Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Test Drive: 2016 Volvo S60 T6 - A stealthy executive express that gives you old school thrills in a new package

Sometime ago I attended the Malaysian launch of the 2016 Volvo S60 T6. It is not exactly an all-new car as it is still the one that was launched way back in 2010 but this is the one where Volvo, in 2015, started added their newest engines and transmissions based on their Drive-E technology as well as doing some style tweaks and adding more driver conveniences. Now what is interesting about this new car is that it is sold in Malaysia in front wheel drive form and has an output of 306 hp and 400 Nm of torque. I had a brief spin in one and it felt so alive. Really alive as it tyre-chirped, torquesteered, tramlined its way down the road. Like what an a powerful, old school front wheel drive sports sedan would do. Like what its forefather, the Volvo 850 T5R would have done in its day. 

This car is an enigma of sorts for me. A drive experience which was quite unexpected in 2016. If it were 1995 I would actually be blown out of my mind. Back in the day 306hp was reserved for something like a Ferrari 348GTB, which had 320bhp/324Nm to play with. A top of the line T5R back then made do with only 243hp/ 340Nm torque. But because it was plonked inside a staid, 4 door box driving its front wheels, it loved killing its tyres. And it was also a challenge for the driver.

Which is somewhat like what this T6 is today. Which was torquesteer and tramline with anything more than half a throttle pedal's worth of prodding. The only difference between the two is that the S60 looks all sculpted and nicely styled in and out instead of a slight rounded off wedge. It also had slightly better refinement which tons of modern equipment inside and still rode decently well for something with so many horses. Yet it felt like something from another era if you pushed the heck out of it.

So I had a second, much longer go at the it to see if my perspective on this Swedish sports sedan would change.

There is nothing to complain about how the car drives in and around town. It rides decently well for something that needs to handle many horses and torque. There is no noticeable tyre clobber or jarring knocks when you drive on bad tarmac. Tyre noise is a little bit higher than a less sporting premium sedan but you can blame that on the optional 235/40 18inch wheels with aggressive Michelin Pilot Super Sports fitted to the car (stock sizes are 235/45 17). The steering is nicely balanced at low speeds and the car, being in the compact premium class (think Audi A4, BMW 3-series, Mercedes Benz C-class size) seems to be the size which I like in and around town. Just big enough to make an impression yet small enough to pilot through the inconsiderate double parked cars and other unnaturally occurring tight spaces within Kuala Lumpur.

The interior is a place where I would not complain one bit. It is made of nice plastics, leather and other materials. Like any Scandinavian design, the interior feels like something cosy and well thought out. It is easy to find a comfortable sitting position. The seats are ergonomic. The parts and switchgear looks robust and feel like they could last long like the Volvos from the 1980s do to this day. Maybe the only complaint I have about the interior is that it is a little sparse around the area where the infotainment screen is situated. But I think this is actually part of the design philosophy where Volvo like less clutter. And with that I have to say that upcoming Volvos would have a dashboard and center console that would look clutter-free like the current XC90. I suppose I like a little bit more old world luxury in my premium sedans. It's just me. Getting ever closer to being an old fart actually.

As for the exterior styling, the T6 also looks its part with the subtle bodykit and big wheels. Swedish design is a little on the understated side but I think this car has the right amount of bling that something RM280,000 should have. Well, maybe a larger grille next time would be nice. That would add a little more road presence. A lot of road presence is actually very good to have. More in-your-face. Makes people move out of the way even quicker so that one can enjoy tearing down to road.

Now in order to really test the T6 it usually requires a proper trashing through the Malaysian countryside. Usually, this would mean a journey from Petaling Jaya to Gombak and then up via Jalan Gombak-Bentong road (Jalan means 'Road' in case you're do not know the Malay language) to Genting Sempah where I then head up towards the casino resorts up on Genting Highlands and down again in one swoop till I reach GohTong Jaya, the halfway point on the way down from the Highlands. I usually have a cup of local coffee or the tarik to digest the drive experience. 

