Editor’s Note: Volvo hosted us on a trip to Barcelona, Spain, in order to fully experience the new XC60.
Volvo is one of my favorite car brands. It has been since I was a kid and the neighbor girl would drive around in a blue 240 sedan. (I wonder what ever came of Suzy?) Boxy and upright, it seemed alien, even as I considered Fox Body Mustangs and sharp-edged, wedge-like supercars gorgeous. The slotted head rests were, in my opinion, super neat. Indeed, my love for Volvo has continued and, along with Porsche and Land Rover, has created some of the best cars ever, so far as the car nuts are GP are concerned. The new XC60 crossover continues most of that tradition, but falls far, far short in other respects.
What the XC60 does well, it does extremely well. In keeping with the brand’s new design language, the XC60 falls in line with the drop-dead gorgeous XC90 SUV as well as with the S90 sedan and V90 wagon variants. (Since you’re wondering, the V90 Cross Country is the one to get, hands down.) It is stunningly beautiful amidst a background of bland competition — the sheet metal is outstanding, but inside design really shines, especially with the optional driftwood trim. It fits in equally well at a seaside Barcelona Hotel as it does in front of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral or the lush green, vertical peaks of Monserrat. The other reason Volvo’s newest is more than notable is in its engineering: this is a monumentally safe car, a trait for which the Swedish brand is well known. Volvo has made its mission that “nobody should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020.”
Engine: 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged inline four-cylinder
Transmission: 8-speed automatic; all-wheel drive
Top Speed: 140
Base MSRP: $49,195
But I can’t get past how the car handled. The steering setup is “electric power assisted rack and pinion steering,” meaning there is less of a physical connection between the steering column and the front axle than in a more rudimentary car. This setup allows for variable steering assist (tighter at higher speeds, looser in parking lots), different drive modes (sport, economy, etc.) and for the computer to interfere should an accident seem imminent. Many automakers employ this setup very well — what steering feel is lost due to lack of physical connection is made up in… well, I don’t know really. Algorithms? But whatever magic can be done to keep steering taut, pleasant, easy to use and confident was not done here. It was tough to enjoy driving the XC60, and that’s disappointing. It’s also unnerving since the better a car handles and the better its feedback, the safer it will be.
The issue is one of feeling. I did not get into the car expecting to want to Italian Job my way through Spain, or hoping that I might sneak away from the rest of our journalist group and participate in a backwoods rally competition. But whenever I enter a new car, I always, always expect to feel as though I can control the car with precision — that I have an earnest idea of where the car will point when I turn the wheel. But the new XC60’s steering was so numb and loose that I actually found myself feeling nervous — even on simple maneuvers like exit ramps and roundabouts. Dialing the car into its performance mode didn’t help much; the semi-autonomous Steer Assist technology, which augments the driver’s inputs in evasive maneuvers, was incredibly intrusive and unsettling. Granted, I was in a foreign country on unfamiliar roads, but even allowing for those variables, I can’t say I was impressed.
The last generation XC60 was one of my favorite cars ever. It, like the new model, ticked pretty much every box: the right size, a beautiful shape, comfortable, luxurious without being stuffy, helpful technology, affordable…and on and on. But the need for confidence behind the wheel — especially when you’re using the actual wheel — cannot be overstated. Hopefully, it’s a programming issue that can be resolved with a software update down the road. For now, I’ll more than make do with a wagon.