Congratulations to Volvo for winning the 2003 european car Grand Prix. The S60 R is the most powerful, fastest production car ever from Gothenburg. But, our selection was based on more than the outright speed elicited by the 300-bhp turbocharged engine. The S60 R is a complete package, featuring a sophisticated suspension, muscular brakes, luxurious, fully appointed interior and a body beautiful that stands out from the crowd. When Volvo says the S60 R displays everything the company knows about building cars, it's no idle boast.
To determine european car's choice for our 2003 Grand Prix award to the year's most significant European-bred automobile, we gathered together a group of writers, art directors and even an advertising manager. They drove the competitors over a number of days, judging each car individually, not in comparison to the other cars. The criteria was simple: Which car shows the most significance in its specific market segment? Which car shakes the soul of the motoring enthusiast? Which car makes you want to hit the open road and drive just for the pleasure of driving?
As announced in the August issue of european car, the panel's choice to receive the 2003 Grand Prix was Volvo's S60 R, an exciting new variant of the Swedish firm's much admired S60 sedan. However, every one of the eight cars in contention provoked strong responses from our test panel, and though some were appreciated more than others, there were no losers among the eight strong contenders, which included the Saab 9-3 Vector, BMW Z4 3.0, VW New Beetle Convertible, Jaguar XJR, Porsche Boxster S, Mercedes-Benz E500, and Audi RS6.
The following are summaries of their opinions and evaluations.
Saab 9-3 Vector
A car that I really wanted to like; great new look, very stylish and unique. Unfortunately, in this crowd looks are not enough. Not my favorite handler, vague steering and gearshift feedback. I really enjoyed our longterm 9-5 wagon last year, and this sedan didnt live up to my expectations. If Saab is listening, I think they should let european car and our crack team of aftermarket operatives loose on this thing. I know this can be better.
Advertising Manager, european car
One thing was immediately clear upon driving the Saab 9-3: It is seriously outgunned by everything in this group except the New Beetle. That's fine, because it's also the most affordable, with the same exception. Like the Jag, it's a vast improvement on an aging predecessor. Once the butt of jokes, Saab's styling has benefitted from focused efforts led by Michael Mauer. Saab is to be commended, as the 9-3 has curb appeal to match much more expensive cars, if reactions are a gauge. "Nice car!" was a universal greeting. The interior is also modernized, its imperfections in fit and finish melting away with familiarity. The turbocharged, 2.0L Ecotec engine is torquey, responsive and respectably powerful. Saab's own Trionic engine management system does everything Audi's Bosch drive-by-wire does, but better, and the Garrett turbo is a better piece of hardware, and better matched to the engine, than the K03s and K04s used for the 1.8t. The two greatest faults of the old 9-3, torque steer and the shifter, are improved to average standards of the industry. The suspension, unfortunately, is soft enough that the Pirelli P Zero Rosso tires can easily find their limits. Volvos and Saabs share a certain sense of purpose: to transport families safely across great distances, under whatever conditions prevail, without undue effort. Saabs seem to do it with just a little more style, though, especially in this 9-3.
Technical Editor, european car
The interior is definitely European. Everything had a refined touch to it but was not overdone. I thought the instrument panel had a bit much to it at first...but then I quickly realized that there was a turbo under the hood, which explained some of the extra gauges I was not accustomed to seeing. The seats were "cush," and the leather felt appropriate for a car in that class.
Driving? Not impressed. Even coming from a low-torque car like the Honda S2000, I thought this car lacked oomph. Running through the gears, I quickly met the redline after every shift and was still waiting for the car to start scooting. The non-linear powerband of the turbo was quite apparent. I really didn't get a chance to to test the handling, I was too busy trying to exploit the power-to weight-ratio of the car.
Overall, I dont know exactly what class or market that car is supposed to sell in, but I don't think they hit the young art director's target market.
Art Director, Honda Tuning
After giving up most of the quirkiness associated with models from the OTHER Swedish automaker, the newly designed Saab 9-3 is still markedly stylish, yet in a more visually acceptable manner. More importantly, it performs like never before.
The new sport sedan is a true driver's car, responsive to commands with basic yet intuitive controls.
The Vector model tested features a number of sport-oriented features aimed to please, including an impressive 210-bhp turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, manual six-speed trans, sport-tuned suspension and standard 17-in. alloy wheels.
As the only front-drive sedan in the bunch, the Saab 9-3 was an easy target. However, unlike past models, which exhibited torque steer and other handling deficiencies, the new 9-3 performed beyond expectation. Likewise for its impressive mid-range acceleration.
With slippery aerodynamics, spacious interior and impressive performance, Saab engineers have produced their best-balanced package to date.
Senior Editor, VW Trends
From the first five minutes I drove this car in Sweden more than a year ago, it was obvious how much better it was than its predecessor. It might not have the character of some of its competitors in its segment, but it's one of the easiest cars to drive briskly on the market.
