Turning the clock back to a millennial from Gothenburg.
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.
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.
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.