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Volvo's resurrection plan: Big power from small engines

Ezra Dyer
February 27, 2014

You heard it here first: Volvo is the best Chinese car you can buy in America. OK, fine, the best Swedish car funded by the Chinese. But without Chinese carmaker Geely stepping up back in 2010, Volvo could very well have gone the way of Saab — which is to say, fondly rememberedbut no longer with us. Perhaps worse, it could’ve been swallowed by car-clueless investors who lack the means to develop new product, leading to years of Zombie Volvos.  Geely, though, has the money and willpower to accomplish what Ford never did—a wholesale overhaul of Volvo’s entire strategy.

Two words: four cylinders. Going forward, every Volvo will have a four-banger under the hood. The idea is to deliver small-bore economy along with big-motor performance. That promise has been hitched to plenty of other powertrains, from hybrids to turbocharged V-6s, and usually only half of the equation proves true. The Volvo S60 T6 Drive-E, though, churns out a 28 mpg EPA combined rating along with its 302 hp. That’s an unusual combination, especially for a non-hybrid.

Volvo isn’t the first company to squeeze more than 300 hp out of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, but I’d say it’s created the most seamless 300 hp ever to emerge from a motor this size. With both a supercharger and a turbocharger, the Volvo four doesn’t favor one part of its powerband at the expense of another. Low-rpm thrust is instantaneous, courtesy of the belt-driven supercharger. Once the big turbo spools up, the supercharger de-clutches and the engine-management electronics pass the baton to the turbocharger.

The transition is undetectable — at low RPM you hear some signature supercharger whine. And then later on, you don’t. Some single-turbo motors are more ragged than this, merely by dint of choppily deployed wastegates. This thing’s slick. And its 295 lb-ft of torque matches the V-8 of the outgoing BMW M3. The S60 runs 0-60 in 5.6 seconds with nary a twitch of torque steer.

Somewhat confusingly, Volvo is retaining its old naming conventions, which formerly applied to cylinder count — T5, T6 and so on. Even more confusingly, the old motors are still on sale in all-wheel-drive models, since a new AWD setup is in the works that will pair the four-cylinder with a hybrid system and electric motors. So an S60 T6 might have a six-cylinder or a four, depending on whether it’s front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. I humbly suggest that the badge “T6” did not exactly enjoy such universal name recognition that it couldn’t have been tossed for something relevant to the new lineup. (How about T302?) Changing a name isn’t that big a deal. Just ask Snoop Lion.

Also: I know Volvo’s had bigger challenges commanding its attention, but someone needs to get Swedish high-end audio firm Perfect8 on the horn. With Audi stuffing Bang & Olufsen into every car it makes, a generic “premium sound” audio system no longer cuts it.

But hey, get the big stuff right first. That’s what they’re doing under the Geely regime, which has so far spent $11 billion to get Volvo back in the game. I applaud the fact that, instead of copying BMW’s spec sheet, Volvo is going its own way — sleek design, four cylinders and a surprising value proposition. The S60 T6 Drive-E Platinum, rigged with the 302-horse motor (there’s also a 240-hp version that deletes the supercharger) goes for $38,150. And that’s including an eight-speed transmission, typically Volvo-esque heated leather seats that’d be comfortable for a thousand-mile drive, and a package of safety equipment intended to keep you alive to buy more Volvos.

My Swedish-car predilections always ran to Saab rather than Volvo, but I’m just glad one of them is still around to bring a slightly funky perspective to the uniformity of the Euro-luxury scene. Pour some out for Saab, long live Volvo