The Middle Way 

All-wheel-drive takes Volvo’s S60 to a new level

All-wheel-drive takes Volvo’s S60 to a new level

Volvo, like any major multinational with a decent sense of PR, likes to tout its people skills. “We’re very good at relationship-building,” says senior product manager Jay Hamill. That’s certainly true enough. Volvo can boast one of the most loyal followings in all of autodom. That’s the problem. “How,” asks Hamill’s colleague, Volvo marketing maven Roger Ormisher, “can we pry our loyalists out of their 15-year-old Volvo 240 sedans and tempt them into something new?”

Of course, any student of modern business knows the answer to that one. All it takes is a new paradigm. Duh. Not only that; Volvo has taken literally its duty to “think outside the box.” So, behold: no more boxy Volvos. If loyalists can’t be tempted by the intrinsic benefits of very real advances in performance, efficiency, comfort and safety that a 21st-century Volvo incorporates, why not just smoke ’em out by implying that only squares drive boxy sedans far in excess of their sell-by dates.

Is it working? “Our established customers continue to return,” Hamill points out, citing Volvo’s impressive sales growth of almost 20 percent in 2001. As for buyers of Volvo’s most revolutionary—make that reVolvolutionary—new car in decades, the front-wheel-drive S60 sports sedan, Hamill qualifies things a bit. S60 buyers are “new conquest customers” whom Volvo has successfully lured away from sporty rivals like the Audi A4, BMW 3-Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Doing so has meant acknowledging a circumstance that makes strange bedfellows out of driving aficionados and Volvo loyalists alike. Both groups tend to prefer rear-wheel-drive—on the one hand, because that’s the sporty way to go, on the other hand, because that’s the way venerable Volvos of yore were configured. For 2002, Volvo is meeting both groups halfway with an all-wheel-drive version of the S60 that convincingly combines a sophisticated powertrain with a saucy personality.

Volvo showcased the S60 AWD along suitably slippery roadways that lace up and down the Canadian Rockies of Kananaskis Valley west of Calgary, Alberta. Thanks to light-pressure turbocharging, the twin-cam, 2.4-liter inline-5 adapted instantly to the air density fluctuations caused by dramatic changes in altitude. The car’s 197 horsepower and 210 ft.-lbs. of torque were ample for the tasks of hill-climbing and overtaking slower traffic. Clearly, however, it was the car’s electro-hydraulic all-wheel-drive system from Haldex in Sweden that showcased the S60’s striking new personality.

The nerve center of Haldex is an electronic module that manipulates hydraulic pressures to achieve near-instant transfers of driving power to every wheel as needed. In other words, the S60 remains a front-driver until sensors detect a mere 15 degrees of wheel spin on either side of the car, which then triggers redistribution of power to whichever wheels are not spinning in as little as 45 micro-seconds. Of course, AWD systems from Audi (i.e., Quattro) and Subaru effect similar transfers, but it is the computer programmability of Volvo’s Haldex unit which chiefly sets it apart.

Then there’s DSTC. Although traction control and anti-lock brakes come standard on the S60 AWD, it is the inclusion of optional Dynamic Stability and Traction Control that truly transforms this car’s behavior in unpredictable situations. DSTC not only limits wheelspin during straight-line acceleration and braking; it also has the ability to sense anomalies of lateral movement that prefigure a spin or a sideways slide. Accordingly, DSTC combines braking pressure, throttle control and power transfers through the Haldex to initiate corrective maneuvers meant to return the car to its proper course.

The system represents a fascinating (albeit partial) surrender of control that any self-respecting auto buff is bound to resent at first. Suffice it to say, however, that even after dozens of laps on the diabolical “ice slalom” that Volvo devised in Canada, it is exceedingly difficult to drive faster with DSTC turned off than with the system engaged. In real life, when hazards are their most unpredictable, it’s hard to imagine any driver outwitting DSTC in its swift knack for averting danger.

Averting danger and enhancing safety are, of course, traditional Volvo by-words. In devising a performance-oriented sport-sedan intended to lure new generations of buyers, however, Volvo wisely relegates its most earnest Nanny impulses to the background. What renders the S60 such a striking departure for Volvo isn’t a brute force powertrain or racer-replica tuned suspension (although a front-drive S60 T5 does deliver impressive 247 hp from its 2.3-liter high-pressure turbo). Instead, the S60 sports about in the slightly more genteel manner of a classic grand-tourer, combining nimble enough handling with generous measures of ride comfort and producing lively but not neck-snapping acceleration. For over 200 miles, almost all of them on the ice and snow of Canadian mountain passes, the S60 AWD behaved eagerly and predictably. Moreover, whether sitting in the driver’s seat, front-passenger seat or rear, I felt reassuringly secure along every twist and turn. Thanks to electronic climate control, moreover, I was completely oblivious to the near-Arctic temperatures.

For its class, the S60 AWD is remarkably priced in the mid-$30,000 range; and even with numerous bells and whistles, my tester stayed under $40-grand. Volvo promises only 9,000 AWDs for ’02, and Northern drivers will surely buy the lion’s share. Ironically, however, it’s the Southern temperate zone where need for AWD may be greater. That’s because it’s not snow but the lack of snow removal that complicates winter life in the middle latitudes. All-time all-wheel-drive makes a great antidote for weather at its worst. That the S60 happens to be a pure pleasure to drive the other 364 days a year is a not-inconsiderable bonus.

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