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Volvo S60

The Volvo S60 sheds its conservative skin with its newest, naughtiest model.

Not too long ago, Volvo was stuck with an image that suggested its cars were solid, safe, comfortable, durable and more than a little boring. Alas, being boring may be the worst automotive sin of all.

That is no longer the case. The transformation of Volvo started in 1981, when the company added a turbocharger and suspension upgrades to its boxy four-cylinder 240 series coupe, sedan and wagon. It gained momentum with the arrival of the still squared-off but sleekly stylish 780 coupe in 1986, followed by the 850, S70, and finally S80 and S60 sedans. These last two models made a clean design break with the past, abandoned squared-off fenders and roofs for sleek lines that cheated the wind, rather than attempting to bully their way through it.

This design metamorphosis coincided with another important change that was out of sight. Among premium European automakers, Volvo was slow to adopt independent rear suspension for its mass market models. As a result, sharp bumps encountered by an older Volvo’s rear wheels could easily provoke a bit of a kick. Competitive models were often more comfortable when the road turned rough. The adoption of independent rear suspension has eliminated this problem.

Current S60 sedans, completely redesigned for 2011, cut a wide swath in pricing and performance. The least costly T5 is powered by a 250-horsepower, five-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

Front wheel drive is standard. For 2013, all-wheel drive is newly available as an option in the T5. A review car, so equipped, managed the zero-to-60 mile per hour acceleration run in an impressive 7.0 seconds.

The five-cylinder engine also turns out to be reasonably economical with fuel, delivering 24.1 miles per gallon, though it can become noisy when pressed. Cruising is serene.

The S60 is also available with a more powerful and more refined six-cylinder, turbocharged engine. These T6 models have a 300-horsepower version of this 3.0-liter inline motor, while the high-performance T6 R-Design pulls 325 horsepower from the same engine. Performance in these versions is smooth and effortless, with 60 miles per hour arriving in just 5.9 seconds, or 5.3 seconds in an R-Design review vehicle. All-wheel drive is standard in six-cylinder S60s.

The cabin in all S60s is nicely finished. Leather seating surfaces are optional in T5s, standard in T6s. Regardless, the cabin has an upscale look and feel. Instruments are clear and easily read and controls work with a silky precision.

The center stack—that console area between the two front seats—is a mixed bag. Audio controls are small and numerous, but the climate controls allow such easy and logical overrides of the automatic climate control system as to prompt one to wonder why all car makers haven’t copied Volvo’s approach.

Volvo has long had a reputation for building seats that deliver daylong comfort. The front seats in the S60 carry on that tradition, with near-perfect side bolstering that provides ample support during vigorous cornering yet is not confining.

Rear seat passengers do not fare as well. In the aft cabin, room is tighter. The sleek styling and sloping roof line infringe on head room, while leg room becomes tight when the front seats are moved back. Older, squarer Volvos did better.

They would lag behind the new S60 when it comes to safety, however. All models feature City Safety, which brakes automatically in slow-moving traffic if the driver is distracted. Options include front and rear obstacle detection, lane-departure warning, pedestrian detection with full automatic braking, fatigue alert— the list goes on. If all of these features fail, and an S60 driver still manages to crash, this model is one of the very few cars to earn the top score in every government and insurance industry crash test.

Driving the new S60 is pleasant and rewarding. The car features communicative steering—the driver can adjust the level of assist on T6 models—combined with a rare combination of directional stability and agility. This makes this car as at home on the interstates as it is on Connecticut’s secondary roads.

Volvo is not about to wait for word-of-mouth testimonials from new owners to spread the news of the S60’s newly competitive performance. Recent television advertisements have shown an S60 engaged in bootleg turns before backing onto a moving car carrier. The voiceover proclaims this to be the “naughty Volvo.”

These attempts to promote its newfound performance may be camp, or ham-fisted, but they are well-grounded in fact. The S60 blends safety with a newly found fun-to-drive character. Starting at $32,795—add $2,000 for all-wheel drive—this current S60 is probably the best Volvo yet.

Jim MacPherson is the host of “The Car Doctor” show Sundays at noon on WTIC-AM. His car reviews and columns can also be found in the On The Road section Wednesdays in the Hartford Courant.