Volvo is proud of its new mid-sized S60 saloon. Reserved Nordic types tend to avoid the hype that characterises much of the motor industry but words like "emotion", "passion" and "excitement" leap out of my notes of the presentations given at the S60's recent launch, which also tell me that it is variously "the most dynamic Volvo ever" or "Volvo's sportiest car ever".

So what does this apparent revolution mean in practice? Well, if you look at the pronounced shoulder line that has been an important element of all modern Volvo designs, you will see that on the S60 it curves slightly as it rises over the car's wheel arches, rather than being straight as it is on other representatives of the brand. And the centre console is daringly angled a few degrees away from the front-seat passenger in a faint echo of the driver-focused "cockpit" effect that some sporty manufacturers go for, rather than being mounted in line with the rest of the dashboard; I bet those egalitarian Swedes agonised for months over that one. Since I rather like Volvo's current look, this evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach suits me just fine.

But there's more to Volvo's claims of change than the S60's handsome, but still fairly conservative looks, suggest. That applies in particular to the driving experience; the new car is sharper and firmer than the Swedish manufacturer's previous products, although we are still talking about the safe, forgiving sort of behaviour that's typical of a good front-wheel drive set-up, rather than the distinctive brand of excitement offered by the rear-wheel drive chassis that sets BMW in particular apart from other brands attempting muscle in on the premium car market.

Happily for anyone thinking of buying an S60, these appealing qualities are probably most evident in the cheapest model in the initial line-up, the D3 diesel version fitted with a manual gearbox. This has a new, smaller two-litre version of Volvo's five-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine that produces enough power to give it the sort of performance that would almost have put this model in the super-car bracket twenty years ago.

The D3's generous 400 Newton metres of torque don't make themselves fully felt at very low engine speeds but this is more than made up for by a very free-revving – for a diesel – character, and an expensive sounding engine note that is much more appealing than that emitted by rival manufacturers' power units of similar size, which usually have only four cylinders.

The D3-powered S60 in the lowest ES trim level costs £23,295, and I suspect that this particular combination may continue to represent the sweet spot in the range in price/performance terms, even when the UK line-up is extended in a few months' time to include four-cylinder petrol-engined models. If you spend more money you can get a faster S60, but D5 badged versions with their larger 2.4 litre diesel aren't quite as sweet in character as the 2.0 litre D3, while the top-of-the range T6, with its 3.0 litre straight six petrol engine, has lots of go but costs a hefty £36,745.

The lighter D3 also feels more agile in normal use than models fitted with the heavier all-wheel drive system that comes as standard on the T6 and as an option on some other models offered in mainland Europe but not the UK. It may, though, be worth waiting for another model due to join the range a little later on - the economy-oriented DRIVe model, which will feature a smaller 1.6-litre diesel engine. This may not sound like an attractive prospect, but the concept already works well in the larger, but similarly-engined S80 DRIVe, which provides adequate performance with exceptional fuel economy.

If Volvo has succeeded in injecting some style and sportiness into the new S60, I suspect this car will still sell at least as much on the basis of two other S-words that have traditionally been associated with the company's products; substance and safety.

The substance lies in areas such as the car's ergonomics and the exceptional quality of its seating. The S60's dash and instrumentation look quite bare at first sight, and the interior in general still has that understated look that all Volvo cabins have, even if some of the detailing is slightly jazzier than it was in the past; it's only on longer acquaintance that one comes to appreciate quite how well it all works, and in particular how good the seats still feel after hours of occupation.

Volvo doesn't go on about safety these days as much as it used to but I have no doubt that the S60 would still be one of the best cars in the world in which to collide with a big tree or a concrete pillar.

On the other hand, the focus of Volvo's safety message has now shifted to emphasise active safety features – those designed to keep you out of trouble in the first place, rather than protect you when all else has failed and you are involved in a collision.

The S60 is bristling with standard and optional safety features designed, for example, to warn you of cars approaching in your door mirrors' blind spots, prevent you from running into the car in front while using the cruise control, or give you a wake-up call if you appear to be dozing off at the wheel.

The new S60 is a strong product, especially in D3 form. And for all the talk of emotion, excitement and all the rest, it's probably the traditional Volvo stuff, as much as the new emphasis on producing something sharp and sporty, that is responsible for that result.

Volvo S60 D3

Price: from £23,295

Top speed: 137 mph, 0-60 mph in 8.7 seconds

Fuel consumption: 53.3 mpg

CO2 emissions: 139 g/km

Rivals: Audi A4, Alfa Romeo 159, Saab 9-3

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