The Volvo XC60 defines the appeal of the so-called crossover vehicle. It's a fabulous compromise between what people want in a true, truck-based sport-utility and what they need for daily transportation. Beyond its flexible seating/cargo configurations, the XC60 is generally a comfortable, pleasant vehicle to drive. It's compact and easy to park, and it isn't mundane in a people-mover, family wagon fashion.
The XC60 is tuned more for cruising comfortably on the highway or through town than for flinging around on back roads, or for travel where no graded roads exist. That said, it won't scare its driver, land-barge style, when he or she is trying to keep with the flow on a curving canyon or river road. It provides moderate off-pavement capability, and not just the look that goes with a tall body or ride height raised an inch or two. Its 3300-pound tow rating is substantial in this class, and the standard Trailer Stability Assist (TSA) electronics help maintain stability while pulling a trailer.
The upgrade turbocharged engine delivers refreshingly linear acceleration, not necessarily what you'd expect with a turbocharged engine. It also adds a bit of verve the base, non-turbo engine lacks. Regardless, the base six-cylinder is torquey enough for everyday use in traffic-heavy cities, and we wouldn't hesitate recommending it. Its slight mileage advantage, though, is more a function of its fitment in front-drive XC60s, rather than inherently better fuel efficiency than the turbo, which is only offered with all-wheel-drive.
We liked the 6-speed automatic transmission best in Sport mode. Its well-executed sport setting re-assigns shift points to maximize the engine's power curve and extends the transmission's stay in each gear. Sport mode uses more fuel, but it suppresses unwanted hunting among gears when climbing or descending grades. Additionally, it suppresses the engine's tendency to surge unexpectedly as it acclimates to each gear change. The sport setting also allows a driver to choose a specific gear when desired, overriding the electronic brain's preferred selection, although the system will not hold a gear either to redline or to an engine-lugging rpm. The automatic reasserts its own control to shift up or down a gear at pre-determined engine speeds. In full Auto mode, when the XC60 is driven casually, shifts are smooth, if not invisible.
The all-wheel-drive system operates seamlessly, and the driver will almost never know when it's working. The all-wheel drive works full time; the driver does not need to switch it on. In normal, good-traction conditions, 95 percent of the engine's power goes to the front wheels, just 5 percent to the rear. If the front wheels lose traction, a multi-plate clutch begins routing power to the rear, to a maximum split of 65 percent to the rear wheels. This front-drive bias leaves the XC60 with a default understeer handling characteristic, like most cars. When driven past the grip limit of the tires, this push is much easier to handle than a skittish rear end, because a driver's natural instinct is to slow down, and that basically solves the problem.
All-wheel drive on the Volvo is more an advantage for safe, secure forward progress in lousy weather than a true off-road tool. Still, with 9.1 inches of ground clearance, this crossover can traverse terrain that would be impossible in a conventional sedan, or in some other crossovers. Hill Descent Control adds some reassuring braking assist when navigating the way back down that dirt track that an hour earlier looked so benign.
The Volvo XC60 is lighter (and smaller) than the XC70 and XC90 crossover SUVs, but it has relatively high center of gravity combined with minimally bolstered seats and a largish steering wheel, both seemingly designed more for comfort than speed. These traits establish the XC60 more as an all-weather, long-distance cruiser than a canyon carver.
The suspension does a decent job taming different types and conditions of tarmac. The ride shows a bit of roughness around the edges at times, more so with the more stiffly suspended R-Design models, but the unsprung weight of the all-wheel-drive system's mechanicals bears more of the responsibility for this than any design or structural deficiency. Travel on rough pavement produces some head toss, which is not uncommon in the class. Nonetheless, the Infiniti EX35 delivers a quieter ride than the XC60, and the BMW X3 and Acura RDX offer better steering feel.
The brakes on the XC60 work very well, resisting fade, consistently and confidently slowing it from high double-digit speeds for slow corners. Most of its optional lane departure and other proximity warning systems can be suppressed or turned off, squelching the associated irritating and distracting beeps and buzzes when the driver decides they're not needed.
The standard City Safety feature is intended to help avoid rear-ending the car ahead, or at least to minimize the damage. This system works at speeds 2-18 mph. Up to 9 mph, it can stop the car before it hits a car in front. From that speed up to 18 mph, it can reduce significantly the force of the impact. Tested at just under 9 mph in a parking lot, it worked, surprisingly sharply, jolting driver and front seat passenger smartly into abruptly snugged-up seatbelts. We were glad it worked.