When Volvo introduced its new S60 saloon a few months ago, the message was clear; this was a completely new type of Volvo, sportier and more stylish than the staid Swedish motors of old, a car fit to compete head-to-head with German rivals such as the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Audi A4.
The S60 is certainly easily good enough to hold its own in that sort of company but I think it would probably be more accurate to think of it as a car that has the capacity to draw a broader, younger audience towards traditional Volvo strong points such as safety and practicality, rather than one that marks a fundamental shift of direction for the company – although it's no worse for that.
But now Volvo has introduced an estate version of the S60, the V60, and here the company's claims of far-reaching change have more force. There was never an estate version of the original S60 saloon, for example, so this is the first time that Volvo has offered a five-door car in this size bracket – at least if you ignore the XC60 SUV. More fundamentally, though, the V60 doesn't really follow the established Volvo template for estate cars at all. Its design emphasises sleek good looks over carrying capacity to such an extent that the company itself prefers to avoid the dreaded E-word altogether and instead calls it a "sportwagon", although that description isn't without its complications either - it's the badge Alfa applies to the five-door version of its 159, another competitor for the V60.
Volvo would probably be better off staying out of that particular etymological minefield and letting the car speak for itself; it certainly has plenty to say. A rising waistline and sportily sloping rear roof mean that the V60 has the smallest third rear side window of any Volvo estate in history. I thought that might make it feel dark or claustrophobic from the back seat, but that is not the case at all, so sensible old Volvo hasn't let form over-ride function completely. The overall effect is very impressive indeed.
On the road, the V60 feels pretty much identical to the S60 – for the avoidance of doubt, that's a good thing. It shares the same wide engine range as its saloon counterpart too. The quickest is the T6, which has a six-cylinder petrol engine but the best compromise between performance and economy is probably provided by the D3; its two-litre five-cylinder diesel engine is smooth, free-revving and refined.
Another interesting option is provided by a pair of small but powerful 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engines, not available at the S60's launch, badged T3 (150 horsepower) and T4 (180 horsepower). I tried the T4 in automatic form; if I hadn't known in advance, I'd never have guessed it had such a small capacity. Still to come; the 1.6 litre diesel DRIVe economy special. That may sound unpromising, but the same engine and fuel saving concept already work surprisingly well in the larger S80 saloon and V70 estate.
And the V70 is a reminder that Volvo hasn't given up on its established station wagons altogether. The traditional pre-V60 Volvo estates may be able to swallow a lot of luggage but they also carry a certain amount of baggage in the form of a slightly old-fashioned image, which I'm guessing the company, now moving into a new stage of its development under new Chinese ownership, might want to shake off. But that would probably be a mistake. I suspect the traditional Volvo estate still has far more positive than negative associations in the minds of many car buyers.
Volvo estate or Volvo sportwagon? Excellent as the V60 is, I hope the company keeps offering customers the choice.
Price: to be confirmed, about £1,000 to £1,500 more than equivalent S60 saloon
Top speed: 136 mph (D3 diesel manual)
0-60mph: 9.4 seconds (D3 diesel manual)
Consumption: 51 mpg (combined cycle)
CO2 emissions: 144 g/km
Also worth considering? Audi A4 Avant, BMW 3 Series Touring, Mercedes C Class estate