2018 Volvo XC60 T6 AWD first drive: a timely reboot

June 9, 2017

When are car companies most like computers? Forget about the future of self-driving cars, or Wall Street’s drive to turn Detroit into Silicon Valley, and vice versa.

Car companies act like Apples when they need a reboot.

That’s where Volvo found itself just a few years ago, with an aging product line and new corporate parents. With a flip of a switch, it’s since restarted its family of vehicles with the brilliant Volvo XC90 crossover SUV.

The restart will be done sometime next year when a new South Carolina factory screws together its first S60 sedan. A compact crossover drops in late 2018, in the form of the XC40.

Here and now, it’s time for Volvo to replace its best-selling vehicle. Taking a page from the XC90 playbook, the 2018 Volvo XC60 goes on sale this August with pert new looks, a perfectly rendered interior, and a trio of turbo-4 engines–one with plug-in power.

The new XC60 squares off against the BMW X3, Audi Q5, Jaguar F-Pace, and Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class. We predict worry and chagrin in those halls. With the new XC60, Volvo has cached all the XC90’s good data, and trimmed some fat from its code.

Lighter and brighter

The XC60’s profile will send BMW’s lawyers to check their patent fine print. The cockpit will require Audi designers to share space in the top drawer of crossover SUVs.

There’s much to compare between the XC60 and Volvo’s own XC90–but it has even more in common with the latest X3. The XC60’s squinty LED headlights tack-pin into its wide, trim grille with characteristic Volvo reserve. Have you seen the rest of it? Follow the shoulder line down the side, through the upward kink at the rear roof pillars, and suddenly Gothenburg just got a lot closer to Munich.

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Volvo’s slim roof pillars keep outward vision very good, but the XC60 ditches some of the XC90’s angular torpor for a nicely wedgy rise in the body. It’s particularly strong at the rear quarters, where ribbons of vertical taillights stop and turn sideways across the tailgate, which lifts the rear off the ground even before the XC60’s air suspension gets in on the act.

Volvo tricks the senses in one other key way. The XC60 keeps the distance between the dash and the front axle the same as on the XC90, but the side glass cants in closer to the driver. That envelops passengers more snugly. They sit inside the XC60, not on top of it, as they might think when they clamber into the XC90.

Simplicity soothes the eyes once they’re inside. The tall center console retains space for batteries present and future, but a spare, elegantly trimmed dash still dictates the feel of the interior. In the XC60 a wide band of trim draws attention near the base of the dash. It’s finished in achingly on-trend driftwood in Inscription models, and its grain is painstakingly laid in the direction the car moves, as if Thomas Keller had spare time to draw cockpits while shuttling between Per Se and the French Laundry.

The cockpit stands apart with its portrait-style display. Tesla and McLaren share this superior layout; it’s still stunning that major new vehicles with high-tech reputations stick with landscape layouts.

2018 Volvo XC60

2018 Volvo XC60

Ice in its veins

Volvos hail from snow and ice. It seeps into their road manners. The XC60 drives perfectly cool to the touch.

It’s admirable for its purity, but doesn’t tug us in its direction like a BMW X3 does.

All Volvo XC60s sold in the U.S. in 2018 will have standard all-wheel drive and an 8-speed automatic, but the engine bay will come with one of three powerplants.

The base engine in T5 models will be a 2.0-liter turbo-4 that makes 250 horsepower. It’s less thrummy here than in the XC90, less noticeably a small-displacement engine. Volvo promises 0-60 mph times of 6.4 seconds, and a top speed of 140 mph (the same for all 2018 models).

The quickest XC60 is the T8. It pairs the same engine with batteries and an electric motor to make 400 hp net. Its 10.4-kwh battery pack grows from the 9.2-kwh pack in the XC90 T8, and boosts acceleration. Volvo says this version will hit 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds despite a chunky 4,599-pound curb weight. We’ll cover this more when we drive one later this year. (No EPA estimates have been offered for any models to date.)

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2018 Volvo XC60 first drive, Barcelona

2018 Volvo XC60 first drive, Barcelona

I drove the middle model, the turbocharged and supercharged turbo-4 dubbed the T6. With 316 hp and a curb weight of 4,054 pounds, it clicks off 60-mph trots in 5.6 seconds.

All-wheel drive ships all its power to the front wheels until it sniffs out wheelslip. When it does, it can send half its torque to the rear wheels. From a stop, the XC60 gives all four wheels some power for better traction.

That gives the XC60 its undramatic flair. The turbo-4 hits its torque peak early, power rolls out, entirely evenly distributed. The XC60 rumbles and groans less with the same drivetrain than does the bigger XC90, possibly because the shorter body can’t resonate as much. Regardless of the reason, the drivetrain’s output is ruthlessly well-managed.

That’s true even when the driver fiddles with the car’s three core driving modes: economy, comfort, and dynamic. Choose economy and the XC60 chooses to slow out its shifts and throttle uptake to a deliberate extreme; roll the knurled wheel on the console to dynamic, and the responses get boosted but not jittery. An off-road mode and an individual mode build on those three essential profiles.

Drive modes also influence all but the base suspension, with its steel double-wishbone setup in front, and integral-link and transverse leaf spring rear. Their responses are set in, well, steel. Volvo sells adaptive dampers and air springs, and they equipped our test car with this setup.

Typical for the kind, the air setup can lower itself at speed for better aero or raise itself in an off-road mode. In between, it’s mapped to provide painless driving that filters off the few slight edges still found on a Q5, still abundant in the X3. The Volvo’s default setting, its comfort mode delivers creamy, road-smothering control and files down most of the sensation from the steering. Economy shuts off a lot of boost to the air dampers and the steering, so the XC60’s ride gets less flexible and its steering grows some resistance.

Dynamic mode blips everything with electronic stimulations, and shuts off the built-in stop/start. When it’s selected on a T6 AWD with upsized 20-inch wheels, it adds some welcome heft to the steering that helps it track better down smooth roads like the ones we cruised outside Barcelona.

For brief passages on unpaved trails at speeds below 25 mph, the XC60’s off-road mode engages hill descent control, dials up the steering assist, and slows out throttle and shifts. T8 plug-in hybrids get their own modes that conserve battery power or set the engine to charge the batteries.

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