In The Savage Pond Swims A Lone Prince

Turning the clock back to a millennial from Gothenburg. 

2000 Volvo S60. (c) The RAC

Twenty years have slipped by since Volvo entered the shark infested waters of the compact executive saloon market, leaving behind a broadly positive if somewhat small mark in that (now) ever-shallower pool. By the time Ford showed up with a very large cash bag ($6.45 billion) and placed the Swedish brand under their Premier Automotive Group umbrella in 1999, the S60 was all but ready for unveiling.

Commander in Chief was Volvo lifer Lars Erik Lundin, whose next project would be to head up the California based Volvo Monitoring and Concept Centre (VMCC). Hungarian-American designer Géza Lóczi (and his styling team) were responsible for the drawing of what was to become an elegant alternative (along with media darling) to their mostly German contemporaries.

Lóczi became interested in drawing cars from around the age of nine, but was obsessed with more natural forms of horsepower, wanting to “be a cowboy when I grow up.” Soon realising wearing that particular hat would lead to financial ruin, he put his artistic skills to use at the Pasadena Art Centre College of Design.

This opened doors, initially the Detroit offices of GM, then VW who upon deciding to vacate that troubled town, left Lóczi temporarily in limbo. Married with a young family, a return to his Arizonan cowboy thoughts were halted by a Swedish offer of work in 1995.

(c) weilinet

His S60 submission from the year before had impressed Volvo’s management and a small team was gathered to flesh out ideas. And Lóczi is most definitely a team player, reliant on each member to bring something new, helping mature the overall process.

Proportion is 90 percent of the job. If you don’t have smooth harmony between the engineers’ solutions and the dimensions that clothe those engineering features, you don’t have a car.” He also remains adamant that time away from that process is vital for the project to work. “Design is about solving problems. In the day I am Volvo. Time away can be used to absorb, reflect, alter as necessary. And switch off!

At the summer 2000 launch of the front wheel drive S60, the coupé-esqe styling could be had with transverse five cylinder engines using petrol but also including LPG. Petrol engines ranged from 2 to 2.5 litres, power beginning at 140 heading up to 250 bhp with both manual and automatic gearboxes with either five or six speeds, dependant on model and trim. Diesel, along with AWD derivatives followed in 2001. Dimensions; 4.5 metres long, 1.8 wide, a height of 1.4, wheelbase of 2.7. Suspension up front, the ubiquitous MacPherson Strut, independent multi-link to the rear allowing for “predictable, controlled driving manners.

Defined by Volvo as having sporting characteristics, with swept back C-pillars, short rear overhangs with extended haunches, an extended nose section and ground hugging stance, even with a compact body you could comfortably seat five adults. Loaded with typically safety conscious kit that led to Lundin sighing at one stage, “our conservatism can often come across as boring”, the S60 was offered as the alternative to those fearsome rivals who were extending in as much aggression as Volvo were almost seeking anonymity.

Lóczi’s Design obviously cut some mustard; the first generation lasted a full nine years before even a facelift, the only changes being beefier Powertrains and aggressive (for Volvo), sporty addenda foisted upon them. Just shy of six hundred thousand were globally shifted in that 108 month period; the S60 a veritable minnow to Mercedes C-Class basking shark, BMW’s 3 series Hammerhead, Audi’s Tiger shark A4. Even Jaguar, themselves a part of PAG at the time, were selling ten thousand X-types in the USA.

Volvo had a shark of their own (a great white?), the T5 taking up the fight to those Germanic beasts. With its turbocharged 2.3 developing 250 bhp at 5000rpm and 330 Newton metres of turning effort would see a v-max of 155mph (250Kmh) draining the seventy litre tank rapidly. In a most un-Swedish two fingered salute, the U.K. branch took a standard (save for roll cage, fast fill fuel system and external ignition cut off switch) to Millbrook Proving Ground in deepest Bedfordshire for a high speed blast. 

