Volvo has high hopes for 2014, glowing from a multi-billion investment after its break-up from Ford, and with a new engine architecture, Drive-E, for its refreshed best-sellers, the S60, V60, and XC60. They're important models for the Swedish car company, together expected to comprise 80-percent of Volvo's sales this year, but what's under the hood is arguably more of a game-changer. We grabbed the keys to all three to see whether a 4-cylinder engine can really deliver the best of a V6, and to see if Volvo stands a chance in coercing Audi buyers to swap their brand loyalties.
Debuting on the model year 2015 S60, V60, and XC60, Drive-E is Volvo's new engine architecture for the future. It pairs a 2.0-liter gasoline (or diesel option for Europe) engine with either a turbocharger or both a turbocharger and a supercharger, for up to 302HP but impressive fuel economy figures like up to 37mpg.
We've covered Volvo Drive-E - and its strengths and limitations - comprehensively if you want to know more.
Volvo had already tightened up its midsize sedan's looks with its MY2014 refresh, but the 2015 S60 introduces Drive-E and some new safety toys. It's a handsome car, with a broad, low grille and crisply sculpted lighting; on the inside, Volvo's "floating" dashboard isn't quite the eye-catcher it once was, with the non-touch display in the center stack looking small compared to rivals, and the cluster of buttons and dials beneath it somewhat confusing.
Better is the trio of LCDs in the driver's binnacle, which shows speed and economy information clearly and comprehensively, and indeed the driving performance of the new S60. We tested the T6 Drive-E version with 302HP from both a supercharger and a turbocharger, along with the 19-inch wheel option (18-inch being standard) and the Platinum Technology package. The car starts from $33,300 in T5 form, and from $38,150 for the T6.
On the road, it's hard to believe there's not a V6 under the hood. Power from the supercharger comes instantaneously, giving the S60 the sort of low-end grunt we'd expect from bigger engines, not to mention a fantastic thrum that builds to an aggressive whine as the turbo spools up. The combination means power across the rev range, including in the all-important 50-65mph bracket when the S60 stabs forward for highway overtaking. With a mixture of city and highway driving, we saw fuel economy in the high twenties (Volvo quotes 24/35/28mpg for city, highway, and combined driving).
We also had the opportunity to try out some of Volvo's new safety tech, notably the lane-departure warning system. The S60 not only vibrates the steering wheel if it spots you drifting out of your lane, it will actively steer you back on track. It's a system we've seen on cars from other companies, and Volvo's is a little more subtle: you can't leave the S60 to effectively steer itself, and it struggled with lanes delineated by cats-eyes rather than painted lines.
V60 sport wagon
The V60 we drove may have had the smaller, T5 Drive-E engine with 240HP, but if anything we were more excited by it, given Volvo is finally bringing the wagon back to North America. The refreshed design arguably works better on the V60 than the S60, where the steep rear glass straddles practicality and sporty appearance. You don't get the luggage capacity of boxy Volvos of old, but it's a great-looking car, particularly in the Power Blue finish.
The $35,300 T5 Drive-E may be down on power compared to the T6 in the S60 - Volvo won't offer a T6 V60 initially - and it lacks the supercharger, but it still feels responsive behind the wheel. The steering is direct and the wagon feels compact and well planted; Volvo opted to keep the dynamic suspension system, rather than switching to a software-based one, and that reaps rewards for how agile the car is both on the highway and when you're tackling curvier roads.
Volvo quotes up to 25/37/29mpg (city/highway/combined) from the V60 with Drive-E; with a combination of city and highway driving we saw 33mpg. That climbed a few points in ECO+ mode, which kicks in the start/stop engine shut-down a little earlier, at 4mph rather than when you're at a standstill, as well as introducing a new feature which disengages the gearbox and turns off the engine when you're coasting down a hill.
For the XC60 it was back to the T6 Drive-E, proving as capable as in the S60 despite the heavier car. Here, the front-wheel drive limits of the Drive-E system might hit Volvo most considerably; although many crossovers don't go any further into the rough stuff than mounting the curb, all-wheel drive is still a coveted feature.
Instead, you get the choice of the T5 Drive-E or T6 Drive-E engines - priced from $35,750 and $40,050 respectively - with Volvo quoting 24/31/27 and 22/30/25 mpg for city/highway/combined respectively. The more powerful engine didn't have any issues keeping the XC60 moving at a pace, and - though Volvo says there's no different tuning between it and the S60 - the crossover felt noticeably more eager to dash away from the lights.
Volvo's historical strengths have been safety and reliability, though the company has been working away at adding performance to that too. The company wouldn't 100-percent confirm that Polestar versions of the S60 and V60 had been given the green-light, but came as close to it as it could while still keeping some surprises up its collective sleeves for later in 2014.
Even without Polestar and the extra performance that fettling will bring, however, the Drive-E architecture impresses. Sit a V6 fan behind the wheel and fail to point out that they're driving a 4-cylinder, and it's more than likely they'd not complain about power; in fact, they'd probably be too busy celebrating when it came to filling up at the pump.
Great engines aren't the sum total of Volvo's challenge, however; it has to get skeptical American drivers behind the wheel of the S60, V60, and XC60 to experience the 2015 cars for themselves. Still, with the growing taste for hybrid-electric powertrains, it's the electrification of Drive-E that we're perhaps most excited about. That will show its hand in the XC90 later in the year.