First Drive: 2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered

An excellent execution of an odd application of the Swedish performance brand.

Billy Rehbockwriter, photographer The Manufacturerphotographer

BANFF, Alberta, Canada—Volvo recently asked us to Canada to experience a "Scanadavian" adventure—see what they did there?—in the Polestar Engineered version of the 2020 Volvo XC60. Perhaps that was because Banff, in Canada's Alberta province, reminds the Swedes of Sweden? Regardless, this part of Canada is one of the most beautiful places in the world, with stunning mountain scenery and the roads to go with it.

Why Polestar the XC60?

But there were much bigger questions on my mind, namely: "Why apply the Polestar treatment to a midsize crossover like the XC60? Would it even work?" If there were ever a time to try, it's probably now given that Volvo is enjoying a period of growth worldwide—even in markets that have experienced a downturn in auto sales.

One of the biggest reasons as it turns out is conquest. Volvo's recent run of hot sales have come at the expense of Audi in particular, which has seen the largest percentage of its customer base defect to the Swedish marque. So it's not much of a surprise that the Audi SQ5 served as the performance benchmark for the hotted-up XC60.

That covers the why, but most of my skepticism lied in whether or not the XC60 was the right vehicle to get an overhaul from Volvo's Polestar performance arm (not to be confused with Polestar, the electrified sub-brand. Yeah, it's confusing). My previous experience with an XC60, which was equipped with a version of Volvo's T8 powertrain featuring supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine paired with an electric motor, proved mixed. While the 400-hp total system output effortlessly hurtled the crossover up to speed, its braking system—in particular the lack of easy modulation—wasn't as refined as it could have been.

Before I even got a chance to ask a representative from Volvo about the brakes, we were told in the pre-drive presentation that the entire setup for T8-equipped vehicles had been overhauled—an electric brake booster replaced the previous system's vacuum unit—to improve the transition between regular braking and regenerative hybrid braking. With that reassurance in mind, it was time to hit the Trans-Canada highway and see how the 2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered performed in the real world.

The Drive

Setting off from our staging point at the foot of the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, the XC60's T8 configuration, which has been boosted to 415 horsepower and 494 lb-ft, was always ready to deliver power. Under hard acceleration, there wasn't much in the way of engine or exhaust noise, but the hybrid system launches the XC60 Polestar Engineered forward with briskness reminiscent of a full-on performance EV. It's eight-speed transmission offered deft and decisive shifts throughout our time behind the wheel, as well.

So the go is all good, but the slow was what really impressed me about the XC60 Polestar Engineered. The first time I applied the brakes at low speed, I could already tell that Volvo wasn't kidding when it said its engineers reworked the setup. The pedal's travel felt extremely linear, with a seamless transition into regenerative braking.

That's a good sign, because anything less would be a waste of perfectly good Akebono brakes. The Polestar Engineered trim receives six-piston calipers up front and single-piston calipers in the back, all painted gold to let onlookers know these aren't ordinary binders. On the road, they slow the vehicle predictably and efficiently.

Another special touch added by Polestar is an adjustable Öhlins suspension. In a move that shies away from the industry trend of electronically adjustable dampers, drivers must exit the vehicle to hand-tune the XC60'S suspension by turning little gold knobs at each corner of the car. Although it's not as easy as doing so via the press of a button, no tools are required to make the changes. Each strut has more than 20 settings, so a driver can hone the vehicle to his or her taste with relative ease. Up front, the adjustors cap the ends of a Polestar Engineered strut bar.

The Handling

Highway cruising can only impart so much information about a car's performance characteristics, so Volvo directed us to an airstrip for a brief cone course to test the XC60 Polestar Engineered closer to its limits. We had the chance to run a collision-avoidance test, a slalom, and a quarter-mile drag.

The first test was simply to drive through three tightly spaced pairs of cones, with the center two offset to the left, so as simulate an on-road near miss. The steering was incredibly responsive, and at a roadgoing speeds, this exercise was hardly a challenge. As I chucked the XC60 Polestar Engineered through the slalom, there was a whiff of body roll, but it was composed and predictable. At a continuous speed of almost 40 mph, the car maintained its poise as it snaked through the cones.

Mashing the throttle off the line for the quarter-mile test, the XC60's nose lifted and squirmed a smidge. Then we were off at a decent rate, building speed steadily as the SUV hurtled down the runway. My instructor saw 155 km/h (about 96 mph as Canada uses metric, eh?) at the end of the drag before I hammered the brakes with no squirrely behavior and very little dive under full-force deceleration. Given that the electric motor's battery was almost entirely depleted at the start of my run and that the vehicle had two occupants, I was impressed with its performance.

After a second run, the driving instructors revealed they had some fun fiddling with the Öhlins suspension. The suspension of one of the two test cars was tuned to slightly more than 25 percent stiffness at each corner. The other had a slightly softer setup up front with a stiffer configuration in the rear. The car we drove on the road, meanwhile, had roughly 50 percent settings all around. Take note: This system is great for people who enjoy a more personal approach to configuring their car. While one may not take the XC60 Polestar Engineered to a track, it would take all of a minute to get out of the car and tighten the suspension up before a drive through a canyon or up a winding mountain road.

The 2020 XC60 Polestar Engineered has looks to match its performance, with several cosmetic upgrades to set it apart from the standard crossover. Rather than wearing chrome, Volvo adopted a blacked-out look for spots like the grille and window trim. It also has yellow seatbelts which risk looking gauche but actually look cool against the black interior. Our test vehicle's Crystal White Metal paint (a $645 option) brought out the best in the "black chrome" accents. Our car also wore an $800 set of 22-inch wheels, a unique option for the Polestar Engineered.

The Verdict

As tested, the XC60 Polestar Engineered we drove in Canada rung up at $73,490. It isn't exactly a bargain, as it's pricier than Volvo's stated competitor, the Audi SQ5, before any possible hybrid tax rebates might be applied. Volvo claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.9 seconds for its performance SUV, besting Audi's stated figure by two ticks. The 2019 SQ5 starts at $53,395, although one we reviewed topped out at $70,340.

While I'm not entirely sure the XC60 needed the Polestar Engineered treatment, the finished product is a quick, refined, and engaging offering. The sporty ute does everything right, but still left me wanting the same goodies in a smaller and lower package—a feeling amplified by a pair of V60 Polestar Engineered wagons Volvo brought along as support vehicles for our drive. In all, the 2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered is the best iteration of the T8 powertrain and hybrid brake system we've encountered so far, and shows that Volvo is committed to both listening to the public and pushing its own boundaries in its quest to expand the customer base.

2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $72,045/$73,490 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 2.0L supercharged and turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 328 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 317 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
ELECTRIC MOTOR AC permanent-magnet, 87 hp
COMBINED OUTPUT 415 hp, 494 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 26/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 184.6 x 74.9 x 65.3 in
WHEELBASE 112.8 in
WEIGHT 4,745 lb
0-60 MPH 4.9 sec
TOP SPEED 140 mph
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