First Drive: 2011 Volvo S60

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I've just threaded through a tightly banked turn called the Half Pipe, on the way toward another area called the Pucker Factor. And I'm behind the wheel of a VOLVO.

Truth be told, there's a lot more to Volvo than there used to be: This time, Volvo is looking beyond just those who want style and safety and truly setting its sights on driving enthusiasts and models like the Audi A4--perhaps even the benchmark BMW 3-Series.

The 2011 Volvo S60, surprisingly, has the goods for hot laps in stock T6 form, which Volvo aimed to show, by bringing us to a new, very technically demanding track, called Oregon Raceway Park. But you probably wouldn't guess that when first approaching this new sport sedan, or even taking it for a trip out to the grocery store.

Doesn't wear its track cred on its sleeve, but it's there

The first impression of the S60, from behind the wheel, is that it's relatively benign yet more charismatic than Volvos of the past. Unlike sharp enthusiast sedans like the Mitsubishi Evolution, Subaru WRX STI, or even to a degree the Nissan G37 or BMW 3-Series, the S60 doesn't reveal its sporting intent at every moment. Ride quality is firm but very absorbent, the cabin is tight and quiet, and it feels all the part of a luxury car.

While other markets will get smaller engines, the S60 is being brought to the U.S. in only one powertrain flavor for now: a 3.0-liter turbocharged in-line six-cylinder engine, making 300 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque; those are some pretty impressive numbers, but drive the S60 normally in traffic and you probably wouldn't know it, thanks to a soft throttle calibration and all that refinement. It's hooked up to a six-speed automatic transmission on all models (there's no manual transmission available), and all U.S. S60s come with all-wheel drive.

Of course, the Volvo engine is begging a comparison to BMW's 300-hp, turbocharged straight six; compared to BMW's six in the 335i, the Volvo engine makes its peak torque a bit higher—2,100 rpm versus 1,400 rpm—and overall it doesn't churn out the torque just above idle like the BMW mill; meanwhile, the turbo V-6 in the Audi S4, making 333 hp, is closer in character to the Volvo engine. The S60 is just a little heavier than those sedans, which might add to the impression. Nevertheless, 60 mph comes in a very respectable 5.8 seconds. The engine in the S60 is smooth and sweet in ordinary driving, leave your foot in it and the somewhat muted launch off-the-line is replaced by OMG delight at the top of first and second gear; overall the S60 feels perky and pretty responsive and could easily handle the mountain grades on our drive as well as the abrupt 400-foot elevation changes of the track.

Warmer, more inviting than Volvos of yore

In all, the whole package feels perky, responsive, and of course uber-stylish, and far warmer and inviting inside than you'd probably ever expect if you've taken a look at Volvo in the past.

Ever since Volvo presented its S60 Concept at the 2009 Detroit auto show, we knew something radical was on the way for the automaker with its next production S60 sedan. Sure enough, the 2011 Volvo S60 that was unveiled earlier this year (and goes on sale this fall) is handsome, expressive, and organic all at once from the outside, while looking instantly recognizable as a Volvo. All the textures, contrasts, and curves of the interior are as well both functional and a feast for the senses.

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