This drive would also test any road going car to the limit. You get some traffic from PJ to Jln Gombak, and once you hit the twelfth mile or so there are less houses and buildings until the road starts its upward climb to Genting Sempah, a midway point of sorts. This stretch is one which is narrow, tight, filled with turns, bends, corners of various angles. Switchbacks and sharp turns are more common that short straights which are undulating in nature. The roads are covered with patchwork repairs too and there are parts where if you look left there will be a deep ravine. Crash and you may never be found once the jungle envelopes you. A beautiful stretch of road you see, to test something like a S60 T6.

It is on this tight stretch you see that the 400Nm torque comes into play. Or you try not to let all 400Nm come into play. In a front wheel drive chassis like this it needs to be fed in properly. You accelerate hard, but not too hard as you can see the corner coming up ahead. Tap the brakes to let the front dip a little before you turn in. The steering seems nicely weighted for the job at hand and once you've straightened the wheel after you've cross the apex you put the power down. Again, it is all about feeding it into the wheels. I tried the heavy footed stomping a few times but the S60 would be overwhelmed by the torque. Somehow I feel less torque steer that before.

The acceleration that the car gives whilst exiting a corner is satisfying. But again, it usually likes a gentler right foot and an alert driver. The rutted surfaces of the road may catch you off guard as whilst you also sense that whilst this is a sporting sedan, it is one actually meant as an executive express. More for the highways and open corners rather than this undulating and bumpy B-road. But still, you could make bloody rapid progress in one. 

You have to do the obvious, brake late and hard, turn into the apex of any tight corner, straighten out and then apply the power. Apply too much power just before the apex or on it and it will decide not to allow you to corner and understeer into a tree. Or a ravine in this case. Learn to manage the car on a tight road and it will still be rapid. Not Golf R rapid, but you should still be able to leave many hot hatchbacks in your wake. 

Once clear of the tight stretch of road you make your way up from Genting Sempah all the way up towards the Highlands. Now here, on this really uphill stretch it is more at home. Wide double or three lane roads with switchbacks and some corkscrews at a very steep angle. The car feels at home here using all the torque it has to pull it through the corners. Driving style is the same but you can be more aggressive after the apex. Stomp your foot and manage the torque steer which is so much less than before. Again.

You appreciate the oodles of torque this 2.0liter Drive-E engine makes. So much power from 2 liters and 4 cylinders. The engine features a combination of a supercharger and a turbo charger. The mechanically linked supercharger starts to function at low revs, while the turbocharger kicks in when the airflow builds up. It is coupled to a new torque convertor Aisin-Warner 8-speed automatic which seems to be all nice and smooth. Some may like a quicker shifting gearbox but I find that the only problem with it is that when you're really going for it, there is a lull in power between 3,500rpm to 4,000rpm.

I believe this 'flat spot' is the switchover point between the supercharger and the turbocharger. On flatter, less challenging roads, this lull in power is not noticeable. It will just feel as if the car is pulling hard. But on something where the road corkscrews upwards, there is a that break in performance before it comes back. Strong as heck, but it does disrupt the flow a little. So here, where to road goes up to almost 45degrees in angle you have to be aggressive. Luckily there is less torque steer than I remember. I said it again haven't I.

But that aside, the car's performance is remarkable. So much usable performance most of the time. If you are on a long stretch of road doing 80kmh, the time it takes to get to 180kmh is really quick. Volvo's claim that 0-100kmh is done in 5.9seconds is conservative. This car easily gets it done faster than that. The brakes are good. Pedal modulation and feel is good and there is no fade on the way down from Genting towards my teh tarik stop at GohTong Jaya after putting the car through its paces.

On an empty highway you can actually cruise effortlessly at 180kmh. Road noise at these speeds is pretty muted and you still feel at ease. Press into a long sweeping corner at speeds higher than usual and you can feel the front end tracking nicely yet feeling very planted. The rear does move around a bit more, following the road undulations, with a hint of the suspension corkscrewing up and downwards. This chassis actually gives out a lot of feedback surprisingly. This is a Swedish sports sedan mind you. Not German. You could take it up the over 200kmh easily and onwards to the electronically limited maximum speed of 230kmh. Volvo being Volvo, had done so for safety reasons where they believe that the brakes and other safety systems would have to be beefed up (which would add cost). 