The gearshift feels more directly connected to the engine, fully exploiting the elasticity of the turbocharged engine. Saab's electronics help the four-cylinder feel bigger than its 2.0 liters, and there's no hint of harshness even at higher revs.
Perhaps the biggest improvement is in the handling. Where the previous 9-3 became a handful off the line from torque steer and suffered not a little bump steer over road bumps, this new model shows but a hint of its front-drive configuration, and only then when pushed by a full throttle. Turn-in is especially good for a front-driver, allowing the car to carve up a canyon road as well as some pursang sports cars.
A spacious, well-detailed interior has some nice touches, including the high-mounted information readout in the top center of the dash, and the various gauges are nicelytraditional, easily read analog units.
Where some cars make the driver work hard for optimum performance, the 9-3 delivers without compromising a pleasant driving experience. It's an extremely good first effort melding Saab traditions with General Motors/Opel parts sharing.
--Greg N. Brown
Editor, european car
BMW Z4 3.0
This car is a either a lightning rod or ugly stick depending on who you ask. Please keep in mind that I am a huge roadster fan, a huge inline six fan and a huge fan of the long-nose/short- tail school of car styling. The Z4 hits all of my hot buttons, and I will tell anybody who asks that this car rocks. Very nimble and extremely comfortable, the 3-liter six produces wonderful sounds and great power. I really enjoyed the six-speed box; its action is very tactile and precise. The chassis is taut yet compliant over the rough stuff. I couldn't stand to put the lined power top back up until late evening when my windburned face started to peel off.
BMW's second effort at an entry-level (for the marque) roadster is a vast improvement on the first. The six-speed is lighter in action than the M3's box. The rear suspension is the same one that makes the E46 chassis work so well, putting power down more effectively and with less tendency toward lift-throttle oversteer. The engine sounds so much like the smaller Boxster's (which is more sonorous than the larger one) that one must assume it was the target, which is fine with me. The heavy, cast 18-in. wheels and run-flat tires the test car was equipped with made it ride worse than, for example, Project Rally MINI, which rolls on 205/40-17 tires with sport suspension. I was surprised that such performance was accepted by BMW. While the Z3 definitely needed to be a little bigger (it always felt about 3% too small for me), the Z4 feels larger than it needs to be, and that bothers the efficiency-loving side of my brain. The chassis, while definitely stiffer than the Z3, flexes longitudinally as well as torsionally, whereas the other sports car's flex was only noticeable in torsion. I'm a chassis dork, though; odds are the average buyer won't notice. On smooth roads with fast sweepers, with both stages of traction control turned off, the Z4 is brilliant.
Interior: The boys from Stuttgart should take some design lessons from their Bavarian neighbors. Following in the footsteps of their flagship 7 Series, this roadster has elegance, sportiness and efficiency, all under the open sky. As an artsy fartsy guy myself, I appreciate BMW's clean lines and very functional placement of every instrument. I guess the only downside I'd say is that for small guys like myself it felt like I was sitting at a grand dinner table since the engine bay is so long.
Driving: Ah...flashbacks of my M3 started tingling in my stomach, or was that just because I was diving into corners and pulling out of them like I'd stolen the car. BMW has perfected the front-engine, rear-drive thing, and this car had great balance of performance, handling and comfort.
Overall: If the Boxster S is the best in its class, this car is just right behind it, if not next to it. And you know what? I'd still have some change left over to be able to say, "G'head honey, you can supersize that meal...it's on me."
By now, most of us have warmed up to the Z4's decidedly unique exterior styling. Its multi-directional architecture has even grown on me. In contrast, the Z3 now looks somewhat plain and outdated. Truth is, the Z4 is undeniably more masculine and less of a "chick car." The extra horsepower (225 bhp) found in the 3.0-liter is a welcome addition and a better match than the 2.5 for a roadster of this caliber.
The spacious-for-two-cabin is handsome and tastefully trimmed. Each design element complements another, providing a sporty yet sophisticated driving environment.
From smooth power delivery and equally silky shifting to just about the right amount of feedback from the wheel, the Z4 is a true driver's car and one hell of an open top roadster.
It's unfortunate that Chris Bangle's edgy styling has overwhelmed discussion of the Z4's delightful sportiness. I've thought it to be a strikingly good looking piece after I'd seen it in the flesh--certain angles of photos don't do its dimensional balance justice, tending to accentuate the cuts and curves of the bodywork.
For me, it's all in the driving, though. Compared to the Z3, this is a real sports roadster, not a more expensive Miata. It stays on the ground where the Z3 tended to skip over it, and the increased chassis rigidity makes the handling close to BMW's best.
