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2011 Volvo S60: Counterpoint

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  November 28, 2010 09:00 AM

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(Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

This story goes with Bill Griffith's take on the Volvo S60 - Ed.

I'm glad Volvo's "City Safety" auto-braking system worked as advertised for Bill. My S60 tester, a different car than Bill's, gave me several false positives.

On at least three occasions, while driving on curved onramps or switching lanes close to a Jersey barrier, the alarm sounded off and the red light flashed on the windshield as if there were an object or car directly in front of me. I continued driving and ignored the warnings, and thankfully, the brakes never engaged.

In July, I witnessed a demo car at Boston Volvo Village drive straight through a test dummy. Two months earlier in Sweden during a higher-speed demo, an S60 slammed into the back of a truck. All of these tests were within the system's 22-mph limit, but Volvo says there are a "number of variations" that can cause the car to react in these ways.

In my case of driving around the onramp — a rather tight, two-lane left-hander headed to I-93 from the Mass. Pike — the S60 somehow saw the looming wall as a threat, but wouldn't have braked until I was actually set to hit it, said spokesman James Hope.

In the case of the dummy, Hope said that because real people are more reflective than air-filled mannequins, the radar sensors can't "replicate the pedestrian detection with consistent regularity." I'll take Hope's word on that, because I'm not volunteering to stand in.

But what about the colossal crash in Sweden? That test car's battery was nearly depleted, which caused a fault code that disabled the safety system.

Volvo's technology is impressive — I've witnessed it function properly in a number of other tests — but these mishaps prove that no electronic system is fail-safe or without some imperfections. Soon, if it's not happening already, we'll be downloading software updates with every oil change.

"That's why we test," Hope said. "We're always pushing the envelope of safety."

Hand the S60 T6 to a human being, and he'll be treated to the sportiest Volvo since the discontinued "R" models. The steering is quick with good on-center feel in this class, something that can't be said for most Volvos. The powerful 300-horsepower turbo six and six-speed automatic leave nothing for want, either. Grip is superb, thanks to all-wheel-drive and a torque-vectoring rear differential, which is quickly becoming the gold standard to mitigate understeer (when decreasing traction forces the front end to swing wide in a corner).

My orange tester looked sharp inside and out, with two-tone leather seating, premium materials, and a much improved infotainment system. Driving the S60 makes you appreciate Volvo's creativity and original design, like the single center air vent, textured leather door inserts, and the "floating" center stack that allows storage space behind it.

Volvo wisely replaced its clunky navigation controls, which were hidden behind the steering wheel and inaccessible to the passenger, with a brand-new, high-resolution interface. The screen menus are intuitive and full of customization, including the ability to change the steering weight with a few clicks.

My S60 didn't have the Four-C active suspension and felt pretty harsh on rough surfaces. Road and wind noise were well isolated. All said, the S60 leaves me positive for Volvo's future, but at $45,000 for this top-end T6, I'd scrap all the safety sensors and buy an Audi S4 for a few grand more.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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