Good: handsome lines, comfort, refinement, economy, quality
Not so good: vague steering
I can still remember the first time I laid eyes on a production version of Audi's A3 Saloon. Upon seeing its taut, clean lines and its apparent extra gravity relative to the A3 hatchback, I remember more or less instantly commenting "well, that's A4 sales buggered for a while..."
Certainly the A3 Saloon is a car that punches above its size and price weight, but whatever its effect on sales of the larger, more expensive, less enjoyable to drive A4, it has certainly stung Volvo into action. Keen to draw back customers who would previously have bought the smaller, cheaper S40, Volvo has created a version of the S60 that is cheaper by being more basic.
It does seem a bit pejorative to use the word basic, in this context. After all, we are talking here about a well-made, stylish Swedish saloon that incorporates some staggeringly high-end safety technology and which can whisk you along in great comfort at reasonable pace. Basic seems hardly the right word to use, but, then, all things are relative and this is the lowest rung of the Volvo S60 ladder.
This is the S60 D2 S and it uses a 1.6-litre 115hp diesel engine in the cheapest trim level of all. Unlike its rivals from Mercedes and Audi though, the S60 is not based on a small hatchback. In fact, dig deep enough into its bones and you'll find it actually shares rather a lot with the last-generation Ford Mondeo, stemming as it does from a time when Volvo was owned by Ford. It was designed, originally at least, to take on the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4, not smaller models like the A3 Saloon.
Still, the market hath spoken and compact and sub-30k is what people want, so Volvo has stripped the S60 down to the bare essentials, fitted its smallest, most economical engine and slapped a price tag of €29,995 on it.
So, you'll be assuming that this car will feel like the dreariest of bargain basements, the fag end of the S60 range, the one the company car manager offers you when that big promotion doesn't come through.
Well, no, not exactly. OK, so when you hop aboard, you'll find a somewhat dark and dour cabin that lacks the lovely blonde wood highlights and satin-finished leather of higher-spec S60s. But then again, the same can be said for a basic A3 Saloon or CLA; neither is what you'd call rammed to the gills with equipment, so the Volvo is in good company here.
Yes, the tiny central display screen looks rather unimpressive and you can find more than a few blank switches on that 'floating' centre console but the good news here is that the basics are very, very right - the seats are enormously comfy, the driving position good, the instruments clear and the ergonomic layout of the buttons and controls is unimpeachable.
The 1.6-litre diesel engine (familiar from a whole host of Fords, Peugeots, Citroens, other Volvos and MINIs from the past decade) fires into a smooth, quiet backbeat and you stir the gearbox with a relaxed motion across a slightly loose-feeling gate. It's all very easy and laid-back.
Which is a pretty much perfect description of the driving experience. As you'd kinda expect of a car aimed at cash-conscious types, the engine is all about economy. Volvo says you can get 72mpg out of this model, which is a figure you'll soon file under utter fiction, but close to 60mpg is doable and there's a very nice feeling to be had when you sit in and see a distance to empty readout of 1,500km on the dash. A major upshot of that relaxed Volvo-driving vibe is that you find yourself going that little bit slower, saving that little bit more fuel and not being quite so bothered about setting cross-country times. Compared to the hard-riding, aggressive stance of its German rivals, the Volvo's mien seems to be a much better fit for the modern world.
Where it can't match the Germans is in its dynamic performance. The steering - controlled by a slightly over-sized wheel as is the Volvo tradition - is light, somewhat vague and almost entirely devoid of feel. More sporty S60s do rather better in the steering department, but this S is just left with the cooking steering rack. It's not terrible, just not terribly exciting or engaging and nowhere near what BMW or Audi could provide you with. Then again, the S60 is much, much more comfy in its ride quality than the Merc CLA and it's much better at suppressing tyre roar than the A3 Saloon, so in that sense, it's still on the money.
Speaking of money, you do actually get quite decent equipment as standard, in spite of this supposedly being the stripped out model. Safety, this being a Volvo, is needless to say high on the agenda so you get the City Safety auto-braking system, more airbags than you can shake a stick at, Side Impact Protection System, anti-whiplash seats and LED daytime running lights.
On the comfort side, there's climate control, Bluetooth phone connection (with audio streaming), a leather steering wheel with audio controls and 16-inch alloy wheels. Do you really need much more than that, when the basics are this right?
I suspect that as time passes, the A3 Saloon will stir up quite a few other rivals as car makers seek to catch affluent downsizers. Volvo has managed to make an especially impressive rival though with this S60 S. It's bigger, more spacious and comfier than the A3. Not as slick to drive, perhaps, but it has serious long legs on the motorway thanks to that fuel range and those comfy seats. It may well engage the audience it deserves and pinch a few of those A3 customers.
Audi A3 Saloon: well, duh. Without the A3 Saloon this version of the S60 simply wouldn't exist.
BMW 316d: as big as the Volvo, but more expensive. The dynamic benchmark though, and one the Volvo falls short of.
Mercedes-Benz CLA 180 CDI: sexier and sportier than the Volvo, but it comes at the price of refinement issues and cripplingly hard-edged ride comfort.