The 3.0-liter would be my engine of choice, its higher torque necessary to complete cornering maneuvers with the elan associated with sporty machinery. As is the case with most manual BMWs, the clutch action is less than ideal, annd the shift throws could be shorter, but it's never a problem to find the right gear and heel and toeing is easy for those so inclined.
Because no one really needs a two-seat roadster, the positive qualities of such a car have to be readily observed and felt, and the Z4 does that very well. It's a huge step forward from the Z3.
--Greg N. Brown
VW New Beetle Convertible
Good looking car with a major lack of go: the proverbial (dull) knife brought to a gun fight. A car for the terminally fashionable. With a nice set of plus ones and a subtle body kit, this would be a handsome car. With the 2.0-liter motor it barely gets out of its own way. Strange interior layout made me feel like I was driving a motorized dining room table (somebody please pass me the keys to something else)!
Fans of aircooled Volkswagens were astonished when they drove their first New Beetle a few years ago. It looked like an old Beetle but was vastly better in every way. The same is true of the Cabrio: It captures the character, form and proportions of the old Beetle convertible but is vastly better in every way. Never mind that 60 hp in a 1600-lb old Beetle would provide the same power-to-weight ratio; this car is obviously not about going fast. It actually has something like suspension and tires, as well as modern safety engineering. If I had an 18-year-old daughter who wanted a convertible Beetle, I'd much rather her drive this than an old one.
Interior: If you were reading what I'd said about the Audi, nothing here should come as a surprise. Not a big fan of Volkswagen, let alone being in a Beetle. If someone had played a gag joke and put flowers in the cupholders, I'd kill myself...well, no, let's not go to extremes here. Oh, by the way, have you seen where my drafting table went? I think VW stole it and used it as the dash in the Beetle.
Driving: I had the great pleasure of trying to keep up with a pack of finely-tuned car of the year potentials in the New Beetle. It was not fun. I could tell the boys at VW weren't concerned about slalom, skidpad or 0 to 60 times when they built this car, but it can be cool and fun nonetheless. Just don't let your skirt get caught in the door when you close it.
Overall:, Once again, I don't think the target market for this car was to hit young, male art directors, but I guess if you're a little hottie that will be going to ASU, this is your ticket.
Of the three convertibles tested in the group, the New Beetle ragtop is in a class all its own. While far from the performance levels exhibited by either the Boxster S or the Z4, the New Beetle Convertible is not about going fast but rather going it alone in a way only Volkswagen can. Nothing comes close to the unique character of the NB convertible.
Although you wouldn't catch me driving this car (hey, a guy has to draw the line somewhere), I would consider it for my teenage daughter, who, by the way, adores it.
That said, the NB convertible is perfect with its familiar round styling, pleasing creature comforts and a convenient power top (manual folding on the GL). The car is also safe with standard driver/passenger airbag protection, as well as standard traction/antiskid control (on GLX).
Moreover, its four-cylinder 2.0-liter (115 bhp) is proven for great reliability and economy alike.
A car easy to criticize by the testosterone set, it's also easy to to be infatuated by its comeliness. It would make a great rental car for sunny climes and would be welcomed by most young women as a stylish way to get about town or campus.
Build qualityseems high, and the materials used throughout the cabin are premium, so it feels far from an entry-level convertible.
The 2.0 four, however, has done its duty for VW and should be relegated to Wolfsburg's museum. It's not a bad powerplant, but the competition surpassed it long ago, and even chicks like torque and passing power. This car deserved the 1.8t from the start.
--Greg N. Brown
By far the tightest, most screwed (glued and riveted, actually) together Jag I have ever had the pleasure of driving. Awesome power meets very good handling. Very rich and luxurious inside, tastefully understated outside. The J gate trans is still not a favorite, the dash layout is still puzzling and the long brake pedal travel is annoying. But the power! Huge supercharged power with mega-torque. The growl of the motor at half throttle is worth the price of admission.
My seat time in the XJR was brief, and I didn't find the brilliance that Editor Brown is so enthused about. Partly to blame was tire selection on this example; Michelin's Pilot Sport A/S is brilliant in the wet but doesn't offer the finely honed responses of maximum-performance tires in the dry. Perhaps even more frustrating was Jaguar's insistence on tradition in the form of the J-gate transmission control: Having always done it that way doesn't make it a good idea. Jaguar's supercharged V8 engine is as impressive in this car as it is in others. Hundreds of pounds were saved by making the unibody of aluminum, an impressive use of technology. Overall, it is a vast improvement on its predecessor, but it's still very much a Jaguar. Whether one considers the many distinct nuances that make it so to be character, foibles or faults must come down to a matter of personal taste.
Interior: While the boys were taking driving shots in the other cars, I got some R & R in the Jag. So my juvenile instincts got me to press every button there was. It's definitely refined with the wood trim and polished chrome, but for me it was a bit too much of a gentleman's car.
