Mountain Wheels: First American-made Volvo models show stylish hybrid superpower |

Mountain Wheels: First American-made Volvo models show stylish hybrid superpower

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels

While foreign-made cars were a major scandal-du-jour earlier this year (I will forgive you if you've forgotten about that one already), red-blooded Americans who have always had a soft spot for contemporary and innovative Swedish design now have the best of both worlds.

Volvo recently began production of its third-generation S60 at a new plant in Charleston, South Carolina, a $1 billion investment that will eventually see nearly 3,900 employees building up to 150,000 vehicles per year — including the upcoming XC90, scheduled for a total makeover in 2021.

We gathered in Santa Monica this week to get a preview of a couple of the extensive range of S60 models, many of which will be in dealers later this year. We were also offered a short drive in the new V60 wagon, set to arrive early next year.

Slightly-smaller-than-mid-size sedans are a tough market nowadays with the general shift to SUV largesse, but Volvo recognizes their importance internationally, and has created a very modern and aggressively styled automobile aimed at competitors such as the Audi A4 and the BMW 3-Series.

In an effort to showcase not only its U.S.-built handiwork but the company's passionate intentions to electrify all of its vehicles in the next few years, our driving experience started with one of the most outrageous automobiles Volvo has ever produced.

In standard guise, the S60 will be offered with two different 2.0-liter gasoline engines: a turbocharged, 250-horsepower T5 model getting 36 MPG on the highway, and a supercharged and turbocharged 316-HP T6 engine rated at 32 highway MPG. These models will start at $35,800.

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The real news is the immediate appearance of the new T8, a plug-in hybrid powertrain which pairs a tuned-up 2.0-liter gas engine with an electric motor driving the rear wheels — driven by a compact battery which can provide about 21 miles of all-electric range. That combined setup provides an impressive 400 horsepower output, and up to 72 electronic MPG. Prices for the T8 begin at $54,400.

We, however, spent half the day in the S60's very impressive Polestar Engineered version of the T8, which further boosts the output to 415 HP and a screaming 494 lb.-ft. of electrified torque, and adds specialized dampers, gold-painted Brembo brakes and stiffening braces in the engine compartment. Both T8s are also all-wheel drive (the gasoline S60s can be ordered in either front-drive or all-wheel-drive formats).

All of that in an intensely taut sedan set on 20-inch wheels produces a pretty potent combination, with responsive handling and especially sharp looks — even gold seatbelts, because why not? It does indeed go like hell, too. Spoiler alert: They're not going to make a lot of them in this configuration, as has been the case with the bright blue Polestar special editions of the past, but the model's sheer existence reconfigures the long-ago idea of Volvos being boring, in any way.

A cruise along the Pacific Coast Highway in the slightly more normalized 316-HP S60, set up in the stylish R-Design trim, suggests that even the regular cars are a pleasant and progressive leap from the previous generation.

Honestly, yes, the S60 does look a bit like a new Honda Accord or a highly stylized Dodge Charger, especially from the front or sides, owing to its flattened hood and almost squared-off, rectangular face, and even more so in the blacked-out Polestar trim. But it's also certainly sexier than either of those vehicles, rounded and flowing and bookended with amazingly distinctive headlamps and tail lamps. The whole car is lower and longer than before.

Inside, S60s all get the 9-inch Sensus vertical touchscreen system seen in the company's newer models, with improved software and voice recognition that makes navigation infinitely easier.

A panoramic sunroof is standard on all models and if you want to go upscale, you can get ventilated Nappa leather seats with massage or a high-end Harmon/Kardon audio upgrade.

And the entire range of safety equipment found in models such as the XC60 and —XC40 also appears, including surprisingly active automatic lane mitigation and crash prevention, plus parking aids.

Meanwhile, for the automotive outliers who understand that wagons are way cooler than SUVs, the new V60 blends some just-right size and power into a package that allows non-ladder-assisted access to bikes, ski racks and other lifestyle gear. Just to be as Swedish as possible, you can also order one up with a hipster upholster called City Weave that looks like Herb Tarlek's outfits from "WKRP in Cincinnati."

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