230Kmh is fast enough on Malaysian roads. If our highways were as smooth as the ones in Europe then it would make sense to go that fast. And our drivers. Most do not have a clue on how to drive actually. You may find one popping up on the overtaking lane for no apparent reason. The only issue you would really, really have is when you're at a table with a few friends and they start exchanging Top Trump-like performance figures. That fella in the BMW 328i can do 250kmh, the fat fella here drives an A4 2.0 Quattro and he can do 250kmh and this chap with the C300 can also do 255kmh. The German brigade is going to sail past you on paper at the very least.

Now on the torque steer issue. The thing with this car is that because it is a front wheel drive car, the front wheels have to handle the steering, and also the drive. Too much power would corrupt the steering. In most cases, where the engine is located transversely like the S60, there would be unequal length drive shafts. One will always want to move faster than the other resulting in torque steer where the car punts itself to one side of the road. You have to be aware of this if you are in a very powerful front wheel drive car. The T6 is definitely one of those types of car. 

The reason why this time the same car feels less torque steery than before is that the tyre pressures were too high during the initial launch drive. It caused the excessive torque steer due to less contact patches caused by overinflation. So with the correct tyre pressures, the T6 is very driveable, only slightly torque steery. In fact, after driving it over a few days, I am sure that it could handle a good 20 more horsepower easily. Boy, we're never satisfied aren't we. When something is cured, we end up wanting more in return. If we get more, then we want less. 

As for the tramlining that was faced initially, it occurs at lower speeds. Under 80kmh mostly but never an issue when you apply some power. It only occurs when you're really coasting or over thick white lines or those yellow breakers on the roads. Again, this is down to the super aggressive Pilot Super Sports tyres. They are indeed ultra high performance tyres. Grip levels are very high but it is actually too aggressive a tyre for the T6 in terms of a tyre meant for an executive sedan. I think a less aggressive tyre would suit the T6. This would cure tramlining issues, tyre noise issues (as its an aggressive threaded tyre – there is more road noise than an equivalent continental sedan because of this).

Final thoughts 

I think if it were the All-Wheel Drive variant that they sell over in Europe it would be a nice secure all weather executive express. It would take corners like it was on rails, but that would actually lessen the thrill that this car give you. In this front wheel drive form it may be a little rough and unpolished if you're going at its limits. I would love for a more sophisticated chassis but at the same time I also do not really wish it were so. This is because the car actually challenges you to a certain point. I think cars these days lack that driver-car interaction. This gives you some of that. Albeit with less chassis sophistication of course. 

This actually meant that I actually enjoyed this Volvo. It is a very memorable car to drive. Seriously rapid (until 230kmh, that is) and for the asking price, nothing really comes close in terms of horsepower, comfort, equipment and thrills. A Golf R may be faster, but this is more comfortable. Always a tradeoff usually. This Volvo gives you old school thrills in a nice new package.

And this could really be a great one to own. No one would know what hit them when you pass by actually No one really expects a really superfast Volvo here in Malaysia these days. Something uncommon in these parts of the world. A 306hp 400Nm stealth bomber. 

2016 Volvo S60 T6 

Pros: A lot of car for the asking price, lots of safety features, performance, rapid acceleration, build quality, equipment levels, challenges the driver...

Cons: ...a little bit too much at times, optional wheels/tyres overly aggressive (stick to stock) - causes tramlining, some torque steer & extra tyre noise, slight lull in power on winding uphill roads can be felt, speed limited to 230kmh

Conclusion: Makes you feel alive. Challenges you. Most powerful premium compact sedan under RM300,000. What's not to like?

RM280,888 (on-the-road, without insurance, inclusive of six per cent GST)


2.0liter supercharged & turbocharged 4 cylinder
306hp /400Nm torque
8 speed automatic transmission with pedal shifters

Weight: 1649kg

0-100kmh 5.9seconds (Tested - 5.7seconds)
230kmh (electronically limited)

Combined fuel consumption: 6.7liters/100km (real world, extra urban + B-road bashing - 14ltrs/100km - expect to average 9.0-11km/liter normally - see photo below) 

Equipment and Safety features are stated after the photographs below

Adaptive Digital Display
The Adaptive Digital Display uses an active TFT (Thin Film Transistor) crystal display to bring the driver personalised information. There are three themes to choose from: Elegance, Eco and Performance.