Driving: Like the Benzo, I didn't get to stand on these pedals too much. BUT...and this is a big BUT, I did get a chance to go for a cruise while Greg Brown himself got behind the wheel. My knuckles were white and my palms were sweaty after I got out of the car. Greg stood on the pedals through the corners and the car stuck...oh did it stick. I guess those 20-in. wheels are there for a reason, huh?
Overall: I might call this an old man's car...but pops would be the one laughing as he pulls away from me off the starting grid.
The XJR is not your typical luxury sedan. It is opulent and tailored in the British tradition, but "luxury-sports" sedan is a more apt description. Returning in its seventh generation, the new XJR is quite possibly Jag's best cat yet.
Docile when driven moderately, the XJR comes alive when prodded. Its 400-bhp, supercharged 4.0-liter V8 is a solid performer and makes the car's all-aluminum structure (40% leaner than before) feel even lighter. Acceleration is plentiful and its standard six-speed auto (J-gate) trans with overdrive is ideally situated for easy gear choice.
In terms of handling, this cat lands squarely on its feet with impressive road manners. Due to its advanced air suspension (which lowers the car by 15mm at 100 mph among other features), the XJR boasts improved directional stability and enhanced grip over all surfaces.
Snug within the large 20-in. wheels, which nicely fill the fenderwells, are massive Brembo brakes with excellent feel.
The car is decidedly larger than prior XJs, but this is good thing, providing plenty of comfort for up to five passengers. Golfers will also be happy to know the trunk is also more spacious than past XJs, easily accommodating four bags.
Although its luxury is exceedingly impressive inside and out, the XJR is all about the performance. With a 0 to 60-mph time of just over 6 sec., who can argue?
Okay, I'm an old man...well, maybe not old but certainly the oldest on the staff. And I've grown to appreciate the softer side of automotive performance over the years along with raw-edged power. But, so impressive is the XJR, it adds new vocabulary to the lexicon of luxury car performance.
Its advanced suspension, powerful engine, huge brakes and running gear and wonderful seats combine to make it one of the fastest, easiest to drive sports sedans ever built.
The aluminum structure makes it feel more nimble than most of its competition, yet when flying flat out it feels solidly linked to mother earth. It doesn't float or wallow when carving corners, it doesn't lag or loaf when the pedal is pushed hard, and it has no obvious compromises to luxury.
Jaguar was never on my list of must-haves (okay, an XK120 would fit well in my garage), and the recent X-type left a disagreeable aftertaste whenever I've driven it. However, I'd gladly own a new XJR, and even the XJ8 boasts most of the same goodness found in its faster brother.
--Greg N. Brown
Porsche Boxster S
Porsche's roadster has been a favorite for a long time. It's got lineage and family good looks to spare. You are already aware of my roadster fetish, even if the Porsche six isn't inline. What I really like about the Boxster is its dual nature. It can switch effortlessly from grocery getter to canyon carver at the drop of the throttle and twist of its thick, leather-wrapped wheel. This car is so civilized, it would be a perfect daily driver. Awesome six-speed tranny loves to visit all the gears in the box. My personal favorite is a long third gear wind-out where that beautiful intake honk and exhaust rasp blend into my kind of road music.
I'm no Porsche bigot: I think they cost way too much, I don't trust their engines not to spontaneously self-destruct, and it seems that if your Porsche needs anything more than an oil filter, brake pads or new tires, the parts will have to be shipped from Germany.
Ownership concerns aside, the Boxster S is my unequivocal choice of this group to drive for any distance with up to one other person, whether a few blocks for a cup of coffee or up the coast to Canada. It is the one car here that I get in and drive, and it does exactly what I want, exactly the way I want it to. I like cars I wear, and Porsches fit like the perfect everyday shoe: not loose and sloppy, not snug like a track shoe.
The Boxster S is not perfect; some torsional flexing over pavement roughness is noise interfering with the driving experience, but it's the best driver's car here. (That flex is eliminated by the 911's roof.) The engine sounds awesome; the steering is as close to perfect as it gets. The only reason I didn't lobby for the Boxster S to receive the Grand Prix is that there's not enough new. Facelifted front and rear bumpers, minor chassis tweeks, new wheels and significant revisions to engine management and body electronics to keep up with technology's rapid progress all add up to a significant revision. In the end, though, it's the same Porsche we know and love, back from a long vacation, fit and tan, better than ever.
(Small disclaimer: My friend owns a regular Boxster, and I've always sort of hated it cuz it is slow and overpriced, so I might sound a bit biased.)
Interior: Some people like the muscular look of the Boxster's interior. I dont. Give me form and function, not just a bunch of curvy lines and fancy design. The seats are snug but can help you slip a disc if you drive it for too long, and they're not that attractive to say the least. Othewise the tach is kinda cool in that it's analog but has a large digital speedo readout for the vision impaired.
