Häckeberga Castle, Sweden — Volvo is a company on the precipice. The Swedish car company has been searching for a new direction ever since it left the Ford umbrella to become a part of Geely Automotive, a Chinese car company.
It has previewed a new styling direction during this past auto show season with a trio of bold concepts that have got every designer on the planet in a sweat of envy. Later this year, the redesigned Volvo XC90 crossover will appear, the first of a slew of products being developed on an all-new architecture.
Of course, it was proving a little difficult to think about this, since we were roaring around the southern tip of Sweden in the 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar and 2015 Volvo V60 Polestar, two high-performance cars that would make even a Swede forget to be sober and sensible for a few moments.
Polestar is a car, not what you think it is
Polestar refers not to a package or trim level but rather to an independent company that has run Volvo racing teams since 1996, and which has just made a race-winning debut in Australian touring car racing. Polestar is a very small operation with about thirty-five employees, but it harbors ambitions of challenging German performance sub brands. It tempted us with a souped up C30 in 2011 that very nearly made production, then teased us with the radical 508-hp 2013 Volvo S60 Concept, which was built in a limited quantity for Volvo fanatics around the globe.
Polestar has been contributing assorted hot rod pieces to special editions of Volvo cars for some time, including engine computer chips, but now it’s serious. The 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar and 2015 Volvo V60 Polestar represent the first production cars from the company. These all-wheel-drive cars look very much the same as the S60 Concept, riding low on twenty-inch wheels and wearing the same Smurf-like shade of blue paint (other colors will be offered).
Both these all-wheel-drive Polestar cars feature Volvo’s turbocharged, inline-6 engine, only it makes 345-hp, some 20 hp more than even the R-design versions of the S60 and V60 that carry Polestar chips in their engine computers. This is a sensible amount, although it doesn’t blow us away. “You’d need 100 horsepower more to impress people at the bar,” admits Polestar managing director Hans Bååth.
The powertrain does impress from the driver’s seat. The formerly subdued 3.0-liter inline-six now rumbles through a new exhaust system—a muffler bypass opens above 4000 rpm or whenever the automatic transmission is in sport mode. A prominent whoosh announces the upgraded turbo’s contributions during hard acceleration. The six-speed automatic has been upgraded to provide quicker, sharper shifts in sport mode.
The S60 and V60 Polestar models even incorporate a launch mode. You put your left foot on the brake, right foot to the floor, then left off the brake and off you go to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds (5.0 in the wagon). Bååth coyly points out that drivers will be able to do this as much as they want without voiding their warranties.
So you think you can dance?
Both the S60 Polestar and V60 Polestar ride on not only stiffer springs but also Öhlins high-pressure gas dampers that offer no fewer than ten settings, a level of overkill that would have impressed Tim Allen on “Home Improvement.” Polestar suspects few owners will ever fuss with the adjustments, which must be made manually on the shocks themselves. (On the wagon, you’d actually have to lower the rear shocks from their mounts.) The factory setting calls for halfway between hard and soft, and this suited us just fine on the narrow roads in southern Sweden. The cars felt planted and stable in quick transitions, a real feat considering the curb weights for both sedan and wagon hover around 4000 pounds. Lush fields of yellow flowers blur by, and we strain to see if a Scania truck or tour bus is coming the other way before diving through the next corner. No, this is definitely not what one pictures when hearing the words “Volvo” and “Sweden.”
Polestar also let us loose on the Knutstorp Ring, a small race track that hosts the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship. Nevertheless, Baath warned us, “It’s important for us to stress this is not a track day car,” says Bååth. This sandbagging seems to reflect the pride and prejudice of a company that’s still primarily a race team rather than any actual shortcomings in the cars.
The Polestar twins have their steering calibrated to the same specification as the Volvo S60 T6 R-design, but the front suspension has been reinforced with stiffer strut mount bushings and a strut tower brace. This, in combination with more body control from the Öhlins dampers and bigger tires, delivers a satisfyingly immediate response. The ratio is quick enough that you can negotiate a hairpin without shuffling the steering wheel through too many turns. Meanwhile the turbo six delivers 369 lb-ft of torque, so the car rockets away from the slow corners. We’d like more brakes, though, as despite an upgrade to a new brake booster and big front brakes from Brembo, the brake pedal still went soft after a couple laps. (Well, maybe we went deeper into the corners than we should have.)
Turning off stability control activates Polestar’s own programming for the all-wheel-drive system, sending more power to the rear wheels. Stability control will still intervene if a driver loses control, but that would take some doing, as the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires grip tenaciously. Push hard enough and the V60 will understeer, particularly in sharp turns where it can’t rely on all-wheel-drive trickery to rotate the rear end. Bååth recommends setting the rear dampers firmer and the fronts softer for more neutral handling on a tight road course.
Swedes Are Sober and Sensible
Ride quality doesn’t seem to suffer, even though the progressive-rate springs are dramatically stiffer than stock. Under part throttle, the inline-six proves as smooth and refined as ever. In other words, the S60 and V60 Polestar still feel like Volvos. The vehicles are built on the regular production line to Polestar specification, so they shouldn’t suffer in quality. Of course, the interiors are finished with the usual black suede upholstery and carbon- fiber trim in the cabin, and we’re pretty tired of this cliché, even in a performance car.
We can’t help but be a little disappointed that these Polestar cars aren’t quite up to meeting the BMW M-cars on a level playing field, but we recognize that the Polestar people are right when they point out that Volvo buyers aren’t looking to own a hotrod.
Volvo has not yet announced pricing for the 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar and 2015 Volvo V60 Polestar, but says to expect a 15-20 percent premium over a loaded version of the S60 T6 R-design and V60 T6 R-design. Production of these cars will be very limited at first. Only 120 Polestar cars will make it to the United States, and most of these will be wagons.
The good news is, as Volvo ramps up its product onslaught, we can expect to see more from Polestar. “My friends are already working on a ’16 model,” Bååth tells us.