Two hourly driver changes due to, (a) monotony but more typically, (b) Volvo’s safety concerns, to refuel and change tyres due to excessive loads at high speeds, offered star touring car drivers, amongst journalists the chance to break some records in the D Class Production Car (2 to 3 litres). Pilots included Anthony Reid, the Estate Racer, Rikard Rydell, Alain Menu, Volvo dealer but Vauxhall driver John Cleland and the (thinner) Wheeler Dealer himself, Mike Brewer. In a twenty four hour period, the S60 flew round at an average 135.10 mph, breaking 18 records in the process. Reid topped the speed charts; in a flying five kilometres he managed 152.02 mph.

Image: Autoevolution

All fine and dandy for column inches, glossy magazine spreads but treading water in the cut and thrust of the sales room. Volvo’s S60 could hold its head well above water but those pesky Germans were done with toe nibbling, aiming directly for the jugular. Dependable, safe and efficient does not (to many) equal sex appeal, which the new millennium (journalists) drivers demanded, flocking to the Big Three, largely ignoring this Swedish Prince.

Far from being the S60’s fault alone, more a deeper problem of Ford’s own doing, by the time of the 2009 facelift, Ford sold Volvo to Geeley for just $1.8 billion. The S60 continued into its second and current generations in similar fashion – pleasingly different, swimming against the tide – available to those seeking an altogether different shelter from the storm.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

20 thoughts on “In The Savage Pond Swims A Lone Prince”

  1. Good morning Andrew. Thank you for reminding us that Ford actually did some good work during its ownership of Volvo. It’s too easy to be completely dismissive of the ill-starred PAG venture, but if Ford’s groundwork made Volvo more attractive to Geely, then that was a good outcome. Under Chinese ( light-touch) ownership, Volvo has flourished and the current S60 is a lovely thing:

    Compared with the fussy and overwrought 3 Series and the rather dull S-Class, the S60 is a really well judged design and would be my choice if I were in the market for such a car.

    1. Indeed, all the fear of Geely ruining Volvo was for nothing. As far as the styling the designers were former BMW folks now joined by former Mercedes and VAG staff.

      I drove a s90 for a day a nice car. Besides it’s powertrain which was about as exiting as celery. And I’m not taking the flying helmet and wet celery kind.

      That and it’s apparently up there with Ford’s ecoboost and BMW’s engines in terms of reliability

  2. “Proportion is 90 percent of the job. If you don’t have smooth harmony between the engineers’ solutions and the dimensions that clothe those engineering features, you don’t have a car.”

    I wish more current car designers shared his views.

  3. Another great post Andrew, thank you. I bought a new V70 in 2004, the estate version of the S60. I had the D5, great engine, 5 cylinder and 170+ bhp IIRC. The seats were the most comfortable I’ve ever sat in, apart from my current car.

    1. Curiosity has got the better of me, Tim: may I ask what your current car is?

  4. Thank you for this enjoyable reminder of a very pleasantly styled car: Volvo’s of this era maintained a consistent and attractive styling theme based on a very strong shoulder line through the car, carrying on into the rear lights, which was based on a concept car design presented during the ‘boxy’ era, if I recall correctly.

    Daniel is right to comment that their current designs have maintained a degree of visual restraint that is now alien to most of their competitors, which makes me realise anew that I have developed a sort of blind-spot for modern Volvos (despite liking a number of their historical designs) after driving a friend’s V70 a few years ago and hating it passionately. He loved the car, so this may say more about me than about the Volvo.

  5. Hi Marco and Daniel. My current car is a 2002 Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG. The seats are sublime and l even though it’s an AMG with 19” wheels, the ride quality is good too, not as harsh as you’d expect.

    1. Hi Tim. Wow! I’m not surprised a CL55 has excellent seats. As to the ride, I would imagine that 19″ wheels were standard, so the car was properly set up for them, unlike when manufacturers offer larger wheels as an option without making any adjustments to the suspension to accommodate them.