Driving: Now this is how the standard Boxster should drive for the price you pay. To me the car has always had great balance and control, but the power-to-weight ratio in the base car sucks. It is much better in this car. I maintained a wide smile on my face while running up and down the gearbox through the twisties.
Overall: I'd say it's the best roadster in its class (man, that's gonna be hard to swallow, and my Honda mates won't be happy to hear that), BUT only if you live in a world where an extra 20-30 thousand is just loose change stuck in your Ferragamos.
There's something about the Boxster that I've always admired. Perhaps it's the shapely contours of its sweeping posterior. Unlike the turtle-back canopy of the 996 Cab, the Boxster's lower trunk line is decidedly more streamlined and, well, sexy.
It may be a bit pricey (compared to other roadsters), however the Boxster S is well worth its weight in greenbacks ($50,000). Significantly more potent than its predecessor, the S's 3.2 flat six offers up 260 bhp and 310 lb-ft of torque. That's a hefty amount more than the other tested roadster, the 3.0-liter Z4 (225 bhp, 214 lb-ft of torque).
The S flexed its muscle in a drag race against the Z4 and easily kept the car at its hindquarters. The exhaust note is harmonious and sweet, especially in deep throttle.
Its cabin may not be as snappy as the Z4, but various luxury appointments offer more style and panache than before. More importantly, it's a comfortable fit and everything is where it should be.
If giving the people what they want is Porsche's fundamental philosophy, they could not have responded better than with the new and improved Boxster S.
Why the Boxster S is considered by some to be less a Porsche than the 911 is curious, and wrong. Impeccable balance, a strong and responsive engine, slick top mechanism and two luggage compartments add up to one of my favorite cars ever.
Whenever I get the chance to drive a Boxster, I almost never put up the top, mainly to enjoy the concert of sound from the flat six. It's situated in just the right location for superior handling, which is so good that getting the car out of shape is impossible except for the very stupid.
I can never quite remember what the dash panel looks like in this car, I'm so busy enjoying the outside world that's let in by the dropped top. And it's so easy to drive it by the sound of the engine, the tach becomes superfluous.
--Greg N. Brown
Beautiful sedan, classy from the curb, even better behind the wheel. Great motor that speaks and pulls with hushed authority. I really liked the adjustable suspension settings and the fact that I could tighten things with the touch of a button. My previous Mercedes experiences have left me impressed with power and disappointed with chassis dynamics, but this car is definitely a step in the right direction compared to the previous E.
There was a consensus among several staffers that a cost-no-object, two-car garage filled from this group would contain the Boxster S and the E500. The perfect complement to the Porsche's intimate, involving driving experience, the E500 mates similar capability to capacity and ultra-refined luxury. I was fortunate to spend a few days commuting in the E500 after this test and found it to be everything it tried to be, flawlessly. The 302-bhp V8 sounds awesome and hauls the mail. I have a policy of hating automatics, but Mercedes' are the best-sorted of any. The E500's five-speed is so good I hardly ever notice it, making it hard to dislike. Unlike Jaguar's supercharged offerings, the Mercedes will allow a moment's freedom of expression in brake-torquing the rear tires and leaving stripes past a stop sign. The three-stage air suspension is well-sorted, with good damping for each level. I preferred the extra control of the medium setting for most driving, feeling the softest setting was too soft for my taste, but the stiffest was useful for back-road fun. Mercedes' electronic brakes are transparent 98% of the time; some minor incongruence is noted during light applications around town. The interior is superbly comfortable and luxurious, simply well-done and effective, rather than drawing attention to itself in any particular feature. The E500 makes a convincing case for best all-around car in the world; only its price holds it back. The additional performance of the E55 AMG, had it been available for this test, would have swayed my vote in spite of having to rob a bank to pay for it.
Interior: Well, you really can't go wrong in a Benzo, huh? It's plush and things are just as you would expect from a Mercedes. I like how this car company has been able to lower the average age of a Mercedes buyer by making its fleet a bit more sporty. I think the interior of this E-Class reflects some of that. Great balance of luxury and design.
Driving: Unfortunately, I didn't get to drive this car as if it were on rails...but I did get to kick it in the passenger side of this baller's ride. (I know I can't rhyme.) Once again, it felt like a Mercedes should. Heavy and quiet, but powerful.
Overall: Buy one. If the car doesn't knock your pants off, I'm sure the ladies that you will be picking up in it will.
Now this is a car. What can I say about MB's new E500 other than how can it get any better? Okay, E55, but for what it is, the E500 is outstanding at virtually every level.
The shapelier styling of the new E-Class will undoubtedly continue to grow its market share, especially within the younger, more affluent demographic.
