Performance

Crafting the perfect drive

Balance. Poise. Control. These are the key elements of the N431, a car that highlights Volvo Cars’ unique take on driving. We visit a secret test track in Sweden to find out more.

BY IAN DICKSON

“There are three areas to get right if you want to achieve the perfect drive, says Kenneth Ekstrom, attribute leader for ride, handling & steering of the S60 – “steering, handling and ride comfort.” It is these three elements, working together, that give the S60 what Kenneth calls a “connected feeling”.

“We’ve always been focused on giving a car presence,” Kenneth says on our visit to Volvo Cars’ test track, where he’s driving a top-secret prototype ‘mule’  of the S60. “It should feel alive. It should feel connected. It should feel crisp and incisive. That’s very important.”

“You should feel the connection through the steering wheel, through the seat, through the pedals. You should feel some road texture, so you aren’t too isolated, but not so much that the car becomes tiring. When you turn, it should feel like the car is turning with you, instinctively, at that precise moment.”

As Kenneth talks, he’s driving the S60 around one of the myriad roads at this test facility, a place that mimics real-world driving conditions. Whatever the speed, the car always feels perfectly composed. This S60 prototype is his four-wheeled office, a place where he is entirely comfortable and in control.

His passion for cars and driving runs a lot deeper than his work at Volvo Cars. When he’s not developing the driving characteristics of the new S60, Kenneth is a keen, and successful, amateur racing driver, competing at events all over Sweden. In his job for Volvo Cars, he leads a team of fellow driving enthusiasts – each one an individual, but all with an attention to detail. They know how they want the car to feel and, crucially, how to achieve it.

"I love that our work as development engineers means we get to influence so many aspects of the car,” enthuses Kenneth. “From the suspension to the way the steering feels, we get to set the attitude of the car. And in the S60 we’ve created a car that you can really enjoy driving, but which is also easy to drive.”

Kenneth and his team’s pursuit of perfection takes them all over the world. First they start at the driving simulator at Volvo Cars’ R&D lab, using the same system that’s used by Ferrari and Porsche to hone the dynamics of their cars, before real-world testing on roads in Sweden – and beyond – where they test the car on a range of surfaces in a variety of conditions. It is because of this intensive testing programme that they can predict how the car will react in every condition. This is the key to achieving a “connected feeling”. Because ultimately – despite the physics, engineering and testing that goes into creating the perfect set-up – driving all comes down to the feeling.

“You should feel at one with the car,” is how Kenneth describes it. “It should be intuitive, engaging and predictable. When we create a car that’s intuitive, poised and well balanced in all situations, it becomes naturally more enjoyable to drive.”

And that comes back to the harmony between steering, ride and handling – and Volvo Cars’ unique take on the driving experience, where the car is neither too stiff nor too soft, too fidgety nor too detached. A car that flows naturally and which is always composed, always exciting, never tiring.

“Engineering is about finding the best compromise, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” adds Kenneth.

“You know quite quickly what kind of car this is and that’s important because the car is predictable,” says Kenneth’s colleague and chassis engineer Eric Olsson. Eric spends months driving the prototype car, continually tweaking, adjusting, recalculating. “By doing so we know how the car is going to react in different situations, so that when you’re driving, you feel totally in control in all situations, even if you haven’t experienced them,” says Eric.

“It is this confident feeling of being in control, but with a dynamic edge, that makes the S60 so enjoyable to drive,” adds Eric. “It is what marks it out as a unique driving experience compared with other cars in this class.”

Kenneth adds with a confident smile: “I think this is one of the most fun-to-drive Volvo cars that’s ever been created.”