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Volvo making safety sexy

IT was only for a second. Having just picked up the new Volvo S60, I was fiddling with the unfamiliar radio controls and I took my eyes off the road as I exited the Stanley Park causeway and began ascending the incline to the Lions Gate Bridge.

IT was only for a second.

Having just picked up the new Volvo S60, I was fiddling with the unfamiliar radio controls and I took my eyes off the road as I exited the Stanley Park causeway and began ascending the incline to the Lions Gate Bridge. But only for a moment.

Who can say why the vehicle in front of me chose that moment to stop dead in the middle of traffic? Perhaps they got the pedals mixed up. Perhaps they decided to mentally rehearse the conclusion flourish of the ballroom-dancing course they'd been taking over the weekend with a great big stomp on the brakes. Perhaps somebody had slowed suddenly ten cars up the line and the effect magnified its way all through the line of cars until it reached the vehicle in front of me. Which, as I said, stopped dead in front of me in the middle of Lions Gate Bridge.

Well, we all know how this story ends. I look up at the last minute, jam on the brakes too late, and nudge the offending

car's rear bumper at no more than 5 klicks per hour, thus causing two nicks in the paint from the licence-plate screws that will somehow result in a four trillion dollar bill from ICBC unless I want to see my premiums shoot up. I will be found at fault (because I AM at fault for taking my eyes off the road) and will bear the full brunt of the payment which will need to be borne by my children and my children's children, yea, even unto the 20th generation.

Not only that, but traffic on the bridge will also crawl to a standstill as insurance and phone numbers are exchanged, meaning that everybody will be late home, moms and dads will miss dinner with the kids, marriage anniversaries will be missed, somebody who just bought a sockeye salmon at the Granville Island market will now have twelve pounds of rotting carcass in the back seat: in short, dear readers, an unmitigated disaster, and all my fault.

Except it didn't happen.

What did happen is that the Volvo S60 "saw" the car in front of me lock up the binders and yelled, "BWWWWAAAAARRRRGHHHH!!! Car stopped! Car stopped! Look Out!" The heads-up display went bright red as the closing speed suddenly shot up and an urgent warning tone came over the stereo. I looked up, stabbed for the slow pedal, and stopped in time.

Clearly then, Volvo's system works. I consider myself to be a safe and conscientious driver (I'm not sure what facts I base this conclusion on), but when a split-second's inattention can put you in harm's way, it's nice to know that your car can fill the gap for you. If you have a Volvo, it can. If you have a giant truck, like the guy behind me that day, you just have to have been paying proper attention, and thank goodness he was or I would have been crushed like an ant.

Volvo's reputation for, and obsession with, safety has been there for decades. Back in the 1970s and '80s, most couples that found themselves with a suddenly positive pregnancy test hurried out and traded the MGB for a boxy sedan that looked like it had been designed by a guy who only had a straight-edge. My parents had one. So did my in-laws.

The Volvo symbol, with that easily-recognizable slashed grille, literally means "rolling strength"; in many ways, the brand has come to be forever associated with excellent crash-test durability and a near-indestructible nature. Volvo cemented this reputation by selling the 240-series sedan and coupe for nearly two decades. The 240 was tough, dependable, and you could ram a super-duty pickup with one and emerge relatively unscathed. Not that I'm advocating a damn-thetorpedoes approach.

But Volvo had another reputation as the preferred chariot of liberal-leaning eggheads. Spotting a Volvo without a bumper sticker on the back was like spotting a VW bus without a patch of oil underneath it: borderline impossible.

But that was more in the U.S.; in Canada, the Swedish-built brick proved itself as a winter warrior that took to New World Nordic conditions like Leif Eriksson took to Newfoundland. What's more, turbocharged versions like the 740 intercooled wagon got sideways as though drifting and rallying were in their bloodline. Which they were.

I know a family in Point Grey that's had nothing but Volvos since the 122 Amazon, which reportedly had a clutch pedal that was heavier than trying to stomp in a railway spike. They've had wagons and sedans, stick-shifts and automatics, four-wheel, front-wheel, and rear-wheel drive. Why do they keep buying Volvos?

Well, their just-married kids had an accident recently in the borrowed S50 sedan. It wasn't their fault, but it was a big one: the car was totalled. Upon being told of the crash, I anxiously inquired after the well-being of the offspring and was looked at as though I had grown a turnip for a head. Of course they were fine: they were in a Volvo.

There's more to it than that though: in that family's fleet are an ultra-capable and stylish allwheel-drive V50 wagon and a dead-sexy V70R: a rare, six-speed, turbocharged M3-fighter than can still fit a pair of Labrador retrievers in the back.

Both cars have clever, luxurious interiors, and both are a real pleasure to drive. Admittedly, the V70R is not a BMW in terms of absolute handling, but then, it's not a BMW in terms of the way it rides either. It's a very special car, and unique to drive.

So with the S60 that I've been lent for the week: it's a base, front-wheel drive version with the smaller engine, but the seats are as orange as if somebody had shot George Hamilton and used him for upholstery, and the turbocharged mill pulls as strongly as the hot-hatch Mazdaspeed3 I just returned. There's a metric-tonne of the safety gizmos that saved me from having an at-fault collision, but it's also quite spirited to drive.

Saab is dead. The corpse still twitches, but let's face it: the company that was "born from jets" crashed and burned when GM was at the helm. Volvo though? Well, the other Swedish niche manufacturer is never going to wrest the mass-market away from Mercedes or BMW, but it's a healthy brand building interesting cars that are packed with technology and design and are interesting to drive.

Best yet, the upcoming 2012 models are going to see a little more Swedish meatball in the new "R-Design" series which are set up for backroad blasts through snow and birches. Safety, Swedish design and a little extra hot sauce? Sign me up.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@ Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.