Volvo XC60: A stylish stalking horse

Written by New York Times | Updated: Jun 7 2014, 22:27pm hrs
Volvo XC60Volvo XC60 is one of the most distinctively handsome midsize crossovers.
Like a New York City mayor tilting at supersized sodas, several automakers have tried to forcibly wean Americans off their big, bad-for-you V8s. Six-cylinder engines are also being downsized in favour of 4s. Now, for Volvo, even a 5-cylinder engine seems to be too much.

Among Swedens automakers, Saab is down for the count, leaving only Volvo to fight the industrys global giants. Volvo itself has come under the wing of Geely, the Chinese automaker, since it was cut loose by Ford in 2010 in a $1.5 billion fire sale.

In the interest of efficiencyboth in fuel consumption and in business operationsthe latest XC60 crossover becomes a stylish stalking horse for Volvos new family of 4-cylinder engines. These modular engines, gasoline and diesel alike, share components and can be built in a single money-saving factory in Sweden.

Volvo plans to bake in more efficiency by building several models on a new modular platform, starting with a redesigned, more luxurious 2015 version of its larger XC90 crossover.

But Volvos fans should start counting to four: The company expects these 4-cylinder engines to eventually replace every 5- and 6-cylinder engine currently offered in Volvos sedans, wagons and crossovers.

The 2015 XC60 T6 Drive-E gets the strongest, most technically interesting version. A 2-litre direct-injected 4 features a supercharger that squeezes out bonus power at lower engine speeds, then hands the baton to a turbocharger above roughly 3,500 rpm.

That engine may be small, but it is big for its britches with a robust 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. It ably powers a front-drive XC60still one of the most distinctively handsome midsize crossoversthat starts at $40,975.

For $36,675 to start, a front-drive T5 Drive-E gets a single-turbo version of the same engine with 240 horsepower and 258 pound-feet. Both Drive-E engines mate with a new 8-speed automatic transmission and an engine stop-start system.

But theres one caveat, especially for northerners: These engines arent yet compatible with Volvos all-wheel-drive system. For those buyers, Volvo continues to offer the previous engines: A 3.2-litre in-line turbo 6 powers the T6 3.2 AWD model, with 300 horses and 325 pound-feet. The T5 3.2 AWD gets a naturally aspirated in-line 6 with 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet.

The T6 Drive-E that I tested couldnt match the forceful nature and sound of the force-fed 6. But its still plenty quick for families and late-to-work commuters. With acceleration in the same ballpark, the smaller engines show that dropping cylinders and adding forced air induction can increase mileage, even if some of those gains paper over the real-world efficiency.

Mileage estimates rise sharply from 18 city, 26 highway for the 6-cylinder T5 to 24/31 for the 4-cylinder T5. For the 4-cylinder T6, the rating is 22/30, compared with just 17/24 for the T6 with the supercharged 6 and all-wheel drive.

The industrys new tune, sung in harmony by everyone from Ford to BMW, is that modern, powerful small engines have rendered the cylinder count meaningless. Like a lot of auto-company talking points, its not entirely true. Unless youre puttering along, smaller displacement engines can work so hard to motivate heavier vehicleslike the 4,200-pound XC60that fuel savings begin to dry up. And theyre almost never as pleasant-sounding as the big boys they replace.

Driving in a style befitting a Prius, I achieved 29 highway mpg in the XC60 T6 Drive-E. But with a more spirited foot on the pedal, the Volvo could barely keep its stylish nose above 21 mpg.

Mileage aside, fresh front-end styling and many luxury and safety features help the Volvo maintain its high status among family crossovers. The T6 is comfortable in its suburban skin; it rides smoothly and is relatively nimble for its size. The seats are orthopaedically correct. The two-tone interior is pure Scandinaviansparse, airy and gender-neutral, like a sleek OB/GYN office in Stockholm.

Safety is assured, of course: Adaptive cruise control is optional, along with collision, blind-spot, cross-traffic and lane-departure warnings. Theres even a system that identifies and stops for pedestrians and bicyclists who veer into harms way. But Id trade most of Volvos passive electronic safety features for an active one, that being a set of better-feeling brakes. More than once, I struggled to gauge my stopping distance in city traffic and ended up too close to the vehicles ahead.

Still, the well-stuffed XC60, at $50,725 as tested, holds its own against rivals like the Acura MDX, Lexus RX 350 and Mercedes ML350, despite giving up two cylinders to those V6 rivals.

Now well see if Volvo customers agree that giving up cylinders doesnt take anything away from the car.

- Lawrence Ulrich