In the past, owning a Volvo has always been akin to owning a fridge-freezer. If you play along with the analogy then you'll see that both offer sturdiness as a top attribute, both can play it cool when needed (we're looking at you Mr. T5 Engine) and both offer safety in ways that the world over has come to expect and not demand.
However as you may remember at the beginning of the year when you saw my mug on YouTube reviewing the S60 and V60 R-Design variants, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Volvo brand had been injected with a dose of what appeared to be some Class A narcotic; merging a threatening sporty exterior with a chirpy range of engines designed to thrill and enchant. So when I received an invite from Volvo UK to attend the Year 12 Model launch in order to drive the XC60 equipped with a reworked D5 engine, I was happy. Very happy.
The event would be taking place in Chichester, deep in rural England and not too far away from Goodwood, where a couple of weeks before the C30 Polestar was flashing its shocking blue exterior at a run around at the Festival of Speed. Buried between farmers' fields would be our excellent hotel - which Volvo kindly put us up in - and a 2 mile stretch of national speed limit asphalt. This is usually the stuff dreams are made of. I say usually, because as I have become accustomed to living in Britain, the weather was hating on us. Grey skies and patchy rain with brief glimpses of sunshine meant that whichever lucky sod was driving the V60 Polestar available to us, would have to be a tad careful about foot-planting on damp roads.
After taking out the 2012 C30 DRIVe (review to come later this week) for a quick spin we settled down to a presentation by Duncan Forrester, Head of Public Affairs, Events and Sponsorship for Volvo UK and his team. Admittedly, this is usually the part where auto-journalists turn their ears off to prevent infection by marketing spiel and false hopes, but I was surprised to learn a couple of tasty facts.
Exhibit A; fleet operators and company car purchasers are now just as likely to be buying Volvo as they are to buy BMW, Merc and Audi. This is due to Volvo's Benefit-in-Kind tax costs being lower than the competition when comparing on a similar model basis. This may not mean much to ordinary Joe Schmoe, but what it does signify is the potential to see a lot more Swedish vehicles on the road than Ze Deutsch. Let's not forget Exhibit B either; "a sailor is 7 times more likely to buy a Volvo than the average man". I found this the most astounding figure and if you start to parse through this sentence, Volvo's affiliation with the world of sailing begins to become clear. Selling vehicles is an emotional game after all, and if an XC90 has just finished lugging you and your family of young seven-sea explorers down the country with a Volvo vessel helping you along to sailing victory then it becomes apparent why you would then want to purchase one. A tip of the hat to Volvo's marketing and sponsorship team then. Team Volvo for Life for the win.
After a (short) night's sleep and a hearty breakfast, we were to make our way down to Hamble-le-Rice for our own sailing adventure aboard a Volvo racing yacht. On the journey down, I got my first taste of the 2012 Volvo XC60.
The SUV's design hasn't strayed much since its arrival in concept form in 2007 at NAIAS. Whereas the older brother XC90 is angular, rugged and taller, the younger '60 is sleek and smooth in appearance with a curving rooflife and more rounded haunches. Our particular tester was the XC60 D5 AWD SE Lux. Picking apart the jargon, and the model sports a D5 diesel unit with all-wheel-drive power-to-the-road output and decked out in SE Lux trim which meant rather tasty 18" Zephyrus alloy wheels, a full leather interior and active bending xenon lights but to name a few of the many features.
Volvo seems also to have taken a styling note from many of today's manufacturers in sporting a rather large grille. Centered onto this black gaping hole is the Volvo medallion badge, a concept not too dissimilar from Chamillionaire's grill implants. Bling it might be, but to appeal to a more hip segment these sorts of measures must be taken. Around the rear and the party continues with twin exhaust pipes and teardrop-styled brakelights which we've become so used to seeing on Volvos old and new. And let's not forget the Ice White exterior paint job. If black was the new silver, then white is most certainly the new black.
Jumping into the driver's seat and you're greeted with a sea of off-black leather with orange trim stitching. Nice. Fixtures are solid and the multi-function steering wheel is a pleasure to hold and my right thumb finds itself constantly fiddling with volume controls just because I can. But for a luxury Sports Utility Vehicle, these are the sort of tools that should always be base, never excess. My co-pilot for the journey was smart in bringing along his iPod to test out the in-vehicle connectivity and to our delight, we were pumping out a range of old-school and new-school tunes within seconds.
A small gripe I had was that switching between menus wasn't the most intuitive experience, but the Volvo eventually came round to our commands. And on that point, the satellite navigation was decent - perhaps not on the same level as some standalone units I've tested, but good enough to effectively show the route and major turnage points. A larger screen would have been nice as even though the SE Lux comes with a 7" screen as opposed to 5", it's just not enough with the effect being that it seems dwarfed by the dash. Also there are a plethora of buttons on the floating centre console - the stainless steel effect is nice with room behind the console for storage - but I often felt confused with button-overload syndrome. Some simplification particularly with the climate control wouldn't go amiss.
