As a kid I remember rolling around in the wide back seat of my mum’s Volvo 164 as she made the ten-mile trek to school in 10 minutes every day. It was a barge but had a surprising turn of speed.
The car was bought for its dependability and safety, just as all older Volvos were. It was eventually totaled after finding a farm tractor across a country lane. And while shaken up, the occupants emerged from the head-on collision unscathed.
Yet ever since we started taking Volvo’s safety record for granted, the Swedes have been determined to also entice us with performance. All-time greats like the Volvo 850 T5R made people look at the Scandinavians in a different light, especially when the wagon variant lined up on the British Touring Car grid.
Every subsequent performance model has been leading up to this: the new S60 R-Design. With 325hp from its 3.0L straight-six turbo motor, it’s the most powerful Volvo ever: with more grunt than a BMW 335i. And it hits 0-60mph in 5.5sec!
In the past, R-Design involved cosmetic upgrades only, but this North American car is different. Unlike other markets, this R-Design has new ECU software from Polestar, the company runs Volvo’s European racing activities. They added 20% more boost over a regular S60 T6 AWD, giving the R-Design 1-bar of pressure, recalibrating the fuel and ignition to suit. However, official economy figures remain the same at 18/26mpg. It also gets larger twin 3.5" exhaust tips on a sportier muffler.
To visually differentiate the R-D, it gets new front and rear spoilers, a rear diffuser, black grille plus active Xenon lights as standard. The chassis sits 15mm lower and is 15% stiffer thanks to new springs. It also gets monotube rear dampers for faster response as well as stiffer rear bushes, a larger front sway bar and strut brace. Add its 18x8" Ixion wheels with 235/40 Conti CSC3 tires and it has the ingredients for a corner carver.
Inside you get sports seats with additional bolsters, textured panels, logos and stitching as well as new trim, blue instruments, a sportier steering wheel and shift knob. You also get City Safety as standard for low-speed accident avoidance, which IIHS found to reduce collisions by 30%.
These ingredients are what a tuner would typically add to their own car. As such, Volvo has created an impressive package, but how does it drive?
Road & track
Painted in its exclusive Passion red (black, silver, grey and white also available), the R-Design is a handsome car on its twisted five-spokes and lowered ride height. With more offset, the stance is good and the car has presence.
Throttle response is sharp but the biggest surprise was its body control. Despite that stiffer suspension, bump absorption was astonishing. You wafted along in comfort but had superb roll control when pitched into a corner, remaining flat and poised in a way few of its rivals can manage. This was very encouraging.
With 325hp, the R-Design has no problem overtaking traffic. In fact, the problem is stopping yourself from constantly doing it.
Perhaps the only quibble was the six-speed automatic transmission. While Sport mode allows it to hold gears longer, the car needs either a manual gearbox or paddle shifters to give you full control, yet neither is an option.
More positively, its Corner Traction Control uses torque vectoring to distribute the power where it’s needed – something that worked well at Thunderhill Raceway Park. The flat cornering was even more noticeable here, where the challenging track needed precise responses because it’s high-speed turns could catch you out quickly.
Fortunately, the Conti tires enhanced the predictable handling and offered huge braking grip. An overall lack of steering feel was perhaps the only impediment on the circuit, limiting feedback and forcing you to trust what was happening beneath you. But again, everything worked extremely well until the brakes eventually overheated after being worked very hard (some race pads and fluid would’ve helped, but we were testing totally stock cars).
The S60 T6 starts at $37900 and Volvo’s research found 95% of owners ordered the Premium equipment package. So the S60 T6 R-Design is priced just $3k over the regular T6 with Premium Package, coming out at $42500 plus destination.
The car we tested was $46875 but that’s still favorable against the equivalent BMW 335iX or A4 S line. In fact, you’d have to buy an S4 to compete with the Volvo on performance and equipment. And with a target of only 1200 cars on the road this year, it should be a rare sight.
So if you’re looking for a very fast, safe, stylish alternative to mainstream performance sedans, you could do worse than test-drive the S60 R-Design. The same engine package is also available in the XC60 R-Design if you prefer the crossover.