The premise was simple: Volvo's new R-types would reveal everything the Swedish company knows about engineering and building cars.
Making good on that premise was anything but simple. Making that premise sell may be even harder. The R-types, available in S60 sedan and V70 wagon forms, are undoubtedly the most complex, technologically sophisticated, plushly appointed cars ever to issue from Gothenburg...but will that be enough? In these days of marvelous automobiles, especially in the near-luxury sports sector, will the Rs get the attention they deserve?
Volvo expended a lot of brain power and computer crunching on a car with an initial annual worldwide sales goal of 7,000 units, only 2,500 of them coming to North America, but the Rs were designed to show the buyers of Ms, AMGs and Ss that Volvo can devise its own successful sport-vehicle formula. The Rs also provide the "halo" effect Volvo needs to prove its mettle as a technical innovator and as a profit-taker in a lucrative segment of the market.
Volvo's hot-shoe engineers made sure the R-types were more than just "sport" versions of the S60 sedan and V70 station wagon, more than back-of-the-factory "tuner" specials. Have their efforts paid off? Has the promise been fulfilled? Based on a very short and mostly wet introduction to the cars in southern France, the answer is a resounding "yes." After short stints on a soggy racetrack and 50 miles of winding Provencal roads, the Rs showed themselves to be rewarding automobiles in a number of ways, including the most important--involving, stimulating driving.
The R-types' virtues are crowned by a unique blend of suspension and traction controls that sets the Volvos apart from other cars in their class. Gems in the crown include a 300-bhp twin-intercooled turbocharged five-cylinder engine with a broad and beefy torque curve; a newly developed short-throw six-speed manual gearbox (superb feel and precision!) or five-speed automatic transmission with Geartronic; speed-dependent power steering; big Brembo brakes, with four-piston calipers and ventilated rotors at each corner; and a roomy, impeccably furnished interior to be savored on long, pleasurably aimless drives or while cutting handsome paths through bends on a favorite winding road...or the track.
The three systems comprising Volvo's "active performance chassis" not only deliver the massive grip and cornering of a sports car, even in difficult conditions, it also can provide the cruising comfort of a family sedan. It's a marvelous technology, though not at the expense of driver interaction. High up on the dashboard, a three-button panel offers three levels of active chassis settings: Comfort, Sport, Advanced Sport. These give the driver control of shock damping rates, and the choice of varying ride quality and chassis control from cruise mode to track-only.
The core of the three-system chassis is awd, an electronically controlled hydraulic coupling, developed in conjunction with Haldex. It divides power front and rear for optimum traction and balance between understeer and oversteer. The system, which is also found in the S60 AWD and XC90 models, was modified for the enhanced performance of the R-models.
Second of the systems, and controlled by those three dash buttons is Four-C. Developed with Oehlins, it uses highly evolved electronically controlled shock absorbers to temper body movement in relation to the road surface. Adjustments take place 500 times per second, based on the input from a number of sensors, including longitudinal and lateral acceleration; yaw rates; roll, pitch and heave; vertical position of each wheel; speed of the car; steering wheel position and how fast the steering wheel is turned; engine torque, throttle pedal position and engine rpm; and degree of braking. Credit the digital multiplexing throughout for this sophisticated data collection and the subsequent flood of directives from the car's brains.
Third component of the active chassis is DSTC, which corrects the car's tendency to skid, first by braking one or more of the wheels and then, if needed, reducing engine torque to the wheels, individually and as required. TRACS, Volvo's anti-spin system that apportions power between the left and right wheels to maintain grip, is also part of the setup.
Active performance chassis' integrated, intelligent interaction provides suspension and body control constantly during all dynamic conditions: acceleration, straight-line driving, cornering and braking. Yet, despite the plethora of automatic responses, there's still opportunity for the driver to feel in control of the situation. (A detailed review of this active chassis would take many pages; get the full picture at www.europeancarweb.com.)
A sports sedan must, of course, deliver under the engine lid, and Volvo's five-cylinder turbo technology has never performed or sounded, better. There's still a bit of a rubbery feel to the power's hook-up, differing from the more "connected" feel from such cars as the M3 and new Audi S4 with V8 engine, but there's plenty of response when the go-pedal is mashed. There's also more than enough braking when required, the steering is without fault and the interior ergonomics are brilliant.
At the car's upcoming launch in North America this May, only manual-shifted Rs are being made available, underscoring Volvo's contention that these are unabashed driver's cars. Pricing hadn't been set by press time, but expect a very aggressive approach by Volvo, with fully equipped Rs in the high 40s.