Given the current state of the economy and the driving public's renewed interest in high-mileage cars, it may seem like an inauspicious time to launch a vehicle associated with the words "premium" and "SUV." Volvo apparently doesn't think so, as it has an all-new small, upmarket sport/ute hitting dealerships in the coming spring.

Volvo's XC60 is a late entry to an increasingly crowded SUV niche already occupied by the Acura RDX, BMW X3, Infiniti EX35, and newcomers Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLK. Does it have the right mix of style and substance to be a segment player? The eyeballs say yes.

"Historically, Volvo's interpretation of DNA signified 'Do Not Abandon' the design traditions," says Steve Mattin, Volvo Cars design director. "We have now expanded its significance to redefine DNA as taking a Dramatic New Approach."

Dramatic it is. Volvo says the XC60 is its first production vehicle to demonstrate this new design approach and, at first glance, you might think these Swedes have been smoking more than just salmon up in Gothenberg. For the XC60 is truly organically inspired: possibly the curviest Volvo ever, certainly more voluptuous than the former looker of the line, the C30. In fact, the XC60's curvaceous curb appeal may do Volvo more harm than good, as it instantly dates the current lineup, making some seem as stodgy and slabsided as your aunt's 240D.

While base architecture comes from the S80 sedan and is shared with LR2, the sheetmetal that covers this shortened chassis is all new. The XC60 starts wide, with standard 18-in. "Mantus" wheels and remains broad until just under the beltline, which gives it a powerful SUV stance. Set in atop this strong foundation is a greenhouse said to resemble a sport coupe in that way it peaks over the front two occupants before flowing back to the tail. What keeps this from looking simply like a tall wagon stretched below the door handles is a beltline that slopes slightly upward front to back. This gives the XC60 a subtly aggressive posture, like an animal ready to pounce.

The most handsome touches are reserved for the front and rear treatments. The XC60's face is set off by stylish projector-beam headlights, vertical DRL slashes, and a trapezoidal grille surrounding a bold take on the traditional Volvo logo. Volvo's signature curved brake lights flank a rear hatch that recalls the C30.

At 182.2 in. long, the XC60 is 8.3 in. shorter than the XC70, but right in the wheelhouse of other two-row, five-passenger premium SUVs. With an impressive 9.1 in. of ground clearance, the XC60 is ready for more cross-country wheelin' than are most crossovers. This kind of clearance not only puts the XC60 ahead of everyone in its class, but ahead of many larger body-on-frame SUVs, including the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Ford Expedition.

Interior styling is less dramatic and more a nod to smart Scandinavian design. Signature Volvo styling cues are everywhere, from the elegant floating center console and HVAC controls to the comfortable seats covered in soft leather. Our test model was particularly handsome; the exterior metallic brown paint (Terra Bronze Pearl) matched well with the combination of smooth cream and black pebbled leather and large-grain, dark-brown vinyl on the doors, dash, and seats.

Rear seat head and legroom are on the generous side for this class, though cargo-carrying capacity runs only middle of the pack at 30.8 cu ft behind the second row, and 67.4 cu ft with 40/20/40 seats folded down.

Though other markets will see a range of gas and diesel engines, and front- as well as all-wheel-drive models, there will be only one model offered for the U.S. market at launch, the XC60 T6 AWD. This AWD model is powered by a turbocharged 3.0L I-6 that spools out 281 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque.

This transversely mounted engine powers all four wheels via All Wheel Drive with Instant Traction, essentially Volvo's name for the Haldex IV all-wheel drive. Under normal driving conditions, this front-drive-biased system usually sends 90% of torque to the front wheels. However, under hard acceleration or situations of limited traction, as much as 65% of torque can be sent to the rear wheels.

Such launches are impressively quick. Volvo claims its 4200-lb five-seater will accelerate to 60 mph in just over 7 sec, though from the pilot's chair, such straightline dashes feel quicker. The throttle responds eagerly when nudged and delivers a pleasing growl when crushed. Upshifts in normal driving mode are smooth, though more crisp when the gearshift is slotted to the right. Manually toggling the six-speed automatic gearbox is fun, but nowhere near quick as some of the fancier transmissions on the market.

