Volvo is attempting to change its staid image

This is billed as the "naughty Volvo". Which means it's the second time in the space of a week that I have encountered Sweden's naughty side, having earlier seen – and been knocked somewhat sideways by – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at my local picture house.

Like lead character Lisbeth Salander, the S60 is clever at things technical and electronic. Unlike her, the Volvo's agenda is essentially benign. It even has an optional system, under the umbrella of the Driver Support Pack, which can recognise people-shapes and automatically brake itself to avoid hitting an errant pedestrian if the driver's mind is elsewhere. Up to 22mph there will be no contact with the roadgoing human, while above that speed the force of impact will at least be greatly reduced. I tried it with a dummy. It works.

Not very naughty so far, then. So, where's the subversion? It's in the way the S60 looks, which is sleeker and racier and more obviously designed to tempt than any Volvo before. Perhaps it's a step too far, and the lack of the bluff front and stolid squareness is unsettling, given the Volvo stereotypes many of us carry.

With its wheels pushed well out towards the edges of the body and its nose-down, tail-up stance, the S60 does look as though a good driving time is intended. It's creators claim it to be the sportiest, most dynamic Volvo ever, citing firmer suspension (springs, dampers, bushes, everything) and a faster and more precise steering response as evidence.

The typically-Volvo "floating" centre console is angled towards the driver to enhance this bonding of human and machine, and the whole interior exudes a chiselled functionality refreshingly calmer than the over-styled, over-blinged cabins of some BMWs and Audis. The electronic displays might not be paragons of graphic beauty but they are very easy to read, which is what matters.

So, how does history's sportiest Volvo feel to drive? Naughtily sporty? This depends partly on the engine you choose. Just the higher-end units are available at first, and the Volvo faithful will be sad to learn that a five-cylinder petrol engine, with its unique aural signature, is no longer one of them. Poor fuel-efficiency has killed it. A 3.0-litre straight-six remains, squeezed tightly across the S60's nose and sending its 304bhp through a six-speed automatic gearbox and all four wheels.

Five-cylinder engines are still offered in diesel guise, a 2.4-litre, 205bhp version called D5 and a 2.0-litre, 163bhp variation called D3. Later petrol-propelled arrivals will be two 1.6s of 150bhp (T3) and 180bhp (T4), plus a 2.0 with 240bhp (T5), all with four cylinders, and a 1.6-litre diesel with 115bhp will wear the Volvo low-CO2 DRIVe tag. Every single engine has a turbocharger, or two of them in the D5.

All these S60s – the range starts at £23,295 – feel firm on the road but seldom unyielding. They steer precisely and hold the road well, but there's little tactile interplay, little sense of balance and flow. The all-wheel-drive, optimistically-expensive T6 version should be the most fun, with its smooth, punchy and tuneful engine and the feeling that the powered rear wheels are helping to point the Volvo around the corner, but why does its slow-witted transmission not have manual paddle-shifters on the steering wheel?

At the other extreme, the D3 turbodiesel is quite smooth but suffers from a very tardy response from low speeds while you wait for the turbocharger to wake up. Despite a device to brake the inside front wheel if the nose starts to drift wide in a corner, this front-wheel-drive D3 still feels too nose-heavy and unresponsive. My favourite is the all-wheel-drive D5, its engine somewhat coarse in feel but punchy in response, its handling as good as the T6's, its automatic gearbox better matched to the engine, its CO2 figure as low as the D3's.

Sadly, an all-wheel-drive D5 will be denied to UK buyers, who will get front-drive only, but it can be had as a manual with much lower official CO2 output. I'd like to think that the interesting-looking S60 will tempt buyers away from too-obvious German rivals, but I doubt it will happen.

The Rivals

Alfa 159 2.4 JTDm: from £24,670.

Striking-looking 159 is nicely made and engaging to drive with punchy five-cylinder engine. Like Volvo, a refreshingly non-German offering.

BMW 325d: from £29,015.

Smooth six-cylinder diesel and delightful steering and handling make this the keen driver's choice. Usual BMW engineering depth, but it's expensive.

Mercedes C250 CDI: from £26,995.

Highly-efficient turbodiesel brings a class-leading CO2 rating and Volvo-matching power. Delightful to drive, remarkable value for a Mercedes.

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