Steve Harper, chief platform designer for Volvo
's most important range of cars-the mid-size S60 sedan and V70 and XC70 wagons-calls the 2005 model year changes "toning up." It's a novel spin on the phrase "mid-cycle freshening," but he has a point because all three cars look as if they have been for a bit of a workout.
The S60 in particular looks more muscular, with new front and rear bumpers, new head- and taillamps, and a more aggressive black egg-crate grille. Eighteen-inch wheels and tires are optional on U.S. market S60s, and there is a body kit available for turbocharged S60s. The V70 also has new lamps and bumpers. Volvo has affixed additional chrome to the grilles and bumpers, although the effect is more Harley Earle than Arne Jacobsen. The XC70 has a new grille, new wheels, brushed aluminum roof rails, larger door mirrors, and different bumpers containing extended front and rear skid plates that look like upturned silver tongues.
Inside all the cars, the door grab handles have been reworked, there are new seats that have a greater range of movement, the center console has been revised, and the radio has controls that are slightly more intuitive than the outgoing model's. The XC70's center grab handle is now made of real aluminum. All of the cars have a multi-functional center armrest that will appeal to pack rats everywhere. An in-dash six-CD player, real wood inlays, and rear park assist are new options for 2005 U.S. models. The interior updates are subtle, but they work in concert to raise the overall feeling of quality and luxury.
A new option this year is BLIS, Volvo's Blind Spot Information System, which consists of side-mirror-mounted cameras that warn the driver, via lights in the A-pillars, when there is a vehicle in his blind spot. BLIS is expected to cost around $600.
Ultimately, though, only keen Volvo-ites will work up a lather over the interior and exterior changes, because Volvo's mid-size cars were already good-looking and had nicely executed cabins. Of more interest to enthusiasts is the extra power on the top-line T5 engine, which goes from 247 to 256 hp thanks to a new turbocharger, variable valve timing on the intake as well as the exhaust side, a new exhaust system, and a hike in capacity from 2.3 to 2.4 liters. Torque has also risen, from 243 pound-feet to 258, with 224 lb-ft available from as low as 1800 rpm. The engine is now mated to a six-speed manual transmission or the existing five-speed automatic with Geartronic manual shifting. With the manual, Volvo claims 0 to 62 mph acceleration in 6.5 seconds. All the other existing engines in the S60/V70/XC70 range are left alone.
A sport suspension and speed-sensitive steering are now standard on U.S. S60 T5 models, while the FOUR-C "active" chassis system is an option on the S60 this fall and will be available on the V70 and XC70 at a later date. FOUR-C uses feedback from chassis sensors to adjust the dampers, with more input occurring when the car is traveling faster. There are two driver selectable modes: Sport and Comfort.
We drove S60s equipped with the FOUR-C system in Germany, and there's no doubt the cars are improved. The S60 is never going to win comparison tests-at least when more entertaining vehicles such as the BMW 3-series, the Infiniti G35, and the Cadillac CTS are in the mix-but it is a nice piece and very pleasing to the eye. The turbocharged engine now has even more grunt, yet it never overwhelms its front tires, even with traction and stability control switched off. The new manual gearbox is pleasant to use but is a bit notchy across the gate.
Across country, the FOUR-C equipped chassis is very capable, but it never talks to you. The steering, for a start, is a bit numb, and the suspension never seems totally happy, whether it's in Sport or Comfort mode. In the latter, it floats too much, but it's choppy and harsh in the Sport setting. We're not huge fans of selectable so-called active damping systems, because it strikes us that the chassis engineers ought to be able to decide what suits the character of the car rather than leaving it to the driver-who, inevitably, will just leave it in the default mode, anyway.
There's little doubt that the changes will tide Volvo over until the replacements for these cars appear in about three years' time. At the moment, Volvo is the only European importer, other than BMW, to increase its sales in the first part of 2004. This mid-size range is important, accounting for about a third of U.S. Volvo sales, so it is unlikely that prices will rise: Volvo executives would like to increase them, but are honest enough to say that the market is so competitive that it is highly unlikely.