Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design lockdown test

This is not a car that I’m supposed to like. It’s an SUV, for starters, and it comes with a great many sporty adornments as part of the R-Design package, yet offers no appeal for the enthusiast driver. But as Volvo reclaims the XC60 after an unplanned 3-month long-term test, I’m very sad to see it go.

I was only meant to have the XC60 for a week, but as a result of the Covid lockdown, it ended up sticking around for three months. That was not exactly a hardship, because since getting a series of cash injections from Chinese parent company Geely, Volvo has been making some extremely nice cars. Calling a car ‘nice’ might seem like damning it with faint praise, but there is a lot to be said for a car that just makes its owner feel good, regardless of whether it ticks the classic petrolhead boxes.

It starts with the styling. Very subjective, of course, but I have yet to meet someone who disapproves of Volvo’s current styling direction. In a world where BMWs look like angry beavers and most cars have a zillion lines and creases just because they can, there is something very appealing about Volvo’s clean lines and handsome proportions. You might argue that all modern Volvos look more or less the same, but then that was also true of BMWs in the 80s, and no one takes issue with that, other than maybe BMW’s current design team.

Having said that, I do wish our XC60 didn’t have all the R-Design stuff on it. R-Design is like M Sport, AMG Line, and so on. On the Volvo, the additions are still relatively restrained, with alloy wheels that are ‘just’ 19in. However, having fake quad exhausts on a diesel family SUV is rather embarrassing.

Oh dear…

What impresses me most about the XC60 is the interior. First of all, Volvo is in a league of its own when it comes to seats. So many cars have terrible seats, with a flat base that is too short to adequately support a tall driver’s legs, lumbar support that feels like it’s been fashioned out of a scaffolding pipe and a back rest that’s modelled on the hunchback of Notre Dame. The Volvo’s are adjustable in every way you need, are soft where possible and supportive where they need to be. Why you need heavily bolstered sport seats (again, part of R-Design) in a diesel family SUV with eco tyres is beyond me, but at least they’re comfortable.

Space in the back is ample, even for me, at 6ft2. There is plenty of legroom and headroom with the driver’s seat set to my position. Boot space is average for the segment at 635l, which is slightly larger than the BMW X3’s 550-litre boot, but a fair bit smaller than the Land Rover Discovery Sport’s. Other than some hooks for shopping bags, there aren’t too many clever features, but it’s a nice practical shape. There is some room under the floor, but in our car that was taken up by a space saver wheel, shod in a Chao Yang tyre. Better not get a puncture, then…

What really stood out were the materials used in the XC60’s cabin. Car journalists can rightly be accused of being dashboard huggers for focussing a too much on interior materials, but in the Volvo it’s striking that everything you touch is trimmed in some of the softest leather I’ve experienced. The seat upholstery is a combination of the same soft leather with a rougher grey cloth and just makes the cabin a special place to spend time.

My only real annoyance in the interior is that there is no real dedicated place for your phone and that the main USB port is in the centre arm rest. This might be a conscious decision from safety-focussed Volvo to encourage you to put your phone in the arm rest bin, where it is out of sight while you drive. Unfortunately, the result is that my phone tended to messily reside in one of the centre console bins where it didn’t really fit.

Infotainment-wise, the Volvo’s system is a few years old now and although you can tell, none of the graphics look unattractive and once you get used to it, it’s easy enough to use. It has a few quirks: a lot of the screen space is not used very effectively and if you’re using Apple Carplay to play Spotify, you can easily be booted out of your music if you press the wrong button. The centre screen is also how you adjust the climate control and heated seats, something which some might find unacceptable. Many, including me, will probably think it’s fine. The XC60 comes with a digital gauge cluster. It looks handsome and is plenty clear, but getting it to show mpg figures is rather clunky.

If what you want from your diesel SUV is either sharp driving dynamics or unrivalled ride comfort, don’t buy an XC60. Then again, if you want either of those things, maybe don’t buy an SUV. Having said that, Volvos can be particularly poor at ride-handling balance. The ride, even on the R-Design ‘sport’ suspension is very floaty over undulations, yet thumps over surface imperfections despite the meaty sidewalls on the 19in tyres.

Meanwhile, the steering seems very nice on first acquaintance, with a nice weight to it and an oily slick feel that reminds of a hydraulic power steering rack. However, that’s all there is to it – it will keep the same resistance whether you’re understeering through a corner, haring through a corner on the limit of grip, or just trundling through. Thanks to the Continental EcoContact 6 tyres, that limit of grip is reached a little too soon, too, especially when the weather is a bit chilly. There is a drive mode switch and the ‘Dynamic’ setting will make the steering a bit heavier and the gearbox a bit worse, but I’m not sure why you’d bother.

None of this is likely to bother the casual motorist too much. The ride isn’t bad enough to be truly jarring, and it smooths out nicely at speed and if you’re going so fast to really need proper steering feedback, you’re probably not the XC60’s intended buyer. It’s a pity nonetheless, and adds to pointlessness of the R-Design package. Better to go for a standard version with small wheels and ultra-soft suspension and play to the XC60’s strengths.

One peculiarity of our XC60 was that it was a front-wheel drive model. Most front-wheel drive-based cars at this level of power (190hp) with a torquey diesel engine get all-wheel drive to allow them to put their power down effectively, without troubling the traction control. I didn’t get to drive it in wintry conditions, but I never felt like all-wheel drive was truly necessary. In the wet, it was of course possible to break traction, but not to any troubling degree, especially considering it’s not the kind of car to be driven in anger. I suspect winter or all-season tyres will be a must in the colder seasons, though. The big benefit of leaving the AWD box unticked should be fuel economy. In our time with the XC60, it averaged in the low 40s, which is commendable, if not record-breaking for this size of car.

The engine is relatively unremarkable. It’s surprisingly grumbly at low speed, but generally hushed at anything above manoeuvring pace. It also feels its 190hp and 400Nm (295lb.ft), so it’s always comfortably quick. The eight-speed automatic gearbox it’s paired to as standard is smooth and generally knows what it’s doing. Like many modern transmissions, it can sometimes keep the engine revs a bit too low, but it’s keen to rectify its mistake following a prod of the throttle. With the R-Design, you get paddles behind the steering wheel. Beyond giving them a try for testing purposes, I’ve only ever used them accidentally.

Modern Volvos ask the question: how much do people really care about a truly cushiony ride or sharp handling? On the evidence of Volvo’s recent success and the rather lacklustre chassis of the XC60, the answer appears to be ‘not very much’. The XC60’s other qualities of original styling, a beautiful interior, good infotainment, a thoroughly decent powertrain and adequate room come together to make this a very appealing car, even if it doesn’t score points in the typical car enthusiast’s areas.