Good: superb engine, emissions, styling inside and out, comfort, quality
Not so good: handling and ride falling back behind the best in class, cabin feels a touch cramped
You don't often hear Volvo mentioned as a class leader in anything but safety. Oh, a few of the snider critics might snigger into their sleeves about being the best Labrador carrier or the best at shopping at IKEA, but outside of airbags and crumple zones, few would put Volvo at the top of the premium badge tree.
Which is why it's rather refreshing to be able to report that this XC60 is a clear class leader in one specific area - its engine. It's an all-new 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel unit, part of a family that Volvo has developed entirely in-house in order to wean itself off of using engines from former owner Ford. All future Volvo engines will be based on two core units, one petrol and one diesel, and power outputs will range from 120hp to more than 300hp.
It's a big ask for a relatively small company to go about developing a new family of engines by itself. Most car makers, even the likes of BMW and PSA Peugeot Citroen for instance, prefer to share the costs and risks of development with another manufacturer. Volvo's decision was a brave one then, but it has paid off in spectacular fashion.
The key figures are that it has 181hp and a very healthy 400Nm of torque, numbers that put it fractionally ahead of the current class benchmark - BMW's 2.0-litre four-pot diesel. In manual, front-wheel drive form as tested here, it will shunt the XC60 from standstill to 100km/h in a decently brisk 8.5 seconds and can, according to Volvo, beat the 60mpg barrier on the combined cycle. Emissions are rated at just 117g/km, meaning this large, stylish SUV can be taxed for just €200 a year.
Too good to be true? Well, on the fuel consumption front, yes. As is the norm, we couldn't match the quoted figure and only barely scraped into the 40mpg range. Still not terrible for a vehicle like this, but hardly the advertised figure. In all other respects though, this new engine is a genuine world beater. It's quiet for a start, getting over its cold-start clatters quickly and settling into an unobtrusive background hum. It is much, much better in this respect than its opposite number from Bavaria, and the news gets better as you accelerate. We mourned, somewhat, the passing of the old five-cylinder Volvo diesel engine simply because it was one of the few oil burners that made a nice sound under throttle. Thankfully, although this new engine doesn't have quite the sonic qualities of the old one, it actually does still sound quite nice when you pile on the revs, and there is a faint hint of that old five-pot timbre at high rpm. It's also impressively smooth and vibration free, and is generally an utter pleasure to use.
The XC60 that surrounds it is mostly thus too, but you can tell that it is a vehicle starting to show a few grey hairs. The ride quality is a little too unsettled at motorway speeds and the handling and steering don't feel as well connected as they do on a rival BMW X3. It's not bad, not bad at all, just not as good as its engine.
There is recompense in the effortlessly stylish, hugely comfortable cabin though, which really does make you wonder why we all tend to buy drearily grey and black Germanic interiors. The buttery soft leather of the XC60 means that leaving the cabin to go back into your house at the end of a drive is something of a disappointment. The only demerit here is in terms of space - it just feels a little cramped in there, which is a legacy of Volvo's decision to move the front firewall back as far as it could in the interests of, you guessed it, safety.
Still, on a cold, wet, blustery night you'll happily sacrifice a few inches of legroom for the knowledge that all the usual Swedish safety obsession is still alive and well in Volvo's Gothenburg home. Additions such as City Safety braking (which slams on the anchors at low speed if it detects you're about to rear-end the car in front) put an added padded wall between you and the horrid real world. It's a nice feeling.
Nonetheless, that engine deserves a better home and it finds it in the V60 estate. Lower, leaner, barely any less spacious and much better to drive, it proves that Volvo really can do the class-leading thing. The XC60 is nice and all, but I'd rather go traditionally Swedish and have the wagon. Now, where's my IKEA Family card?