Aside from the car's coveted safety standards, the new E-Class is a technical wonder. From its radar-managed adaptive accelerator (which maintains a set vehicle distance behind another), a Keyless system (which can unlock the doors and start the car by touching the door handle and gear selector) and an obstacle warning system (alerting the driver to surrounding objects) the car practically drives itself.
As if not enough savvy technology, the numerous buttons clustered on the console control the in-dash information management system, complete with voice operational phone, audio, nav, and more. These features are quite impressive, but you may need to wade through the owner's manual regarding operation more than once.
In lieu of its potent 5.0-liter V8 powerplant, good for 300bhp, the E500 is a blast to drive. Considering it weighs nearly 2 tons, the ride is exceptionally smooth and nimble. Equally smooth is its five-speed automatic trans, which provides quick and seamless shifts. Depending on the mood, the car also features a touch shift control for manual shifting.
At $65,000, this piece of fine German engineering does not come cheap. Regardless, I'm certain it will find its way off showroom floors with rapid, if not record, success.
The new E-Class is perhaps the most stylish and accomplished Mercedes-Benzes in many a year. The E is considered as the bread-and-butter model in the Benz family, and this newest versions has been made the object of Stuttgart's best efforts. It shows by being an inspiring banquet of delights that satisfy far more than mere bread and butter.
This version presents the best balance of power and luxury of all the Es, and though power mongers slaver over the E55, there's little reason for those wanting excellent performance to move up that high in the chain of command.
About the only element which seems a bit harsh in the otherwise seamless driving experience is the electronic brakes. They don't allow the modulation desired by accomplished drivers, even if they're a boon to insensitive feet.
It's hard to disagree with Barnes that the E500 may be the best all-around sports sedan in the world.
--Greg N. Brown
What a great idea: Stuff a huge twin-turbo V8 and all-wheel drive under the skin of an unsuspecting sedan. I expected great things from the terrifically expensive and rare RS6, and I wasn't let down. This car makes a sound at full throttle that can only be described as "aeronautical." It reminds me of a rotary 12 aircraft motor at full song. The paddle shift is cool as hell and makes me want to click it down and kick the throttle for no good reason. The power delivery and handling trick you into thinking this is a compact sedan; then you look behind and realize there is quite a bit more car back there.
One might argue that it's possible for a car to just be too much, but I think the RS6 requires a little more subtle approach. What can be gotten away with, from a vehicle-dynamics standpoint, with a lightweight four-cylinder isn't necessarily going to be brilliant with a twin-turbo V8, no matter how powerful that engine may be. Putting a longitudinal engine entirely ahead of the front differential works well for Subaru; its engine is two cylinders long, with the weight benefits of an all-aluminum, boxer layout. The A4 1.8T, with an iron-block, inline four-cylinder, is noticeably less nimble at its limits. The RS6, in comparison, seems to just want to go straight. With this much grip and this much power, you've got to actually be trying before you find that, but it's inescapably there.
The selection of an automatic holds back the RS6's sporting credentials as well; it doesn't offer the control of torque at the wheels that is needed to precisely place any chassis, but especially one as big and heavy as this. The brakes, despite their massive dimensions, made themselves known by their smell much of the day--one of the many prices of mass. The RS6' primary argument, and a forceful one indeed, is its engine, unmatched by any other of this group in thrust and beefiness of exhaust note. Paint and interior are to Audi's usual astonishingly high standards. The RS6 aims at maximum-velocity autobahn cruising rather than carving up mountain passes. Lacking the former and relishing the latter in California, the Audi is not my favorite.
Interior: I'm going to sound biased, so sue me. I've never liked Audi's interior design. It has always felt a little bit...no, more like quite a bit, like Volkswagen's interiors. The RS6 didn't change my opinion at all. Call me a hater, whatever...I just wasn't into it.
Driving: OK, forget about everything I just said about the inside--this thing scoots. And my lame-ass inexperience had the transmission in automatic drive for some time before I realized there were paddle shifters under the steering wheel. Needless to say, the car handled just about everything my novice driving could throw at it. To this day I still can't get over how the car sounds like an airplane when you stand on the pedal...crazy stuff.
Overall: Great fun, a bit too much testosterone, and for the money I think I'd settle for the M5 just cuz it's a Bimmer.
In the past year, only a handful of cars that I've tested have really made me sweat. I mean, really turned on the heat. These include AutoThority's notoriously quick twin-turbo 996, a mind-numbing Mercielago from By Design, and now to the list add the 450-bhp RS6.
The RS6 is a five-passenger sedan, yet it feels pumped up by serious steroids. How about 415 lb-ft of torque, a suave Tiptronic trans with rapid-fire shift paddles and leather-trimmed Audi Sport seats?
Aside from its 18-in. rolling stock and arched fenders, the RS6 is undeniably understated. Still, the car tantalizes the senses with brute acceleration, direct driver feedback and the thunderous growl of its exhaust note. With a 0 to 60-mph time of just 4.6 blistering sec., the RS6 offers a driving experience you (and your three closest friends) won't soon forget.