Canyon-carving sessions are surprisingly rewarding given Volvo's priority on safety. Clearly its engineers took a different tack with the XC60 and gave on-road performance a high position on the agenda. Despite the class-leading ground clearance, the XC60 doesn't feel tall or unstable. Credit its firm and responsive MacPherson-strut front and multilink rear suspension that minimizes body roll through corners. Though you can never turn them completely off, Volvo's traction and stability-control systems (DTSC, RSC) don't kill the fun too quickly; the XC60 will slide and squeal more than expected before throttle is cut and brakes are gently applied. Too bad the comfortable seats don't cope with this chassis tuning: Though great for highway cruising, they lack the lateral support for spirited country-road cornering.

The city is where all of the XC60 makes the most sense. Volvo has made its entry-level, premium SUV quiet and effortless to drive, with good sightlines and agile reflexes. It's given it numerous custom options as well: The driver can dial in everything from steering heft, to following distance for the Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) to an assortment of beeps for the Parking Assist (PA) and Lane Departure Warning (LDW) systems. Most of these controls are thoughtfully arranged but given the wide assortment of safety features, accessing them all can sometimes be difficult.

As inventors of such landmark automotive safety technologies as the three-point seatbelt and curtain airbag, it is impossible to mention a new Volvo without commenting on its new safety features. The XC60 does not disappoint, as it features several familiar technologies as well as some surprising new ones.

Volvo's current safety offerings are an absolute alphabet soup of acronyms. In addition to ACC, PA, and LDW, here are few more standard and optional safety features: DAC (Driver Alert Control), DA (Distance Alert), BLIS (Blind Spot Information System), DTSC (Dynamic Traction Stability Control), RSC (Roll Stability Control), CWAB (Collision Warning with Auto Brake), WHIPS (Whiplash Protection System), and TSA (Towing Stability Assist).

Most impressive is the new crash-avoidance system called City Safety that makes its debut on the XC60. Designed to prevent or lessen the damage from rear-end collisions, the system uses a laser sensor mounted behind the rearview mirror, which scans the road ahead for slowing or stopped vehicles. Once one is identified and a collision is deemed imminent, City Safety fires the brakes at full force to either prevent or at least lessen impact. City Safety operates only at speeds under 19 mph and when the system detects no or insufficient input from the driver. It is most efficient at closing speeds of 9 mph or less. At these speeds, Volvo claims the system can avoid most rear-end collisions entirely.

We had an opportunity to try this system on a specially designed course and came away impressed. Even when impact seemed a foregone conclusion, City Safety intervened with a forceful pulse of the brakes and stopped the vehicle with inches to spare. Those who fear Big Brother may grumble, but anyone who has ever been involved in a rear-end accident will rejoice. Volvo has apparently been able to negotiate lower premiums with auto insurance companies for the XC60 based on the performance of City Safety. In fact, with addition of City Safety as standard equipment to the host of other standard and optional safety systems, Volvo claims the XC60 is the safest vehicle it's ever made.

Safe for sure, but a safe bet for sales success? Volvo is hoping for global sales of 50,000 for its Belgium-built crossover -- or as they calculate it, roughly 10% of the emerging small, premium SUV market. Of that, Volvo hopes to sell 10,000-12,000 a year in America, primarily to active, urban couples and young families.

Will they be able to do it? Well, at around $40,000 for a well-equipped XC60, it does appear Volvo has an attractive, well-conceived product on its hands. With the volatile state of the economy and our current trend away from SUVs -- only time will tell whether this will be enough.


2010 Volvo XC60 T6 AWD
Base Price $36,000 (est)
Vehicle Layout Front engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.0L/281-hp/295-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 24-valve I-6
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Curb Weight 4200 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 109.2 in
Length x Width x Height 182.2 x 74.4 x 67.4 in
0-60 mph 7.1 sec (mfr est)
EPA City/Hwy fuel econ 15/22 mpg (est)
CO2 Emissions 1.11 lb/mile (est)
On Sale In U.S. March 2009

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