balance, my ownership experience had been so positive that I replaced it with a 2006 S60, which, sadly, is where my Volvo love affair ended. The S60 was a pretty little sedan, but it felt as solid as a tin can, got fuel economy in the teens and broke repeatedly at just 60,000 miles. On the advice of my Volvo-exclusive mechanic, I traded it for the Nissan Leaf I drive today.
Being a former Volvo owner and also part Swede, I admit to having a soft spot for the brand. That positive predisposition was validated by the new 2015s.
Unlike my 2006 S60, the new Volvos, once again, feel solid, sturdy — well-engineered. In the past, Volvo’s safety reputation was largely based on the cars’ tank-like construction. With its new 2015 models, the auto maker is also leveraging technology. While many of the most evolved safety features are cost-adding options, they are likely worth the investment. In addition to blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping, parking assistance and adaptive cruise control, there’s a new pedestrian and cyclist detection system that scans the area in front of the car and automatically applies the brakes when a body or bicycle is detected, and a cross traffic alert that uses radar on the rear bumper to detect what could be flattened when rolling backward.
In March, Volvo will debut the new connected car technology it debuted to little fanfare last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The system uses a SIM card, instead of a smartphone, to access apps, such as Pandora; to call 911; and to make reservations and pay for parking, among other things. Using a SIM card enables the entirety of a vehicle’s inhabitants, not just the driver, to access the cloud, a Volvo spokesman said.
The bells and whistles are all part of Volvo’s plan to elevate the brand from the No Man’s Land it cohabitates with Volkswagen — namely a European import that carries a hefty price but falls short of conferring true luxury status. No more. With its 2015s, Volvo is gunning for the Germans. And it largely succeeds.
Aesthetically, the $35,300-plus V60 is low-slung and sporty, with a wider, more horizontally oriented grille slashed by Volvo’s male gender symbol logo and a rear end that integrates the tail pipes. But the real revelation results from throwing open the doors and sliding into a spacious cabin outfitted with heated leather sports seats to bask under the sunlight of its glassed roof. The dashboard is plastic, but it’s elegantly textured and curved. Topped with a 7-inch screen, the center console is a waterfall of pewter-looking plastic that’s oriented toward the driver and outfitted with more buttons than seem necessary. They are, at least, intuitive.
Designed for lifestyles of the active and moderately moneyed, the five-seat V60 is built for sporting utility. The three new Volvos introduced last month are all available with rear seats that reconfigure into built-in children’s safety seats. The rear seat otherwise folds in three pieces, the center portion of which can fold halfway as an arm rest or all the way as a pass-through for long objects. One latch collapses the headrests with the alacrity of a snapping turtle; a second drops the seat forward and entirely flat, without a gap between the rear cargo area, for a total space of 43 cubic feet. A fully folding front seat is also available. Unlikely as it seems, hailing from a place that is currently below freezing temperatures, it was conceived by a Volvo designer who surfs and wanted to be able to accommodate his board.
Fuel efficient, stylish and user friendly, the 2015 Volvo V60 may be built in the land of Ikea, but it’s ready-made for California.
Volvo, welcome back.