The RS6 provided the most violent levels of debate of any car in the field--which, perhaps, can be explained by the brute force of its twin V8 and exceptional grip of the quattro all-wheel drive. It demands attention as only the fastest cars do, yet its levels of luxury lull the driver into thinking the car is capable of overcoming lapses of judgment.
Audi long has been pressured into certain engineering solutions to its placement of inline engines far up front of the center of mass, which means that the inherent understeer of all-wheel drive is exacerbated by the heavy nose.
Still, this would be my choice for setting the sedan record at the Nuerburgring or for left-laning it all the way from Munich to Frankfurt. Its comfortable, quiet ride belies the monstrous engine, and you could drive a maiden aunt to church without her wanting to pray for deliverance.
--Greg N. Brown
Volvo S60 R
Sheer brilliance! Who would expect a "real" sports sedan from Volvo? This rig is a Swedish wolf in sheep's clothing. Very understated and stealthy from the outside, just a few styling cues let you know there is something different about this car. I really liked our S60 T5 long termer; this picks up where the the T5 left off and makes huge strides in the Enthusiast Driving arena. And it's packed with great technology that makes this car fun to drive hard, not just technology for the sake of marketing. Play with the adjustable suspension settings till you find your groove and then hit it hard. The acceleration is intoxicating. You just can't believe a Volvo can go like this. Huge power, great transmission that begs to be shifted, plus you can take the wife and kids (quickly & responsibly) to the in-laws in safety and comfort.
I am trying to talk the wife into the V70 R wagon as we speak!
--Rob Mullner The S60 R's greatest strength is its engine, without question. It is superb at lower elevations and in cooler weather, pressing the driver back in the seat from low speeds. In spite of their generous dimensions, the Volvo's brakes can overheat when driven hard in the mountains, leading to a pulsing pedal. The six-speed manual is slicker than the S60 T5's five-speed. The automatic is for posers, as the engine's torque is electronically limited to 242 lb-ft rather than 277 lb-ft as with the manual.
Disabling DSTC requires hitting the button five times in succession. "This ensures that the DSTC function is not disabled by mistake." For someone who automatically turns it off every time he gets in the car, this becomes immensely annoying.
Furthermore, the owner's manual makes no mention of the possibility of disabling DSTC at all, leading to the possibility of a determined owner arriving at a bizarre ritual.
The active chassis with three stiffness settings and continuously variable, electronically controlled damping is an impressive technological innovation. I found the Comfort setting to lack motion control, making it less comfortable than the Sport setting. The Advanced Sport setting was quite stiff and felt underdamped, meaning the Sport setting provided more control on all but the smoothest roads. Advanced Sport did, however, seem to change the basic balance of the chassis toward tail-out corner exits. Some drivers labeled the steering with the "video-game feel" tag. I concur. The Volvo's HID headlights are technologically interesting, but in practice I'd like to see more of the road at night than they allow.
I mightn't personally head to my friendly local Swede if I had $38,000 to spend, but I lobbied for the Volvo to receive the Grand Prix award over the other candidates in this group because it offers tremendous value. While the frugal family riding around in an ancient 240 wagon is easy enough to imagine, the S60 R offers the E500's space and pace for half the money.
Interior: Pretty much the same as the Saab. Definitely not something to call home to mom about. I kind of liked the digital look of the instrument cluster. The blue and brushed metal look was a refreshing touch as well.
Driving: Yahoo! I liked it. At times while following the caravan of cars, I would slow down to give myself some space from the car in front. Then I would downshift and step on it! Great response and the engine felt like it could pull...which it did. I'd have to say it felt a bit like my E36 M3, but I'm sure others will beg to differ.
Overall, for the price tag I think it was right that the S60 R won ec's Grand Prix award.
Finally, a production Swede that doesn't take a back seat to German rocketship engineering. Make no mistake, this is not your parent's Volvo. Far from it. In fact, it's not the Volvo many of us thought we'd ever see, or drive. When thinking of Volvo, safety, traditional boxy styling and conservative performance typically come to mind. While Volvo made sure the S60 R retained every bit of the company's well-earned reputation for safety, squared-off fenders and run-of-the-mill performance have taken a back seat to soft, flowing exterior panels, a comfortable and sporty cabin, impressive handling and kick-ass acceleration--the kind that plants you firmly in the seat with both hands gripped tightly at ten and two.
With 300 bhp, standard all-wheel drive and six-speed gearbox, the S60R is a kick in the pants to drive and by far the most fun I've ever had behind the wheel of a Volvo.
Although the S60 R will be produced in limited numbers, its production output for 2003 will far exceed other serious performers such as Audi's RS6. Considering the princely $84,000 asking price for the RS6, the less shocking $36,000 msrp for the S60 R not only provides an incredible value, but its sedan and wagon versions open up the option of his and her models.
