Braking automatically for dummies
Junior was a dummy and was in my way.
I never thought I would find myself steering a car at what appeared to be a 10-year-old kid in a ball cap. However, that’s exactly what Volvo designer Jon Disley instructed I do. Not to floor it at Junior exactly, but to approach my stuffed-boy target keeping a continuous speed of just under 20 km/h, with my foot on the gas.
Volvo’s revolutionary Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake is the first pedestrian avoidance system to come to market. It is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of modern car tech; the one and only hope for the guy who can’t get off his BlackBerry while driving.
Here’s how it works: A radar sensor on the front grille and a camera mounted by the rear-view mirror track objects in the way of the car. If a collision is about to occur because the driver has failed to remove his foot from the gas, the smart computer assumes the driver is distracted and PD takes over, sounding an audible warning while braking the car.
Sure enough, my S60 came to a grinding halt a couple of feet short of Junior. Perhaps grinding is a bit harsh, but the full stop was certainly abrupt, rather like when anti-lock brakes are deployed on a snowy road. It sounded like stepping on a bag of potato chips, but this impressive new safety braking feature will, I hope, be standard on all cars someday. It’s a great option on the all-new S60.
In addition to the cutting-edge Pedestrian Detection, the S60 includes a lane-departure warning system, adaptive cruise control (monitors traffic and modulates throttle and brakes to keep car at a safe distance from car in front), corner traction control (which identifies the car skidding before you may) plus the second generation of Volvo’s City Safety technology, a crash avoidance system that helps to avoid embarrassing rear-end crunches. Volvo claims that 75 per cent of all collisions happen at speeds below 30 km/h, and in half these cases, drivers failed to break before the collision. Laser sensors at the top of the windshield judge the distance to the car in front, and react to vehicles that are stopped or travelling in the same direction. Like Pedestrian Detection, City Safety takes over and applies the brake for the guy who can’t stop texting at the wheel.
The 2011 S60 has had a makeover, inside and out.
Volvo’s sporty sedan has joined the crowd in terms of body shape (as it appears somewhat Honda-esque), however what differentiates the sleek S60 sedan from the rest of today’s pack, is an oversized Euro grille (not unlike what Audi and VW are doing) with an in-your-face version of Volvo’s unmistakable chemical symbol for iron. As well, designers have made this four-door sedan look like a coupe, with a sweeping, raked roof line, lower stance and flared rear fenders.
The sloped face has an aristocratic beak which is appealing, but like many things in life, the S60 looks best from the back. Disley says the designers took some inspiration from the shape of a classic racetrack in designing components such as the interesting LED headlamps, tail-lights and door interior detail. The doors make a satisfying “thunk” when closed. Solid.
The five-seat cabin struck me as flawless Scandinavian design. Instrumentation curves to face the driver. The dash is not littered with too many buttons or knobs. The overall feel adds up to classic and upscale, with two-toned, vegetable-dyed quality leathers.
“Imprinted on the dashboard is actually a photograph of running water,” pointed out Disley. “We wanted to create an atmosphere that feels restful, but in a dynamic way. There are even sport seats in the rear.”
The car’s vitals, climate control, navi and stereo stats are displayed on a centre screen with an oversized button that controls all. While it’s not as complicated as BMW’s iDrive, it takes some practice. Nice that it wasn’t dumbed down for the North American market (please hold your letters; I am Canadian). It shows a certain amount of hope for coffee-drinking drivers on this side of the pond with an aversion to reading user manuals. Interesting modern elements such as a brushed-metal centre console deco panel are pure design. Its unique texture was inspired by a grey saucepan that one of the Swedish staff bought in Chicago and made the mistake of taking to work, only to have to it snatched by the designers and taken apart for samples. The story goes that the staffer was given just the handle back and never got to cook with it.
Volvo says that seven out of 10 accidents involve whiplash, which is why the S60’s seats provide improved spinal support with headrests that move slightly backward upon rear-end impact, cradling the body within the seat, and earning the Swedes the highest rating for headrest safety. Rear-seat headrests also recline when the seats are not in use for improved driver visibility.
Riding shotgun, Disley suggested I press the control button to see this feature in action, which resulted in immediately knocking one the good-humoured Volvo guys in the back of the head as it quickly descended. This is the kind of fun trick my sister Julie and I would have played endlessly on each other as kids in my Dad’s silver Volvo GLT if this technology had existed in the early ’80s.
Driving through the Oregon countryside a few hours out of Portland, we wound past hazelnut and Christmas tree farms on quiet roads, providing open pavement on which to experience the driving dynamics of the S60. Volvo’s thick steering wheel is my all-time favourite for hand placement, grip and feel. In the corners, the steering on the S60 was right-on: tight, smooth and responsive.
No surprise, then, that Volvo engineers claim it boasts the best steering to date. The turbocharged, in-line six, three-litre engine with 300 horses is whisper-quiet inside the cabin. a six-speed automatic transmission is the only transmission available. The power is immediate and uber-smooth even when I matted it at 50 km/h to reach highway speeds.
The Volvo team is pretty excited about its revamped S60, claiming it is the highest quality of automobile they have ever achieved. Former parent company Ford recently sold the iconic Swedish company this past August to the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group of China.
Volvo will retain its headquarters and manufacturing in Sweden and Belgium, but many units will be destined for China’s roads. Having lived in Shanghai and commuted by bicycle for 12 months observing roads, there wasn’t a Volvo in sight, just a unique slow-motion mess of bikes, scooters, taxis, pedestrians, and new drivers in Buicks and VW Santanas.
I can only presume Volvo’s pedestrian awareness alert system will be stuck on a continuous warning beep on Shanghai’s winding, busy streets (fortunately that beep can be disabled).
With instant, consistent power and good handling, the S60 is a great combo of comfort and sportiness, matched to innovative safety technology and AWD. It all adds up to a competitive package in the entry-luxe category.
2011 Volvo S60 T6 AWD
Turbocharged in-line six-cylinder, three-litre, 300 hp, 325 lb-ft of torque. 0-100 km/h is 6.5 seconds with a top speed of 250 km/h
Fuel economy: 9.9 litres per 100 km 5
Warranty: 5 years/100,000 km, comp scheduled maintenance
Corrosion: 10 years/160,000 km
On-call roadside assistance: Four years/unlimited kilometres
Add-on Driver support package: $4,500
– Pedestrian Detection with Auto Break
– Driver Alert system
– Blind Spot Info system
– Park Assist
– Adaptive Cruise Control & Collision Warning with Auto Brake
Photograph by: Volvo, handout