2016 Volvo S60 T5 Inscription Review: Chinese takeout

Volvo is on a roll right now, its XC90 SUV named North American Truck of the Year and anticipation levels high for the S90 sedan unveiled in Detroit last month. Even smooth-talking Swedes can't sustain a whole company on two flagships, however, and so the meat of the range remains the leftovers from before Geely's purchase of the brand.

For the midsize segment that means the S60, currently on Volvo's list for a complete refresh, but benefiting from the Drive-E engine revamp of the 2015 model year. 2016 brings another new variant, too: the S60 T5 Inscription.

The Inscription badge means two things, one more noticeable than the other. First is the extra rear-seat legroom, with three inches more space for those in the back to enjoy. The regular S60 was notorious for its stingy rear space, and so the Inscription is the model to pick if you want to avoid complaints from over your shoulder.

The other factor is where the S60 T5 Inscription is made: it's Volvo's first car for the US market that's manufactured in China. While you probably have more Chinese-made products in your home than from anywhere else, splashing $38,700 – before options – on a car built there might give some pause for thought, though I noticed no differences between the Inscription and the Swedish-manufactured other S60-series cars I've driven.

While the Inscription might be new, the S60 isn't. In fact, this second-generation design dates back to 2010, though has aged gracefully. There's none of the aggressive creasing you'd find on a Lexus, though while I'm a sucker for the V60 wagon – not least because of the neon-like rear lights which give it such a distinctive silhouette – the S60 is handsome in a subtle, grown-up way.

Volvo offers two engines with the S60 Inscription, either the Drive-E powered front-wheel drive car I tested, or the AWD which powers all the wheels but has an older, less efficient engine. The Drive-E powertrain musters 240 HP and 258 lb-ft of torque from its four-cylinders, courtesy of a turbo.

Economy not blistering performance is the name of the S60 T5 Inscription's game, with the EPA suggesting 29 mpg is possible on the combined cycle (25 mpg in the city, or 37 mpg on the highway). With my own mixed driving I saw 28 mpg.

Without a T6 option for the Inscription – which would add a supercharger too – perkiness is in a little shorter supply, and of course you're lugging a few extra inches of car. All the same, peak torque arrives at an usefully low 1,500 rpm, making highway overtaking straightforward, while the 8-speed auto slurs near-invisibly between its ratios. Ride quality is great, too, with a poise that kept rear passengers comfortable in particular.

You won't be driving fast, but you will be driving safe. Volvo's super-cautious approach to safety is legendary, and the S60 T5 Inscription comes packed to the gills with active and passive kit.

Standard is the City Safety system for low-speed collision avoidance, which can spot pedestrians and swerving cyclists, warn you, and even slam on the brakes of its own accord should you prove too tardy in your reactions. Tick the $3,000 box for the Platinum trim, meanwhile, and as well as an uprated Harman Kardon audio system and keyless start, you gain adaptive cruise control, collision warning with fully-automatic braking, lane-keeping assistance, and distance alerts.

A further $1,425 adds Park Assist Pilot, which can help ease you into a space, and blind-spot information. In short, if you manage to crash the S60 – happily, I didn't – it's your own fault, and probably in defiance of its built-in systems.

Nowhere is the S60 quite so dated as in its infotainment system. It might be called Sensus, just like the XC90's system, but it's a far older, less refined iteration.

The 7-inch, non-touch display is small, and that's only emphasized by how recessed Volvo has made it. The massive spray of buttons across the center stack pretty much demand you take your eyes off the road to figure out where to press; the UI has too many menu layers. The baked-in cellular connection tops out at 3G, undermining its usefulness as a WiFi hotspot.

Volvo's driver display is cleaner, though the usefulness of some of its information – like the current speed limit – was undermined by how inaccurate it turned out to be. I'm all for a gentle reminder if I'm inadvertently driving too fast, but the S60's scolding icon all too often did its angry pulsing when I was still legal.

It's a shame, because everything feels sturdy and well put together otherwise. The buttons are tactile and solid – there's simply far too many of them – while the open-grain wood is leagues away from the wretched, glossy slabs found in most premium cars.

You can tell it was designed by people from a cold climate, too. With the $1,300 Climate package – that adds heated seats front and rear, a heated steering wheel, and even warms up the windshield washers – the S60 automatically cranks up the seat and wheel heat in cold weather when you unlock it. They heat up fast, too.

Volvo calls the S60 a "sports sedan" but it's a mild mannered approach to enthusiastic driving. Better, then, to think of it as a safe and discrete premium sedan, finally giving those in the rear the sort of accommodation its price tag would warrant.

NOW READ: 2017 Volvo S90 plays Swedish luxe card

The S0 T5 Inscription undercuts Mercedes' C-Class but – at $45,925 as tested – comes in more expensive than an Acura TLX. Which you consider it most competitive with depends on the prestige you attach to the Volvo badge.

Personally, since the S60 Polestar is rarer than hen's teeth in the US, the T5 Inscription would be my pick of the S60 sedans for its interior space and reassuring safety tech.

All the same, having seen what Volvo is capable of in the XC90 and upcoming S90, you can't help but notice the places in which the S60 is showing its age.

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