The “safest car in the world” has always existed.

It’s only logical that at any given point in time there is one vehicle that offers its passengers greater protection than all the others, even if it is not quite possible to determine exactly which one that is.

Nevertheless, anytime the subject has come up in the past half-century or so, you could count on the name Volvo being suggested as a contender, if not the hands-down favorite. So, when the folk (a Swedish word, that) in Gothenburg say they’ve gone and built “the safest Volvo ever”, it’s wise to take notice. Not the safest “car”, mind you, but the safest “Volvo”.

That’s partly because the Volvo executives are a polite bunch and don’t want to ruffle the competition’s feathers too much, but mostly because the 2010 XC60 T6 is a crossover, and not really a car. Nevertheless, they could probably also call it “the best looking Volvo ever” and not hear too many arguments, at least not from me.

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The XC60’s combination of a windswept wedge profile and shoulders wide enough to land a SAAB fighter jet on are straight off of the auto show floor. Genie bottle taillights are worthy of an exhibit in a design museum, and that doesn't even take into account the small vertical fins they create on either side of the rear window.

The marketing people at Volvo will likely tell you that they are for aerodynamic purposes, but you know there is an exterior designer somewhere with a poster of a 1959 Cadillac on his cubicle wall that grins every time they do.

The interior isn’t quite as impressive, but plays to the Volvo faithful. Materials in the 5-passenger cabin are sturdy, rather than elegant. The one highlight is the optional Nordic Light Oak trim on a floating center stack that bends its way from the console to the dashboard in an oh-so-Scandinavian way.

The cabin is capped by a high-strength steel roof and filled with airbags that cover just about every inch of it in the event of an accident. But it’s the array of systems that help the XC60 avoid crashing in the first place that sets it apart. Stray from your lane and the XC60 sounds a warning.

If someone pulls in front of you, it beeps and flashes a red light on the windshield. Get drowsy and start driving erratically and the Volvo will stir you from your impending slumber with a wake-up call. All of these are options, but the marquee feature comes standard.

Called City Safety, it uses a laser mounted behind the windshield to keep an eye on things in front of you in stop and go traffic. If it senses that the vehicle you are following is slowing down, and you haven’t done anything to avoid it, it will slam on the brakes on your behalf. Under 19 mph it won’t bring the XC60 to a complete stop, but will slow it dramatically to lessen any impact. Under 9 mph it waits until you are about a yard away from calling the insurance company before it runs itself into a virtual wall, stopping in its tracks.

Bodily harm isn’t too much of an issue when moving that slowly, but the averted fender bender is appreciated just the same. Unfortunately the owner’s manual goes to great lengths to explain that City Safety is not designed to work when confronted with motorcycles, or pedestrians, two things that could really benefit from not getting run down at that speed.

Still, after you get a demonstration of the system at the Volvo dealer, there is little doubt that you’ll grab your kid’s Bozo the Clown bop bag and try it out in the driveway at home. It is quite the out-of-driver experience, something you can expect to see popping up on many vehicles in the near future.

Electronic nannies like these, combined with other features including anti-whiplash seats and a blind spot warning system, speak to the holistic approach Volvo takes towards keeping its customer base alive, despite its best efforts to the contrary. But, even with all that it has going for it, there are a couple of chinks in the XC60’s armor of active protection.

First, I was surprised to find that the standard Bluetooth system allows you to pair a new phone while the car is in motion. Maybe Volvo is so confident in everything else the XC60 does that it threw us a bone on this one, but it seems like oversight. Either that, or the driver alert system in the company’s legal department is on the fritz and someone in fell asleep at the wheel in there. In any case, I’m not complaining, just pointing it out.

An even odder decision is that the navigation system, a standalone unit separate from the stereo, has no voice control. Its inclusion would seem like a foregone conclusion in such a “safety first” vehicle, but that is not the only thing out of whack about it. Instead of a touch-screen, or a console-mounted knob, Volvo’s system is controlled by two tiny buttons and a Tic Tac-size joystick located on the back of the steering wheel spoke that is hard to reach, infuriating to use, and took me a week to figure out were even there.

Why so long?

Because the XC60 also comes with a TV-style remote control for the navigation system that is impossible to miss because is huge. Maybe it is actually intended for your co-pilot to use, or the honor student in the back seat, but that just seems distracting. Luckily there’s something under the hood to help you forget about it.

In such an overly protective car, the installation of 281 horsepower turbocharged inline 6-cylinder engine would appear to be tempting fate. The punchy powerplant puts the XC60 near the top of the compact luxury crossover crowd, and outguns the competition from Germany, including the Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 and BMW X3. The standard all wheel-drive system that it works with weighs down the Volvo a bit, but makes up for it with all-weather traction.

While not the sharpest handler of the bunch, Volvo has found a fine middle ground between comfort and performance, much like the company’s sedans. For $37,200 the XC60 doesn’t lowball the competition, but City Safety is a pretty heavy trump card if you do a lot of driving in said city.

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The flip side is an EPA fuel economy rating of just 16 mpg in the city, and not much more on the highway, just 22 mpg. A 235 hp normally-aspirated version of the XC60 with front-wheel drive is also available for $32,395 and gets 18 mpg city/27 highway, which may be more in sync with the personality of the vehicle.

The less potent engine can also be had with all wheel drive, and both models come with City Safety, but not the leather seats that are standard in the T6. Those will set you back $1,700, meaning the turbocharged version really only costs $1,105 more than the sensible shoes edition, or about $25 bucks per horsepower. You may find a safer vehicle to use it in.

At least not this year.


2010 Volvo XC60 T6

Base Price: $37,200

As Tested: $44,240

Type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 5-door crossover

Engine: 3.0L inline 6-cylinder

Power: 281hp, 295 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 16 city/22 highway

What do you think of the XC60?

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