Poking his head out of the house to get a closer look at the Volvo S60 in the driveway, 11-year-old Brandon was visibly excited.

“You’re testing a Maserati!” he shouted as a statement, not a question.

Told that wasn’t the case, he was dubious. He emerged from the house in bare feet for a closer look. He studied the front of the 2011 S60 T6 AWD, the slowly circled the copper color car.

“Yeah, it’s a Maser –, wait — it’s a, it’s a —

“– a Volvo,” I finished his sentence.

“Yeah, I see the symbol,” Brandon conceded. “But it looks like a Maserati, doesn’t it, dad?”

I’m not sure that it looks like anything other than the sportiest sedan Volvo has ever created. The Swedish automaker has been making attractive and distinctive vehicles for several years, but Volvo built boxy beasts for so long that it’s sometimes hard to shake that image.

The S60 should obliterate it once and for all. The thought of someone — even an 11-year-old — mistaking a Volvo for a Maserati would have seemed preposterous 25 years ago. But now it’s a reality.

And the S60’s sportiness doesn’t end with the shape of its sheet metal. The interior is equally sporty. It’s also distinctive and elegant, with plenty of plush padding, soft-touch panels, and ample applications of what appears to be genuine metal accents and trim.

The most expansive of those forms the face of a 3-D center console stack. In what has become a trademark of Volvo interior design, the center stack is canted toward the driver and flows into the lower console with a gracefully swooping panel that has a sizable vacant area behind it.

Aesthetically, this design resembles a tumbling waterfall with a serene space behind its tumbling facade. Ergonomically, it enables Volvo to place many of the S60’s key controls within easier reach of the pilot.

Unfortunately, the controls themselves aren’t as ergonomically efficient as they should be. Which brings us to my only complaints about the S60.

Volvo’s version of the multi-control switches popularized by other European luxury brands — like its competitors’ controls — seems to complicate the process of choosing functions and adjusting settings.

Rather than resulting in an intuitive, single-point interface, these systems force the driver think about how to accomplish a simple task and then make doing so a multi-step procedure. Depending on the display mode at any given time, it can take several steps just to change a radio station on the S60.

Starting the S60 is also unnecessarily complicated. There’s no ignition key per se, but rather a fob that must be inserted into a hole near the steering wheel. Once inserted, you have to push an adjacent button to start the vehicle.

Shutting down the S60 requires a similar sequence of activity. I honestly couldn’t figure out how to turn everything off the first time I parked the S60.

But once I learned the starting procedure and how to control all of its functions, the S60 T6 AWD provided nothing but delight — and plenty of it.

Solid, tight and responsive were the first thoughts that entered my mind during the first stint behind the wheel. Gone is any hint of the vagueness that made previous Volvos a little less fun to drive than, say, class competitors from Audi and BMW.

The S60 still doesn’t communicate quite as intimately with its pilot as the A4 or 3-Series, but it nevertheless speaks quite clearly and is extremely easy to understand.

Plunge into even a sharp curve and the S60 T6 AWD will unflinchingly obey and then do its best to fulfill your wishes. Its best is more than good enough, thanks to precise and progressive steering and a suspension that sticks to corners like cotton balls cling to Velcro.

Traction is superb, even on slick surfaces. An all-wheel drive system diverts power between the front and rear wheels to maximize grip and equalize weight transfer. The AWD synthesizes functions of the S60’s traction control and anti-skid systems to help ensure optimum performance regardless of the driving situations and conditions.

As impressed as I was with its handling, I was awed even more by the S60 T6’s drivetrain. Propulsion is provided by a silky smooth, 24-valve, in-line six-cylinder engine featuring an intercooled turbocharger.

Capable of 300 horsepower and 325 pounds-feet of torque, according to Volvo, the engine is notable for its low-end thrust and wide powerband. Maximum torque is produced at just 2,100 rpm, and power doesn’t start fading until 4,200 rpm.

The result? The S60 T6 explodes off the line and hits 60 mph in well under six seconds. Rolling acceleration is equally impressive. Mash the throttle and the S60 T6 rockets past other vehicles regardless of the prevailing highway traffic speed.

Drivers who don’t feel quite the need for speed that I do and don’t care about all-wheel drive might be perfectly content with the other S60 model, the T5. Volvo says its turbocharged five-cylinder engine produce 250 horsepower and 266 pounds-feet of torque, which should be good enough to deliver 6.8-second zero-to-60 times.

The S60 T5’s starting price of around $31,000 is nearly $7,000 less than the T6 AWD and looks like a bargain. Especially since it includes many of the items on the T6’s expansive list of creature comfort features and can be equipped with the same convenience and safety option packages.

My test car had several of those, including Volvo’s innovative “Pedestrian Detection” system. Using a grille-mounted radar sensor and windshield-mounted camera, the system in daylight can detect pedestrians that dart in front of the car, sounding a warning and then automatically applying maximum braking if the driver doesn’t respond in time to stop in front of or steer around the pedestrian.

Volvo says the system can avoid an impact at speeds up to 22 mph. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t enlist a volunteer to help me prove that it works, but other auto writers vouch for its effectiveness.

The system makes the S60’s other standard and optional safety systems, such as adaptive cruise control, distance alert, lane departure warning and even City Safety — which can avert a collision at speeds up to 19 mph with vehicles in front that stop suddenly — seem so 2010 by comparison.

And the new S60 T6 AWD is so far beyond its Volvo ancestors that it can be considered a new branch sprouting from the family tree. If this first model produced since Volvo was acquired by China’s Geely Holding Group is any indication, I can’t wait to see what else grows on that branch.

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

[email protected]

 


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