Sensus Connect
The Digital Display theme colours are also echoed in the connected infotainment system Sensus Connect. It features a refreshed user interface with a number of innovative functions offering customers a fully connected experience.

The cloud-based services allow the driver to discover new restaurants at the destination, stream favourite music seamlessly and much more. The driver can also have text messages read out aloud without taking hands off the wheel.

The Bluetooth mobile phone service allows hands-free phone conversations as well as music streaming from a preferred Bluetooth enabled smartphone.

IntelliSafe, Volvo's blanket name for all active safety systems, is an important part of the driver-centric approach in the S60.

Park Assist Pilot
Park Assist Pilot makes parallel parking easy and precise by taking over and operating the steering wheel while the driver handles the gearbox and controls the car’s speed. The parking maneuver is based on front, rear and side-facing ultrasonic sensors.

Lane Keeping Aid
Lane Keeping Aid helps the driver stay in the lane. This feature applies extra steering torque to the steering column when the car gets close to a lane marking and is about to leave the lane. The system is active at speeds between 65 km/h and 200 km/h. As a first step, Lane Keeping Aid applies gentle steering wheel torque to help the driver steer back onto the intended course. If the car leaves the lane, the technology generates a distinctive warning through a haptic vibration in the steering wheel.

Electrical Power Assist Steering
The Electrical Power Assist Steering (EPAS), available with the Drive-E engines, uses an electrical motor to support the steering rack, and the driver can choose between three levels of power assistance.

In Low mode the system provides a high degree of power support, making maneuvering easier. Medium mode has somewhat lower power support to offer more road response at higher speeds. High mode is the ultimate setting for the enthusiastic driver, contributing to the car’s dynamic character.

Permanent high beam with groundbreaking technology
The Active High Beam Control eliminates the need to switch between low and high beam. Instead, Active High Beam Control makes it possible keep the headlights on high beam continuously.

When another car approaches from the opposite direction, the system helps to prevent dazzling of the oncoming driver by shading out only as much of the beam as necessary. This is done by an ingenious projector module mechanism integrated into the headlamp.  The same benefit applies to drivers in preceding cars.

Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection technology
New advanced software, including more rapid vision processing made it possible to extend Volvo Cars' detection and auto brake technology to cover certain cyclist situations as well.

The Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake is equipped with an advanced sensor system that scans the area ahead. If a cyclist heading in the same direction as the car suddenly swerves out in front of the car as it approaches from behind and collision is imminent, there is an instant warning and full braking power is applied.

The technology also detects if a pedestrian steps out into the road in front of the car. If the driver does not respond in time, the car can warn and automatically activate the brakes.

City Safety - active up to 50 km/h
The S60 features a City Safety system that is active at speeds up to 50 km/h. The car automatically brakes if the driver fails to react in time when the vehicle in front slows down or stops - or if the car is approaching a stationary vehicle too fast.

Cornering Light for better visibility
Another innovative option for driving in the dark is the low-speed Cornering Light feature. As an extension of the current Active Bending Light system, it lights up the area the driver is steering towards for safer maneuvering.

Blind Spot Information System - for better visibility
The S60 offers the radar-based Blind Sport Information System (BLIS. The technology can monitor and alert the driver to rapidly approaching vehicles up to 70 m behind the car. Of course it still informs the driver about vehicles in the blind spots on both sides.

Cross Traffic Alert - covering your back
Cross Traffic Alert uses the radar sensors at the rear end of the car to alert the driver to crossing traffic from the sides when reversing out of a parking space. This is especially helpful in tight and crowded areas where the side view might be limited due to infrastructure, vegetation or other parked cars.

Road Sign Information - an extra "eye" on the traffic environment
Road Sign Information supports the driver by displaying road signs in the instrument display. Road Sign Information can be combined with the Speed Alert function, which provides the driver with a visual warning in the speedometer if the speed limit is exceeded.

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