It was surprising, given the quality of the competition, how quickly the panel agreed on the S60 R as a deserving winner of the 2003 european car Grand Prix--though the speed of the decision did not reflect how difficult it was to find a champion among all these winners.
Would the Volvo have prevailed had its price been over $45,000? Certainly the cost had something to do with the impression it made on the panel of drivers, but window stickers were not a significant aspect of the judging criteria. The Volvo won because it riled up our driving instincts and made us want to search out the nearest twisty road.
I'm not sure how Volvo managed to integrate so much good stuff in a car selling for under forty grand, but I am sure about the effects of driving the S60 R. Along with most of the drivers, my first impression of the S60 R--months earlier at the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track in southern France--provoked a loud "wow" of astonishment that the conservative Swedish car maker pulled off such a stunt.
Undoubtedly there were those within Volvo management who cringed when they were presented with the car's initial engineering brief, and whose grudging sign-offs were accompanied by nervous, sweaty palms. You can envision the old-school executives repeating the Volvo safety mantra and insisting that building a no-holds-barred performance car violates the "brand image." But, it's a new world in the 21st century, and to thrive--maybe even to survive--Volvo had to broaden its appeal, as it has already done with the XC90 sport utility vehicle.
Fortunately for the kind of drivers who read european car, there is a group of driving enthusiasts within the organization which pushed for a range of cars that would demonstrate all that Volvo knew how to do, in a way that would capture the interest of the marketplace from an entirely new direction.
Which direction became apparent at Paul Ricard on a wet, cold afternoon.
Fast laps in the extremely soggy conditions could have been perilous, or just plain slow, but the generous runoff of the specially designed test facility encouraged full exploration of the sedan's capabilities. After a very short time flogging the car around the circuit, the R badge on the new sports sedan came to mean something excitingly tangible. It would, I thought at the time, forever change the way car buyers view the Swedish marque in the same way that M flavors BMW's offerings and AMG augments the Mercedes star.
For all its interesting and innovative technology, the S60 R is still clearly a Volvo, the thrilling performance tempered by considerations of passenger safety and rational ergonomics. The interior is spacious; the dash panel is devoid of gimimcks yet is full of stylish touches; the seats are wonderfully supportive and comfortable; and the materials and fit and finish are decidedly upscale.
The core of the S60 R's dynamic safety is what Volvo calls Four-C (Continuous Controlled Chassis Concept) Technology. The essential elements include an active performance chassis with three settings: Comfort, Sport and Advanced Sport; adjustable shock absorbers; electronically controlled all-wheel drive; and big, Brembo brakes.
The tangible differences between the three settings make the car as suited for grocery hauling as it is for weekend romps on the local track. (Imagine how much fun it would be to blow off your fellow hotshoes in a Volvo!)
However sporty the transformation, though, or whatever the weather conditions, the S60 R retains an amazing dynamic equilibrium, in great part thanks to the sophisticated all-wheel-drive system. This was illustrated both on the twisting roads of Provence and on a very wet test track. No matter how hard I pushed the car, it stuck as though the pavement were just a bit moist. And in the dry, it handled as well as some pursang sports cars, turning in to the apex with precision, and powering out of the corner with no wobble or wiggle.
Much of the technology, and its effects, are transparent, working in the background while the driver works the car as hard as he wants. It's another thing entirely with the powerplant. The 300-bhp 2.5-liter five-cylinder mill reaches its power peak at 5000 rpm, and quickly, but more impressive is the 295 lb-ft (400 Nm) of torque, available in a deliciously muscular band from 1950 to 5250 rpm. When matched to the newly developed standard six-speed gearbox, the S60 R can jet from 0 to 62 mph in 5.7 sec. With the optional Geartronic electronically adaptive five-speed automatic, the driver can just sit back and let the transmission do the work, or he can choose the manual setting for sportier shifts.
The S60 R went on sale in May for a base price of just over $38,000. The companion V70 R station wagon delivers all the neat stuff found in the S60 R plus a high degree of utility. In keeping with past custom, Volvo has painted the first R models in special colors, Flash Green and Titanium Gray. Subsequent colors include Black Metallic, Silver Metallic, Cosmos Blue Metallic and Passion Red Solid. The sport seat upholstery is available in Dark Blue, Gold Beige or Natural Leather, all with unique stitching. The remainder of the interior is off-black, except for the door inserts, which are coordinated with the seats.
Even if Volvo has never figured on your list of "must haves," the R models definitely should be on your list of "might haves." Drive one, and it's likely the might will turn into a must.
--Greg N. Brown
Eight Great Contenders for Car of the Year
Porsche Boxster S
BMW Z4 Roadster
New Beetle Convertible
Volvo S60 R
2003 european car Grand Prix Winner
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