  6. Good evening everyone. One day I might just arrive to the party in time…and sober.

    Moving swiftly on, for my own two pen’worth, I have two instances of comfortable seating; covered in cloth, the Citroën C4 coupé I once had was exceptionally nice. And currently, my Volvo S90 has not only heated leather but a supremely supportive structure for those with spines that are not as fluid as once were. Ingress and egress are both easy and without fuss. A+ Mr Ingenlath

    But I digress.

    Tim, ever the hardworking and professional soul that he is has not mastered the nuances of embedding pictures in the land of DTW so at great expense to no-one in particular here are some pictures of his “comfy motor”…

  7. Geza Loczi describing the safety-driven design philosophy and features of the 2006 SCC concept (and hinting at the fetching C30 which would be introduced later that year):

    Note that seat belts anchored to the seat frames rather than the floor, roof, or B-pillar had already been pioneered and implemented on the R129 Mercedes SL (1989). But the idea is evolved further here. Such forward thinking stirs the imagination like the “dream cars” (mostly with pure fictional, non-functional fantasy features) which predated the term “concept car”. He’s managed to spin an intriguing concept car out of the brief for a “safety car”, and all the draconian Ralph Nader-ish connotations that latter term would imply. One might infer that Loczi’s GM USA design background continued to inform his work well into the 21st century.

    And here one can view some of Loczi’s 1960’s and 1970’s sketches from GM USA.

  8. Fantastic link, gooddog, many thanks. An enjoyable video but I have to say Loczi’s artwork had me captivated. I could hang almost every one of them on my walls. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy; perhaps almost too nice for what seems to me the often cold, heartless world of car industry. GM have never seemed a “cozy” company though GL’s character obviously shone through.

  9. Another very interesting article Andrew so thank you once again. I agree with your “shark infested waters” description. Maybe the car buying public have been seduced by the Marketing efforts of Mercedes / BMW and not noticed what Volvo have been producing.

  10. Is it true that the S60 had an absurdly small steering lock?

    I had twice an opportunity to briefly drive it, but it never occurred to me to test that aspect (full lock etc.).

    Those cars always amazed me with their build quality and solidity, yet there were two pronounced flaws that convinced me not to buy one:

    The relatively poor feedback at the helm (but also thru the seat of the pants), and the intolerably cramped rear legroom.

  11. Don’t know about the steering lock, but fully agree on lack of feedback at the helm. I’d go so far as these cars are terrible to drive: zero feedback, floaty ride, also the base 140 hp engine is terribly slow: it made a W202 with the 95 hp Diesel engine feel spirited, no kidding. Did I mention the engine mountings are too soft, making shifting smoothly rather hard?

    Not much seems to have changed at Volvo. Good interiors, probably safe, but that’s about it. The design of the current S60 promises a sporty RWD platform and fails to deliver. Sorry Volvo, but that’s the way the way the cookie crumbles

    1. Thank you Freerk.

      Never tried the 140 HP version, but with the car being rather heftily built, I assume its real-world weight is too much for such an engine.

      The D5 I tried was brisk and felt spirited on the throttle, yet I’d agree that its dynamic feedback was on the less confident-inspiring
      side of floaty (actually it discouraged any form of dynamic,
      active driving, but they’re probably useful for relaxed
      motorway mile-munching, never tried one on a longer trip).

      The new ones are allegedly much better dynamically, but still haven’t driven one myself to judge.

  12. I owned an S60 facelift with the 185bhp D5 and six speed auto. It was brilliant, great interior, wonderful seat a very reliable in the 80k miles I owned with only a swirl arm, engine mount and exhaust hanger failing during that time. Total cost was probably less than £100 to fix and all diy-able. I found the handling perfectly acceptable and the car very potent. The only downside was the terrible steering lock – there were even stainless steel plates glued to the wheel archliners to allow tyre contact under extreme loads! I always assumed this was a packaging constrain of the transverse I5 layout.

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