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With its two new R cars, Volvo hopes to wash away some of its conservative image

AutoWeek
By WES RAYNAL

THE PAUL RICARD CIRCUIT IN southern France, near Marseilles, has been completely rebuilt with plenty of Bernie Ecclestone’s money into what track officials hope will be the world’s best test facility. The extensive renovations make Paul Ricard as good a track as you’ll find anywhere in the world.

But it still seemed a bit strange that we ventured to Paul Ricard to test drive Volvo’s new S60R sedan and V70R wagon. A Volvo at a racetrack? Hmmm. Isn’t a sporty Volvo a contradiction?

Volvo knows it is boring, boxy, reliable and safe and is looking to enhance its image (aren’t we all?). Thus Volvo is branching out into—gulp—performance cars, hoping to give its appearance as a maker of ultra-safe family vehicles a kick in the slats.

Actually, Volvo does have some performance-car experience. The company produced the 850 T5R in the mid-1990s, and in Europe won the 1994 British Touring Car title. Touring car star Rickard Rydell helped develop the S60R and V70R, but two more R car programs (a C90R and a V40R) were canceled to save money.

Volvo unveiled the S60R sedan and V70R wagon at the 2002 Paris show. The S60R was originally shown in Paris in 2000 as Volvo’s Performance Concept Car, while the V70R was first shown as a concept at the ’01 Frankfurt show.

Volvo calls the all-wheel-drive R models the most technologically advanced cars the company has ever produced, and on paper they promise to be pretty hot: Volvo’s 2.5-liter, turbocharged inline five powers them, producing 300 hp at 5000 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque at a down-low 1950 rpm. The engine is equipped with continuously variable valve timing, and the pistons and connecting rods have been reinforced to handle the extra power. Comparisons to BMW’s M3 are inevitable—its straight six produces 333 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque.

Volvo’s inline fives are mated to a new six-speed manual gearbox, with a five-speed automatic optional. The automatic has Comfort and Sport modes.

Exterior changes from the S60/V70 are subtle, as they should be (we are talking Volvo, after all). The front end has been rounded slightly and the grille lowered for better aerodynamics and more efficient cooling. There’s a tiny spoiler on the rear. The cars are three-quarters of an inch lower than standard. Both sedan and wagon look good, though attention-grabbing they’re not.

The interior is an upgrade from the standard S60/V70’s (which is pretty nice to start with), and it’s terrific. Soft leather covers the dark gray instrument panel, steering wheel and gearshift knob; the instruments glow in a medium blue, with brushed aluminum bezels; the R-only seats (done in-house, the R seats are deeper and have more side support than standard S60 seats) are soft leather. From a styling as well as a quality standpoint, the interior is beautiful. Big, clearly marked rotary knobs for the heat/vent and radio dominate the center console. The steering wheel holds foolproof buttons for cruise control and radio tuning.

The R cars introduce what Volvo calls Four C (Continuously Control Chassis Concept). The active chassis system combines with the all-wheel-drive system and active yaw and stability control, compensating for road variances. There are three chassis selections, Comfort, Sport and Advanced Sport, chosen with buttons on top of the center console, and the change to the car’s character takes milliseconds. Four C adjusts each shock individually, as well as the all-wheel-drive system’s power distribution (the car also has traction control), throttle response and the gear-change points in the automatic transmission.

Volvo is still Volvo, meaning there are plenty of safety features. There’s dual airbags in front, of course, plus whiplash protection in the front seats, inflatable curtains on the side windows, belt tensioners at all seats and side bags on the front seats. Unfortunately, rain and thick fog (and in the South of France no less—damn!) limited our driving time to a paltry four laps of Ricard one afternoon and a half-hour the next morning on public roads.

We can sketch out a few conclusions anyway. First, the R cars were fast: Turbo lag was brief, and Volvo says 60 mph should arrive in about 5.7 seconds while top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.

Second, these cars were mega-stable both at Paul Ricard and over France’s narrow two-lanes. The suspension uses MacPherson struts in front and a multilink setup in the rear. All-wheel drive helps, as does the 54/46 weight distribution. But most credit goes to the fancy Four C system’s electronic wizardry. The awd allowed tons of grip on the track, though in the wet the cars tended toward understeer. Both the wagon and sedan felt light on their feet for 3600-pound cars, and steered quickly and smoothly into Ricard’s tight corners. The four-piston Brembo brakes were appreciated on the track, and brought things to a halt quickly.

On back roads the cars were quiet and refined and felt big and solid. The ride was firm but not too harsh, with good body control and minimal roll. The Sport mode firms things up a bit and Advanced Sport is the harshest setting. Even in Advanced Sport, there’s no crashing over bumps, though poorly maintained roads could tell a different story.

The two new R cars will arrive in U.S. showrooms May 1. We’ll get 2000 S60Rs and 500 V70Rs for the first year. Sticker prices are $36,825 for the S60R and $38,325 for the V70R. At those prices, the cars should have no trouble competing with M3s in potential buyers’ minds.

VOLVO S60/V70R
ON SALE: May 2003
BASE PRICE: $36,825 (S60R), $38,325 (V70R)
POWERTRAIN: 2.5-liter, 300-hp, 295 lb-ft turbocharged inline five; awd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3592 pounds
0-60 MPH: 5.7 seconds (mfr.)
 

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Volvo V70R Wagon
 

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