This Volvo may be well rounded but it's no square deal

Remember when Volvos were square? Having never been in fashion, they could never fall out of it. They had, instead, a kind of haughty permanence. Now look at the bulbous new XC60.

It's the work of Steve Mattin, a British designer responsible for the original Mercedes-Benz A-class, the previous-model S-class and the first version of the current SL. He's proud of it. I ask him: "After designing an object of beauty [I lied a little here; I think the XC60 a touch overwrought, frankly], doesn't it break your heart to see one crashed?"

He replies: "It's not a problem, because they won't crash." It's a neat answer, one that ties in with Volvo's new piece technology: City Safety.

You now don't have to pay much attention when crawling through traffic, because the XC60 will stop you automatically when you come up behind another car or anything else with a reflective surface. You need to be travelling below 9mph to be sure of avoiding impact, and the stopping is necessarily quite violent, but it really does work. Low-speed shunts could be a thing of the past.

The XC60 uses a laser beam fired from below the interior mirror, and calculates what it might need to do 50 times a second. Maybe you like the idea of a car controlling you. Or maybe you think it encourages inattention. Whatever, City Safety allows lower insurance costs and that has to be a good thing.

For all its bold new look and talk of fusing coupé style with 4x4 ruggedness, the XC60 is a hard car to place in the Volvo range. You would think Volvo would have created a slightly smaller SUV and gained a more useful range spread. But you reckon without the vital US market, whose needs – pre-credit crunch, at least – dictate a size of SUV below which a carmaker is not taken seriously.

The XC60 isn't especially roomy, but with the back seats folded it's a good load-bearer and the decor is striking. The seats have contrasting colour sections and upstretched arms, and the usual Volvo "floating"' centre console is even more ethereally attached than usual. It's asymmetrically angled towards the driver and has a larger void behind it, useful for storage.

As for engines, there are three to begin with, all mounted across the nose: two five-cylinder, 2.4-litre turbodiesels of 163 or, for the D5 version, 185bhp, and 3.0-litre, 285bhp turbo straight-six fuelled with petrol. This last produces an official 284g/km of CO2 and comes solely with a six-speed automatic transmission, and it's hard to imagine it finding many buyers, especially as prices start at £31,995.

It propels the XC60 from 0-60mph in 7.1 seconds and it sounds smooth, but in practice it's ferociously thirsty. Better, then, to concentrate on a diesel version, of which just the more powerful D5 was available to test. It's a grumbly engine by modern standards, but once you're moving, the pleasing harmonic of a straight-five comes through. The D5 is reluctant to get going, though, especially in automatic guise, not least because this is not far off two tons of SUV. And for that obesity there is little excuse. There will, however, be a lighter, front-wheel-drive-only XC60 with a revised turbodiesel engine next year. That's all right, then.

The XC60 stays impressively level in corners for a tall, heavy vehicle. The price paid is a firm ride over bumps which gets quite unpleasant in the back seats.

Another price paid concerns a styling cost: the rising waistline makes it impossible to see what is coming should you be at an angled junction with a main road which slopes downhill. I'm underwhelmed by the Volvo XC60: it should be smaller and lighter. But then I'm not an American buyer.

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