My experience with performance Volvo models traces back to the start of the modern, front-wheel drive era for the Swedish company. I worked as a lot attendant at the local Volvo dealership in Grand Rapids, Michigan when the 240-hp 850 T-5R launched in 1995. I’ll never forget one specific T-5R. As the unique wagon made its way off the transporter, its anthracite 17-inch wheels perfectly offset the wacky Cream Yellow paint hue. Over the years, horsepower increased to 300 hp as the name progressed from 850R to V70R. All-wheel drive joined the game as the front wheels screamed in agony. I’ve long had a place in my heart for performance Volvos—specifically the wagon versions—but they’ve historically lacked the depth and handling polish of a BMW or Mercedes. With the growth of Volvo’s latest performance nomenclature, Polestar, there’s opportunity for the company to both revive the cult following for their spiced-up models and offer better-honed products to battle the established players from Germany and beyond.
First, it’s important to look at what engines will likely power these future go-fast models from the land of dill lovers and high taxes. Volvo’s 2017 S60 (sedan) and V60 (wagon) Polestar models recently received a powertrain upgrade. The long-serving 3.0-liter I-6 “SI6” Volvo Modular Engine took a bow, replaced by Volvo’s “VEA” (Volvo Engine Architecture) turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter I-4. Two speeds have been added to the Polestar’s automatic transmission for a total of eight forward ratios. The engine change is all part of the company’s move to exclusively use four-cylinder engines for all their gasoline-powered models.
If you want more power than the 362 horses found in the latest Polestar models, that may have to come from electrification. I sat down with Lex Kerssemakers, President and CEO of Volvo Cars USA in January, who said that electric motors will help service the 4-5 percent V-8 market. Think of models like the top-spec Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine hybrid. Kerssemakers also noted, “To me, the ultimate Polestar car is a combination of a combustion engine and electrification, or full electrification.”
Tweaking the chassis dynamics is another game and an area where Volvo has been traditionally behind the eight ball. The steering, overall suspension tuning and general handling balance haven’t been exactly class leading with performance Volvo models. And there’s the unfortunate history of poor ride quality. Luckily, fresh platforms are near. Yes, the XC90 carries new underpinnings (SPA—Scalable Product Architecture), but the heavy beast isn’t cut out to dance on the backroads. Remember, it’s a large SUV that’s wonderfully refined when driven at a reasonable pace and used for its intended purpose. I’m thinking more about the S90/V90 and, even more so, the next S60/V60 (which will all use SPA) as well as Volvo’s new CMA (Compact Modular Architecture) platform for models like the S40/V40—which will return to the States.
A Polestar version of the S90/V90 could do battle with cars like the Audi S6 or Mercedes-AMG E43 while the tweaked S60/V60 offer a good head-to-head fight with, say, the latest Audi S4 or BMW 340i. What about the hotter Germans—cars such as the BMW M3, Mercedes E63 AMG, or Audi RS6? I don’t see Volvo playing in that game and I believe that’s an important differentiation in regards to the Swedish company’s performance future.
Volvo is all about relaxed, refined motoring. Sure, historic go-fast models have been quick, but the big shortcomings have, again, been ride quality and overall handling. Volvo needs to take inspiration from companies like McLaren and Lotus. Yes, Volvo isn’t a sports car manufacturer, but those British companies tend to build automobiles with brilliant handling that also ride equally well. I’d like to see, say, a V60 Polestar with gobs of power along with sharper handling and crisper steering but, most importantly, class-leading body control. I don’t want the 3-series competitor to crash over the bumps and beat up its occupants. That’s not what a Volvo should do.
If Volvo decides it wants to push the limits and sacrifice some refinement for ultimate performance, the upcoming S40/V40 and the CMA platform are where to play in that world. Develop the standard Polestar S40/V40 with the breadth of capability of, say, a Volkswagen Golf R or Audi S3 but build a limited number of an even hotter version with a manic edge like we see in cars such as the Ford Focus RS.
Volvo must also be careful not to dilute the Polestar brand by sticking the performance badge on too many models. Sadly, they may already be going down that path. The recently revealed Polestar upgrade to the XC90 T8 is a good example of going a step too far with the performance brand. But Volvo is just following the Germans lead. BMW (with M) and Mercedes (with AMG) seem to be trickling their hotrod badge into any and all models. Tread carefully, Volvo. The Polestar brand should be reserved for your truly special models. Just make sure those tweaked versions ride well and are still a Volvo through and through.