Volvo S60 R and Volvo V70 R

Test venue: Prodrive proving ground, Gaydon

Back in the mid-nineties, the Volvo T5 and 850 R range of performance road cars transformed Volvo's rather staid reputation from a manufacturer of well-built and reliable mid-range cars into a serious player in the performance market. The Swedish concern's latest offerings have further enhanced that reputation.

Back in 1996 I remember relishing the delivery of Volvo's high-performance 850 R model for a week's road test. Since then the company has excelled in Touring Car racing and has become a serious rival to Mercedes, BMW and Audi as a manufacturer of quality executive road cars.

Recent additions to the range are the S60 R and V70 R models, which went on sale in the UK this summer and were available for test by members of the British motoring media at Prodrive's test track facility, near Gaydon, recently. They are the most technologically-advanced cars ever built by Volvo.

R models are serious rivals to both the Mercedes C32 AMG and BMW M3 in terms of performance and price. The S60 R is priced between 34,150 and 35,400 depending upon whether you opt for the potent six-speed manual transmission or the more expensive five-speed Geartronic.

You will pay 37,665 for the V70 R manual - fitted as standard - and 38,915 for the Geartronic version. BMW's M3 will set you back around 39,730 and the Mercedes a whopping 44,445 in saloon form.

Both models are fitted with a 300 bhp, 2.5-litre turbocharged, five-cylinder engine, which delivers a massive 400 Nm of torque from below 2000 rpm. The R models reach the legal speed limit in under six seconds, are restricted to a top speed of 155 mph and benefit from a quicker steering rack and revolutionary 'Four-C' chassis technology. And it is this technology - developed in conjunction with Ohlins Racing - which has transformed R models into superb handling road cars.

The advanced electronics of Volvo's unique 'Four-C' (Continuously Controlled Chassis Concept) enables the driver to benefit from the ultimate in handling and performance characteristics. The car's speed, wheel movement and steering are monitored via Multiplex control systems that can adjust damper settings up to 500 times per second and maintain the optimum traction control for maximum road-holding.

In layman's terms, the system basically reacts to the road environment, the speed and the grip to give the driver the maximum performance from the car. It also works in conjunction with the braking system. Four-piston aluminium Brembo brakes are fitted to R models and additional braking power is distributed to the rear wheels to reduce front end dive through the 'Four-C' system. It would be very difficult to lose control of this car in any situation.

But the system also offers 'performance on demand' features via three dashboard buttons, which enable the driver to select 'comfort', 'sport' or 'advanced sport' modes. 'Comfort' reduces body roll by softening and stiffening individual dampers and both 'Sport' modes offer a much firmer ride.

R models are also equipped with speed-dependent power steering, Volvo's traction control system, two intercoolers and All-Wheel Drive, although the AWD system is disengaged when the ignition is switched off for ease of towing.

Both Volvos are available with plush leather interior, 17 or 18-inch alloy wheels, a lower front grille and spoiler, revised foglights, bi-xenon lamps, larger intakes for the two intercoolers and a new rear spoiler.

The latter is quite discreet, but according to Peter Horbury, the Vice President and Chief Designer at Volvo, it reduces rear lifting forces by as much as 20%. The restyled front end improves aerodynamics and engine cooling. R models feature a dark grey instrument panel as standard, dark grey fixed interior trim and optional leather colouring for seats and added trim.

The roomy V70 estate version offers all the benefits of the sporty S60, in addition to a massive rear storage area, load anchoring eyelets, a load restraint net, a tonneau cover and a low loading sill. Both models are fitted with spilt rear seats and fold-down passenger seat.

Running in unison with the launch of the R range, Volvo is also introducing a new 'Volvo on Call' service, which enables a driver to push a button the dashboard and be in contact with the emergency services or Volvo Assistance within seconds.

The car will automatically call 999 if an airbag is deployed, with the exact location given to the emergency services and if you've locked your keys in the car, don't panic; you will be able to contact 'Volvo on Call' and have the car unlocked remotely! This will form the new Communications pack option later this year and will be priced at around 2,650.

Gone are the days when the local vet or GP might potter around the country lanes in his ageing Volvo estate. The Swedish company's latest offerings are a pair of the most advanced cars on the market today and are both absolutely exhilarating to drive.

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