In the rear and there was certainly no issue for your 5 foot 11 author in getting comfortable with adequate legroom which is easily enough for 3 kids or adults. The middle seat folds down to an armrest and again our model one-upped the ES base model with rear heated seats. The boot can hold 5 dogs arranged in any combination, or if you're feeling less NSPCA and a little more OAP you can get a couple of sets of golf clubs in there too.
One thing I love about the 2012 Volvo range is the keyless go feature. So long as your fob is either in your pocket or in close vicinity, all you need to do is turn a small dial to the left of the steering wheel. Twist it, depress the clutch and the D5 engine grumbles to life. Admittedly on a chilly morning the diesel note has a hint of agriculture about it, but as it warms the rumble settles down into more of a hum, only coming back into the fray when the right foots floors the accelerator pedal.
We set off from Chichester down a long windy B-road and immediately I felt comfortable. The XC60 is one of those cars I can classify as an "easy drive" and even when pushing the SUV into a tighter corner, the amount of mechanical grip given by the AWD system is truly confidence inspiring. The word safety often gets flung around the Volvo brand merely as a homage to deceased Volvos but there's no escaping this Swedish manufacturer's ultimate goal - a safe and luxurious ride.
Let's talk about the engine for a bit. The 2.4-litre 5 cylinder D5 has been updated for 2012 in two departments. First, horsepower is uprated from 205 to 215hp giving more pull at 4000 rpm and 440 Nm (324 lb-ft) of torque comes in at a diesel-low 1400rpm good through till 3250rpm giving a 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds, certainly not shabby for a vehicle weighing in at nearly 2 tonnes. Second, the engineers at Volvo have managed to reduce CO2 output to 179 grams per km. But what we all like to see in a good diesel aside from performance is fuel economy, and the XC60 D5 doesn't disappoint. At 41.5mpg combined for the auto box in comparison to 50.4mpg for the manual (which I actually found quite surprising) for a car of this size and weight, your wallet won't become too light. And moving swiftly onto the transmission, our tester was equipped with a 6 speed automatic box which I grew to love over the course of our 2 hour journey. The car never searches for gears erratically which can usually be a problem with auto boxes with too many gears, plus it quickly kicks down when planting your foot on the gas. Other than that, this unit is a smooth criminal, capable of tearing up some country roads on over-taking manoeuvres, perhaps suffering from a little lust for more power output as can be found in the T6, but still nippy when you prod the Go pedal.
Ride quality I found to be similar to that of a sports saloon. The chassis does a decent job of soaking up small bumps in the road but larger asphalt defects don't go unnoticed and whilst I would have liked a bit more comfort, you must remember that the S in SUV stands for "Sports" so some firmness in the suspension is needed. And thank the lord, because any wallowy suspension would give you angina in cornering. The 2012 Volvo XC60 is more competent at holding lines than any famous deceased music star. Too soon?
And what of thy famous safety instruments, Volvo? This Ice White beauty had a few optional extras fitted including Front and Rear Parking Assist (£280), Driver Support Pack (£1635) and Security Pack (£665). These conjured up gizmos such as BLIS - Blind Spot Information System which flashes an orange light near the wing mirror when there is another vehicle in your blind spot, which I found of particular use on motorways. A Pedestrian Detection system which I also found on the S60 R-Design helps you from running over children and an extra which my vehicle didn't have was the Adaptive Cruise Control which I would have liked to try out. From a more geeky perspective, social networking seems high up on the Volvo agenda, with a new system called "Connectivity" making its way to Volvo cars in the near future. This system interacts with local restaurants and your dealership to help you make table reservations and service book-ins. Whether this will actually be around in the next few years remains to be seen.
As we arrived in Hamble-le-Rice after an enjoyable punt around the Sussex countryside, I had a few minutes to gather my thoughts whilst slipping into bright red oilskins, ready to sail to the Isle of Wight. Volvo's new D5 engine means that you can achieve power, comfort and efficiency in a nicely styled XC60 package. The total cost for this chic look? An On The Road Price of £35,900 with our tester coming in at a meaty £43,025 thanks to a multitude of options and extras. This is a little less than a loaded BMW X3 xDrive30d M Sport and I'm just not sure the Volvo can compete - the Beamer sports a 3-litre, 258hp unit with in my opinion, a better interior. Admittedly in comparison to Audi, a 2-litre Q5 with less power and more CO2 runs in at the same price but now Volvo are really playing with the big boys. I think it's important to look here at who the ideal Volvo consumer is - and from their own marketing they do cater to the older market. For that reason, with the Safety features the car includes, and the great D5 engine which can't compare against its competitors, I'm happy to back the 2012 XC60.
Volvo themselves admit that achieving the right branding stance is a high priority after disasters such as the "Naughty S60" campaign. With the XC60 they have pointed a brilliant car directly at their target market and sales have proved so far how popular this production decision has been. Time will tell whether the 2012 Volvo XC60 with the cracking D5 will live up to the sales hype, but I have high hopes for this sleek stunner.