I was a broken record. For years, I said that it would be impossible for Chinese carmakers to crack into the US market, following the example of the Japanese and the South Koreans.
I had good justification for this extreme view: there’s no room.
Simply put, there’s was no market share to take in the US. And the old game of coming in with a great car in a segment that had been neglected or abjured — fuel-sipping Hondas in the 1970s, reliable family sedans in the 1980s, small SUVs in the 1990s, hybrid drivetrains in the 2000s — wasn’t going to work.
Competing on price, as Hyundai and Kia had, wasn’t really an option, either, as all the automakers selling cars in America had greatly improved their offerings on that front. You no longer needed to spend very much to get a lot of car.
Then in the midst of the financial crisis, Ford decided to streamline itself and shed its premium brands.
Geely makes its move
Among these were Volvo — the no-nonsense, yet romantic Swedish brand beloved by Los Angeles hipsters and hidebound preppies. A rare opportunity presented itself to international carmakers with aims to enter the US market.
Auto brands almost never go up for sale. More often, they fade away — or are swiftly executed. When Ford was selling Volvo, GM was also trying to unload Hummer, Saturn, and Saab.
Enter Geely, a major Chinese automaker that jumped at the chance to buy a luxury brand, paying almost $2 billion for it in 2010.
Since then, we’ve been waiting to see what a Chinese-built car from a Swedish brand would be like. When one finally landed on American shores, I was especially intrigued.
For now, the S60 sedan is the only Chinese-made car currently on sale in America, until the Buick Envision arrives later this year.
When we sampled a 2016 S60 Inscription “Platinum” late last year. Business Insider’s Ben Zhang lent an assist, driving it in sporty fashion, while I used the car as a limo to chauffeur around a bunch of tweenage friends of my daughter for a weekend.
Here’s what we thought:
The S60 has a pleasing, unobtrusive stance that says, 'I'm new' without saying 'I'm not a Volvo.' The 'Seashell Metallic' paint job also looked very much at home in the New Jersey suburbs in late autumn.
Solid, simple, dependable. All very Volvo, right down to the fuss-free grille and the familiar Volvo badge. But not stodgy, either. The S60 has a more-or-less contemporary appearance, far sleeker than the brick-like Volvos of yore.
The S60 continues Volvo's exceptional reputation for safety, with a 5-star crash-test rating from the government and a low-speed collision avoidance system, City Safety, that can prevent the car from hitting a pedestrian, cyclist, or another car (we didn't test it out, for obvious reasons). Our car was the T5 with front-wheel-drive and came in at about $46,000, with the 'Platinum' options package and several other upgrades adding to the $38,700 base price.
Them's some sweet Pirellis on there, but the wheels are like the rest of the car: quietly luxurious. This level of 'modest luxury' is a Volvo specialty, but it's being stressed now as everyone else pushes the envelope on automotive bling. The S60 holds back.
The fob got a ring of tasteful chrome (I can tell you from experience that this is the fanciest Volvo ignition key I've ever seen).
Our S60 was the top-of-the-line 'Inscription' trim. That means it's the Chinese-built S60 and that it has an expanded rear seat. For the Chinese market, Geely expects this car to perform limo duty.
Inside, the car's appointments are tasteful without being austere. The brushed-metal details, for example, or the stitched-leather steering wheel.
One extremely important amenity is in the S60's mix, however: a heated steering wheel! This is one of the things that I now have a hard time living without.
The use of natural wood is one of the more well-done aspects of the S60's comfortable, unpretentious, but never middle-of-the-road interior. The various climate and infotainment controls, however, are kind of fiddly. Note the blobby humanoid button, which control where the hot or cool air is blowing.
That walnut inlaid wood looks pretty nice against good old automotive plastic. Reminds me of a nice (made in USA) Martin acoustic guitar.
Big round knobs are a thing on Swedish cars. The idea is that you can operate the controls while wearing gloves in frigid climates.
Navigation can be handled by using his input wheel on the infotainment system. It works pretty well once you get the hang of it.
Volvo has always had a reputation for exceptionally comfortable seats to go with industry leading safety. The front seats in the S60 are terrific, leaning ever-so-slightly in the direction of cushy rather than firm. And they can be had in heated form.
But it's the back seats that are more important. The S60 is meant be something of a middle-class limo. Reports from the various tweenagers who rode back here over the course of a few days suggest that Geely and Volvo managed this aspect of the S60's mission quite capably. They really enjoyed the sun/privacy shades on the back window and rear door windows.
The Harman/Kardon sound system is good, although not as spectacular as what you'd get from Bowers and Wilkins, Bose, or H/K's higher-end Revel offering.
All righty, so enough about comfort and how the S60 pipes classic rock into passengers' ears. How does this piece of Chinese industrial craftsmanship drive?
Around town and on freeways, where I drove it, the S60 is well-mannered, with all the pep you need to merge with traffic and get around semi-trucks. It's notably less soft than other family sedans, but that's something Volvos have always been. The trunk is big enough to manage a major trip to the grocery store, weekend away, or pre-holiday run to Target. It also gets an EPA-rated 29 mpg in combined city/highway driving. But is there any spiritedness to this set of wheels? I'll turn it over to Ben to answer that one.
Yes, this Volvo is surprisingly spirited on the twisty country roads in rural New Jersey. (Believe it or not, this is a thing.) At the heart of this S60 is Volvo's new 2.0-litre, 240-horsepower turbocharged Drive-E inline-four-cylinder engine. Versions of this engine will power every car in Volvo's lineup for the foreseeable future.
With sport mode engaged, the powertrain proved to be very responsive through the 8-speed transmission. The surprisingly torquey four banger certainly punches above its weight when it comes to powering this sizable Swedish family hauler. In fact, I got the front wheels to chirp exiting a toll booth on the Garden State Parkway.
While the S60 Inscription's handling is crisp and the car certainly felt lighter than it actually is, I wouldn't go as far as calling it a sports sedan. Come into this expecting BMW 3-Series potency and you'll be disappointed. With that said, this long-wheel-base Volvo will more than satiate most appetites for performance in a family sedan. Back to Matt ...
... so there you have it: a sorta sporty sedan that's a cut above some of the sporty-free competition. But here's the thing about Volvo: Geely's Job One was to not screw up its multi-billion-dollar brand. And they have not. There's plenty of Volvo-ness to the S60, but that Volvo-ness has been gracefully updated, without any arrogance. Previous owners, who bought Volvos because they wanted to avoid buying German luxury cars, or who were attracted to the brand's obsession with safety and overall unpretentious attitude, will be pleased. The S60 certainly doesn't dazzle. But it does satisfy, on many levels.
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