by Jim Kenzie
Le Beausset, France – A high-performance sports sedan from safety-minded Volvo? Not as oxymoronic (word of the week) as you might think. The first Volvo to make an impression in North America, the 1948 Ford-esque 544 (never mind that Volvo used this shape in 1944) was as sporting as it got for sedans in the early ’60s, and several are still racing competitively in vintage events.
The P1800 – The Saint’s car – wasn’t very fast, but it sure looked the part. Various turbocharged Volvo sedans and wagons since have been just the opposite – they looked like Grannies’ cars, but went like stink.
Volvo is no stranger to the winner’s circle either, competing in the fast and furious British Touring Car Championship, initially in an attention-getting if not-yet-competitive 850 wagon, but ending up with a series win in an 850 sedan in 1998.
All of which gives Volvo the moral right to build high-performance versions of their mid-size S60 sedan and V70 wagon, dubbed S60 R and V70 R respectively. (I bet they wish now they’d never initiated this bizarre business of giving the wagon versions higher model numbers than the corresponding sedans.)
These cars (well, everything Volvo makes, apart from the compact S/V40) are based on the so-called P2 platform, renowned in the industry for its space utilization and safety.
Turning the regular cars into “R’s” involves minor mods to the five-cylinder twin-cam 20-valve transversely-mounted engine, beginning with those made to that of the new XC90 – larger bore and longer stroke, for a displacement of 2521 cc; continuously-variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust camshafts; and revised exhaust manifold with improved gas flow.
To this has been added a larger turbocharger for greater boost, twin intercoolers to lower intake air temperature, hence increase its density, and strengthened internals to cope with the added stresses.
The net result is a thumping 300 horsepower (by the “DIN” German Industry Standard) and either 295 lb.-ft. of torque from 1,950 to 5,250 r.p.m., or 258 lb.-ft. from 1,850 to 6,000 r.p.m., depending on whether it’s bolted to Volvo’s own and brand-new six-speed manual transmission, or the carry-over Aisin Warner five-speed automatic with “Geartronic” manual override.
Interestingly, the automatic-equipped engine generates its maximum power at higher revs – 6,000 versus 5,500 – presumably because it needs to wind out higher to get the same peak power. Either way, you’re looking at a torque plateau that promises very good low-end response, and a 0 – 100 km/h sprint time in the six-second range.
A performance car better look like one, otherwise your neighbours won’t know how much more you paid for your car than they did for theirs. But Volvo’s conservatism shines through here – the changes are subtle, almost to the point of, “Why bother?” Most evident are new five-spoke aluminum wheels (17-inch standard; 18-inch optional) with Pirelli P Zero “Rosso” tires.
The snout is slightly elongated, and incorporates a slightly lower grille, which benefits both aero and appearance. The S60 R sedan adds a slim rear deck spoiler; the larger roof extension on the V70 R wagon is actually an option.
Interior upgrades include enhanced lateral support for Volvo’s justly famous seats, clad here in tan, dark blue or beige leather, plus chronograph-style gauges with blue faces.
Stephen Harper, lead designer for all P2-based Volvos, noted that they were going to include metal-trimmed pedals, but these proved to be too slippery when the car was driven in wet conditions with leather shoes. There’s that Volvo safety thing, but prophetic, as it turned out.
The most significant changes to the cars come in the suspension. Electronically-adjustable shocks, developed by the Swedish Ohlins Racing company in conjunction with Monroe and Volvo, comprise what Volvo calls the Four-C system – Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept. The shocks interpret data from the traction control, directional stability control, ABS braking and engine management systems, and can change their damping rates individually within 5 to 15 milliseconds, as often as 500 times per second. The objective is to reduce dive, squat and body roll, to provide optimum grip and ride comfort in a consistent manner, no matter what the road or driver do.
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Three driver-controlled programs are available at the touch of a button. The default is “Sport”, for crisp handling and good ride quality. “Comfort” can be selected when the kids are trying to sleep (Volvo = family car, remember?) “Advanced Sport” is for when you really feel like pressing on.
With added power comes added responsibility, hence larger brakes – huge four-piston aluminum calipers from Brembo, supplier to, among others, Ferrari’s Formula One program.
Both R-cars use Volvo’s automatically-engaged four-wheel drive system, which employs a rear-axle-mounted Haldex torque-splitting device which can send anywhere from five to seventy percent of driving torque to the rear wheels, depending on need, as established by yet another computer.
With all this chassis and powertrain electronics working for you, you would really have to be not paying attention to fall off the road driving one of these things. Not that we didn’t try. And not that Volvo didn’t give us every opportunity. The Paul Ricard racing circuit in the Provence region of France was purchased a few years ago by Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone, and turned into the most advanced test track in the world. Don’t do anything you aren’t supposed to do here – one camera or sensor or another will find out and report you.
You’d plan on a location in the south of France to test a car like this in December, to guarantee good weather. So much for planning. Rain and fog were the order of the day. Maybe not such a bad thing, for it really showed off the capabilities of this car. Any time you can get dry weather summer tires to squeal like stuck pigs on a track with standing water on it – well, both the tires and the suspension must really be doing the job.
It was virtually impossible to get this car so far out of shape that a modicum of driving skill and a whole heaping boatload of chassis technology couldn’t bring it back. I did manage to make a few minor excursions onto Ricard’s unique “sticky pavement” run-off areas, which replace gravel traps, but the overall stability of this car was quite remarkable.
I tried all three chassis settings, and as is usually the case with racing cars, the softer setting was actually more controllable in the wet. If anybody was taking lap times, and they could have, they didn’t tell us. Just as well, actually. So I can’t prove the softer setting was quicker; it just felt that way.
On a race track where you’re at full throttle most of the time, any full-on deficiencies of an engine will come to the fore. That there is some turbo lag and a general softness to the throttle response in the Volvo R Car is undeniable. During an all-too-brief road trip the following day, this was less noticeable. In fact, low- and mid-range pick-up (as you’d expect from the torque curve) is very satisfying.
At all times the ride quality was impressive, as were the brakes and the slick new gearbox.
The major drawback to the R Car is that of all P2 cars – the turning circle is gigantic, due to the long transverse six-cylinder engines used in some of the family which limit wheel articulation. The cars feel clumsy in parking lots. It’s a trade-off Volvo made to generate the amazingly capacious interior these cars offer, although in the S60, the coupe-like roofline means you won’t be holding any high school reunions in the rear seat.
The S60 / V70 R will be launched in spring of next year, initially only with the six-speed manual gearbox. The wagon will follow a few weeks later, and like all of Volvo’s wagons is expected to account for about one third of North American R-car sales, the exact opposite of Volvo’s sedan/wagon ratio in ROW (Rest of World).
Prices haven’t been announced, but the R-Cars will probably be the priciest members of the 60/70 family, surpassing the T5 (high-pressure turbo, loaded, front-drive only) models which currently sit at $46,495 for the S60 sedan and $47,995 for the V70 wagon.
How much would the four-wheel drive system, hot engine and other goodies add? Your guess is as good as mine; mine would be about four grand.
The Volvo R-Car won’t make BMW fans forget about the M3. But if your spouse or kids whine about ride comfort and interior space, or your bank manager whines about the size of the loan, yet you still want a high-performance car, the Volvo R Cars offer a tantalizing alternative.