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First Drive: 2013 Volvo S60 Polestar

Up there at the base of the windshield, where you'd expect any respectable Volvo to have its City Safety sending unit, this car has instead a racing-style shift light that glows green, orange, and then red as the revs climb so you'll change into a taller gear before the engine goes ka-blammo. And right now, the darn light is winking at us yet again because the 508-hp turbocharged engine just won't quit pulling, so we shift and then shift again and pretty soon we're hurtling along at a rate that is, well, kind of unseemly for a Volvo.

This is a clue that the 2013 Volvo S60 Polestar is not entirely like any other Volvo that you have ever driven.

We arranged to see this Swedish hot rod not long after its appearance at the Los Angeles auto show. It was a few moments before daybreak at Cars & Coffee in Irvine, California, where 400 of the snappiest cars in the western hemisphere meet every Saturday. And here we find John Maloney, president of Volvo Cars North America, sipping at a paper cup of coffee as he explains to people that, yes, Volvo actually likes cars.

Maloney knows something about liking cars. As a young, Purdue-educated engineer, he worked at Ford SVO (Special Vehicle Operations) in the golden 1980s under Michael Kranefuss, and he chased around Trans-Am road-racing cars and Bob Glidden's 200-mph Thunderbird Pro-Stock drag car. Maloney reminds us that Volvo has always had a performance heritage, whether in rallying, the British Touring Car Championship, or even American street-stock road racing, where it fielded a blisteringly fast Volvo 850R station wagon.

You surely remember the 405-hp Volvo C30 Polestar and the 2012 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design Polestar that we drove last year. The 2013 Volvo S60 Polestar also comes from the Polestar group, a racing team that has been Volvo's partner in the STCC (Scandinavian Touring Car Championship) since 1996.

Polestar's Andreas Naeslund is here and he tells us that the Volvo S60 Polestar was first presented in Sweden last summer as a one-off for a private customer. Since then it has been from Russia to Los Angeles, and now three examples have been built and three more will follow.

The S60 Polestar's bright blue paint is very close to the Rebel blue in which about 1200 Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-Design cars will be sold in the U.S. this year, but the hot rod's exterior has been augmented and reshaped, just like some Swedish starlet of the 1950s. The interior looks stock except for the faux suede upholstery, but then you feel the firmer bolsters of the driver seat. The center console also has been shaved to help you reach for the manual shift lever. Wait a second; manual shift lever? Why, there are three pedals on the floor!

The engine fires up as if it's just any other turbocharged, 2953-cc T6 inline-six. Naeslund takes the S60's death seat to the right and warns us about the heavy action of the clutch pedal and the abrupt engagement of the sintered clutch plate, but the action is lighter than any BMW M5 and the engagement is more predictable than any Infiniti G37. It's clear that Naeslund has had to sit quietly while this car has been in the hands of journalists and prospective buyers - a selection of the dazed and confused that would take your breath away -- so we are completely flattered when he turns to us, sighs with relief and says, "I can see that you have driven a car with a manual transmission before."

We're not going to dice with death in this 508-hp car in the middle of Orange County, but we can at least burble around like a regular human being. The suspension has racing-style rod ends for the control arms plus stiff springs and anti-roll bars, and 265/30R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport PS3 tires are riding on 9.5 x 19-inch forged Polestar wheels, yet there's none of the ride harshness you expect. These days, compliance is the secret to cornering grip, and these adjustable Ohlins dampers are dialed in.

Father Physics loves inline-six engines (and V-12s, too) because the forces line up in a way that minimizes vibration, and he seems to especially love the Volvo six. Polestar is proud that this engine is straight out of the Volvo parts bins except for the forged connecting rods, while the Garrett 3171 turbocharger, CNC-machined aluminum intake manifold, and 3.5-inch-diameter Ferrita exhaust take care of the pressurized air that helps create 508 hp @ 6500 rpm and 424 lb-ft of torque @ 5500 rpm.

The shift linkage of the close-ratio, six-speed Getrag M66C transmission feels a little loose and notchy, but it's not bad, and the fly-by-wire throttle blips automatically on downshifts. The six-piston Brembo calipers for the 15.0-inch front disc brakes look intimidating, yet the pad compound proves friendly.

The 3615-pound Volvo S60 Polestar drives like a small car, not a large one. The 20mm-wider track in front and 40mm-wider track in the rear add poise to the platform, and there's cornering magic in the Haldex-4 all-wheel-drive system, notably the force-vectoring, electronic limited-slip differential in the rear.

Naeslund tells us that the secret to driving this car fast on the track is to switch on the stability control, brake early, and then slew the car into the corner so the stability control is triggered and the dashboard is bright with warning lights. Electronics are great at sensing the limits of cornering grip these days, but the trick apparently lies in timing their engagement, which is something we've also heard from ALMS drivers who have raced the Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid and SRT Viper GTS-R.

Naturally all this makes us think of Polestar as Volvo's answer to Mercedes-Benz AMG. While the comparison is apt, Naeslund reminds us that we're really talking about only a dozen Polestar people embedded within Volvo. However, AMG started out as just a two-man race shop in an old mill in Burgstall near its current factory in Affalterbach, Germany. Volvo and Polestar believe that big things lie ahead. After driving the 2013 Volvo S60 Polestar, we think so, too.

2013 Volvo S60 Polestar

Base price: Negotiable (estimated)
On sale: Now

Engine: Turbo DOHC 3.0-liter inline-6
Power: 508 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 424 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: All-wheel
Tires, f/r: 265/30R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport PS3

Fuel mileage: N/A
Performance (manufacturer's data): 0-62 mph 3.9 seconds