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2015 Volvo S60 T6 Drive-E Test Drive

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     (Volvo)

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     (Volvo)

  • volvo-s60-cabin-2014.jpg

     (Volvo)

Volvo's latest model is a taste of what's to come, and it marks a radical change in the way it builds cars.

The S60 compact was mildly updated last year with a new front fascia and interior, but for 2015 it debuts Volvo’s new engines of the future.

They’re called Drive-E, an environmentally friendly name. But they are more exciting than the name might suggest.

The 2.0-liter motors are all four-cylinder and are set to replace the five, six and eight-cylinder engines across the Volvo lineup. Lots of car companies have been downsizing their engines in recent years to meet ever more stringent fuel economy and emissions standards, but Volvo is the automaker to commit to an all four-banger portfolio across such a wide array of vehicles.

The S60 gets the first two of them: a 240 horsepower turbocharged engine and another that uses both turbocharging and supercharging to produce a whopping 302 hp. They’re called T5 and T6, to give you an idea of how many cylinders each is supposed to replace.

But more important than the power of the T6 is the way it delivers it.

Turbochargers run off of the exhaust and need to spin up before they produce enough boost to do any good, so an engine fitted with one can feel weak when you first step on the accelerator pedal. Superchargers are the opposite. They’re connected to the crankshaft and start working immediately, but they can become less efficient at high engine speeds. Combine the two and you get the best of both worlds. That is, as long as you can juggle them well.

In Volvo’s case, the supercharger has a clutch that disengages it when the turbo is ready to take over. The handoff varies, but it happens at about 3,500 rpm under full throttle. You’d never know it, though.

The S60 leaps off the line, with a little of that wonderful supercharger whine that’s more familiar at drag strips than strip malls, reminding you there’s something different under the hood. And it just keeps on going with an imperceptible transition to the turbocharger that takes it the rest of the way.

As advertised, there’s no lag at all, especially compared to the turbo-only engine. I had the opportunity to try one of them out in the station wagon-tastic V60 version of the S60, and while it’s entirely on par with the rest of its class, the T6 blows it away.

It really is one of the best motors in the world, and not just because of its performance. The point of this exercise was improving fuel economy, and it scores high marks there, too.

With front wheel drive and a standard 8-speed automatic transmission, the T5 has a fuel economy rating of 25 mpg city/37 mpg highway, while the T6 checks in at 24/35. To put how impressive that is into perspective, last year’s 240 hp 2.5-liter five-cylinder turbo was rated at 21/30.

In any event, those are best-in-class numbers. As far as I can tell, the S60 T6 is the most fuel-efficient, non-electrified car with over 300 hp, period.

The all-wheel-drive models soldier on with the old engines, for now, but they will eventually get fitted with Drive-E. That also goes for the XC60 crossover, which shares this platform and offers Drive-E in front-wheel-drive configurations.

As for the rest of the car, the S60 has been around since 2010 and is now one of the smallest in the luxury compact class. The back seat doesn’t offer as much legroom as the competition, but the front buckets are fantastic, in that deep-dish, rich-leather Volvo way.

The dashboard is still a very plain piece of soft plastic, but the 2014 updates brought a new configurable digital instrument cluster that snazzes things up, along with a new infotainment system with a control dial on the center console. That dial is hard to operate while driving, so voice commands are the way to go.

Since it's a Volvo, the S60 is also chock full of optional safety tech, including a suite of lasers, radars and cameras that constantly scan the road all around the car; find parking spaces and steer you into them; help keep you in your lane; spot vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists in front of you and brake automatically when necessary to keep you from crashing into them. Volvo is even working on an update for its Australian-market cars so they can identify kangaroos. Dogs and cats are still on their own.

The S60 T6 has a comfortable but not particularly special ride, while the handling is sporty and predictable. There is, however, a little nudge on the steering wheel when you floor the gas pedal, a sensation known as torque steer that often happens in powerful front wheel drive cars, and three hundred horsepower definitely pushes the limit.

The starting price for a S60 T5 is $34,225 ($36,225 for the V60), which compares well to its closest competitor, the less powerful and efficient Audi A4. The T6 goes for $39,075.

The Volvo faithful should be pleased with both, and anyone who gets a taste of that T6 may fall victim to its charms.

The only thing I’d change about the latter is the name. Drive-E? Yawn.

It’s a Super-Turbo!

And it is super.

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2015 Volvo S60 T6

Base price: $39,075

Type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan

Engine: 2.0-liter twin-charged inline-4-cylinder

Power: 302 hp, 295 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

MPG: 24 city/35 hwy