Think of a car which offers the break horse power of a hot hatch, the luxury of a Mercedes-Benz, the build quality of a tank, with the miles per gallon of a half decent hybrid, all at the price of a second hand supermini. There’s probably not many cars that come to mind. In fact, you might even be thinking that this car of fiction doesn’t exist. In that case, you’d be wrong.
Designed at the turn of the millennia, the first generation of Volvo S60 (otherwise known as the P2 – referring to the platform it shared with the V70 and other Volvos of that generation) is at it’s lowest ever price right now. A five cylinder diesel with a frisky five speed manual gearbox, nearly 400nm of torque and just shy of 200bhp can be picked up for as low as £2000 in decent condition. This already sounds great, even before you factor in the 55mpg ballpark it’ll achieve out of the city if you avoid heavy footed driving. It’s well equipped too, even my bottom trim level SE features the likes of cruise control, 2 removable front cup holders, with another one fixed on the dash next to the radio and 2 rear ones hidden in the storage compartment, heated front seats designed by orthopaedic surgeons, rain sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rear view mirror, unrivalled safety innovations for a car of this age thanks to Volvo’s obsession with collecting data from real world crashes, a fabulous Dolby Pro Logic surround sound system with a 6 disk CD changer and leather. With other higher spec ones having satnav (that I understand doubles as a TV), an extra two cup holders in the back, and an in car phone – which unfortunately does requires the sacrifice of the dash mounted cup holder.
Keep in mind too that if any of this kit goes wrong, even after any repair expenses are covered you’ll still have what has to be ultimate bargain thanks to the decline in diesel’s current popularity. Speaking of which, it’s a well known fact that diesel engines are incredibly versatile. And is any Volvo too, with their reputation for reliability. Which means owning a Volvo diesel is pretty much like owning Thor’s hammer. This is why many of these cars will have upwards of two hundred thousand miles on them, yet still have more miles left to give than any brand new Vauxhall or Ford you’ll find on a dealer’s floor (proof of this is in how large Volvo 500,000+ mile owner clubs are). So much so that in the hunt to purchase mine, many of the examples I found of it, and the V70 which is almost exactly the same car had upwards of a quarter of a million miles on them – in fact it’s actually quite rare now to see a diesel P2 with under 180,000 miles on the clock.
Despite the fact that this is indeed a diesel, the driving experience is surprisingly fruity. Lean on the throttle a bit and you start to hear what sounds a bit like a scaled down petrol V10. Although do this from a low speed and you’ll be hit by a barrage of wheel spin. Weather or not that’s a good thing is purely subjective. Keeping to the incredible sound it makes though, on the right road, paired with the turbo whistle which sounds like an eerie wind moving through the Scandinavian forests where this car was conceived, you feel as if you’re in a totally different vehicle to the mellow luxury cruiser it was in traffic. With the heavy clutch and seat bolstering providing a meaty feel to the driving experience without feeling as if it’s trying too hard at the same time.
Mine is riding on new Bilstein suspension, the old original suspension was extremely worn out unso gave a harsh ride with not much if any feeling of the steering wheel being connected to the road. However the new components have made a world of difference – and now the steering has a good weight to it which provides tones of feel. And the ride is firm but isn’t bone shudderingly hard. If anything it feels like a proper new sports car from a driver’s perspective in that respect. And I don’t say that lightly. If anything the unibody chassis and massively thick strut brace that comes as standard contributes to this feeling of sports-car-like stiffness when cornering hugely. Leaving the driver feeling perfectly confident chucking the car into even the most challenging of bends – out running unsuspecting boy racers in the process. Even if it is a very understeery car when pushed hard.
With decent sized ventilated disk breaks all round, good linear pedal travel, and lots of feel, there’s definitely no complaints to be made about breaking. With them and the ABS saving me from colliding with numerous careless road users over the last few months. On the other hand while that sportiness and heavy clutch is great in more vigorous driving, once you’re done playing and back in traffic, it isn’t so great. After spending twenty minutes or so in a stop-start jam you’ll start to notice pain in your knee. And if jams are a regular occurrence in your life, you’d best get the automatic as the manual will just be more hassle than it’s worth. On top of that, there’s the short gearing that most pre-2006 cars had in the form of a 5-speed gearbox, which becomes problematic when getting to higher speeds as the car maxes out at 130mph. I really believe that if these cars all had a six speed gearboxes, then at higher speeds it’d benefit from more efficient fuel economy and a much higher top speed… With the fuel economy of course being the more relevant reason. Another complaint can be made at the turning circle too. This car’s inline five cylinder engine, gearbox, and angle gear is mounted transversely right between the front wheels. Now, this is a smart design solution to maximise crumple-zones at the front of the car, while still providing a lot of leg room in the front of the cabin… But with this much of the drivetrain in such a place you tend to find that the turning circle becomes worse than that of most planets. So much so, that I genuinely saw a coach do a U-turn in two thirds of the distance that this car was able to do one, on the same road, on full right lock.
Which all together means that if you’re looking for a car to do city driving in, then this definitely isn’t the one for you. But if you’re looking for a cost effective and well built car that could carry up to four people in total comfort and speed effortlessly on a regular basis, I’d definitely suggest looking at a first generation Volvo S60 as it’s genuinely a fantastic car that for me, as my first car it has set the bar so high that every other car I’ve driven since buying it has seemed absolutely useless and slow in comparison.
By James Harrison