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2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered eAWD One-Week Test Drive

By all means, get an XC60—just not this XC60.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

LOS ANGELES—I used to watch American Idol religiously, but only the first few episodes of each season. I didn't care who won, or even about the singing. I just wanted to see those initial auditions where they highlight the brilliant and the terrible. I must admit to enjoying a good Simon Cowell smackdown (probably because I don't have the guts to be that rude myself), but I always thought the nicest let-downs were when Randy Jackson would say, "Sorry, dawg, singing just isn't your thing."

I feel much the same way about the performance-oriented Polestar Engineered edition of Volvo's XC60 (not to be confused with Volvo's new Polestar brand, purveyor of electric and electrified cars). The XC60 is a great family-sized SUV, but when it comes to being a hot rod, it has one big flaw and a couple of not-as-big ones. After a week of driving, I wanted to look the XC60 square in its headlights and say, "Sorry, dawg, this just isn't your thing."

There's Nothing Wrong With the Volvo XC60 T8…

For the record, I love almost everything about the Volvo XC60. I love the way it looks, outside and in. I particularly love the luxury and attention to detail in the cabin. Go to a dealership, sit in a Volvo XC60, and look for even one bit of interior trim that isn't worthy of the price tag. You won't find one.

I love the family unity that pervades every Volvo's design and features, from the smallest XC40 to the biggest XC90 and all the cars in between. Call me pedantic for drooling over this, but automakers have been struggling for decades to get the kind of same-but-different feel Volvo has designed and engineered into its cars. We spent a wonderful (if traumatic) year with a Volvo V90 wagon as part of our Four Seasons fleet, and I spent more than my fair share of time with the car. As a result, everything I needed to do in this XC60, from tuning the stereo to flipping down the back seats, felt easy and familiar.

I'm on the fence about the styling of the Polestar-tweaked model, however. The massive (optional) 22-inch wheels barely fit under the fender extensions, which I love—it makes the Polestar Engineered XC60 look a bit like a super-secret test mule whose subtle styling hides a massively powerful new drive system (which actually isn't far from the truth). But the rest of the changes, including blacked-out trim and yellow brake calipers, are a bit too subtle compared to Mercedes' AMG models and BMW's M Sport SUVs, which look like the bullies that would try to beat up the Volvo for its lunch money.

Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered Has Serious Speed

Happily, the Volvo XC60 would have no trouble running away from its would-be bullies. For those unfamiliar, the T8 drivetrain in the XC60 Polestar Edition is a plug-in hybrid system that starts with a relatively small 2.0-liter supercharged and turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine. With no electrical assistance—i.e. in T6 guise—this little engine belts out 316 horsepower, an incredible output for two little liters of displacement. The T8 plug-in hybrid ups the ante to 400 horsepower by adding an electric motor to the rear wheels, and the T8 Polestar extracts another 17-or-so horsepower from the gasoline engine for a total system output of 416 hp and 494 lb-ft of torque.

Obviously, power is not the problem. Need I even say that the T8 accelerates like a guided missile? Our colleagues down the hall at MotorTrend clocked it to 60 mph in a rapid 5.1 seconds, but the 0-60-mph time never tells the whole story. The engine's combination of a supercharger and turbocharger eliminates any lag in boost, and between that and the electric rear axle, the XC60 T8 is always ready to scoot, and scoot it does. Since it's a plug-in hybrid, it has the advantage of better fuel economy (EPA estimates in the mid-to-high 20s) and 18 miles of all-electric range.

Where the XC60 Polestar Needs Work

But all that power turns out to be a problem when tackling the curvy roads for which the Polestar Engineered version is supposedly, er, engineered. Get on the power coming out of a tight curve, and the inside rear wheel has a tendency to break loose and spin. That shouldn't come as a surprise, given that the advantage of electric power is that it can deliver 100% of its available torque at any speed. But just because you can doesn't mean you should. Clearly, the XC60 Polestar Engineered's traction control programming needs a little more work.

And while the engineers are at it, they need to address the almost complete lack of useful feedback from the steering. I like the light effort (and I don't like cars with "sport" steering modes that substitute heft for feel), but I felt as if the Volvo's steering completely severs the communication lines between me and the road. The only way to tell when the XC60's front end was starting to lose traction was to listen for tire squeal.

But these were not, in my mind, the XC60's big flaw.

Surprisingly, the brakes weren't the big flaw, either. The original T8s may well have had the worst brake feel and actuation in the industry. The transition between regenerative (electric) and friction braking was poorly done, with the result that stepping on the brake pedal was like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates: You never knew what you were going to get. Volvo has reworked the braking system and it now works properly, with progressive pedal feel that lets you take full advantage of those big six-piston calipers fitted to the front wheels.

What's Really Wrong With the XC60 Polestar Engineered

No, the biggest problem with the XC60 Polestar Edition is the ride, which is way, way, way the hell too rough.

It's at its worst when you switch the drive mode to the ultra-sporty Polestar setting, which is way too stiff-legged, giving the same feel you get when some amateur fits a set of big wheels and ultra-low-profile tires to a suspension that wasn't set up for them. But even in the regular driving modes, the XC60 Polestar Engineered is way too harsh. It's fine on smooth pavement, but the moment the pavement gets a little irregular, the XC60 starts to jiggle and twitch like an addict eager for a fix. Heaven help you if you have to drive over really bad bumps—it feels as if the springs have gone on strike, and instead of absorbing the bumps are merely watching them pass by on their way to your backside. Perhaps that sounds like a good thing for a performance car, but believe me, it isn't. The ride is hard enough that I would hesitate to recommend the XC60 Polestar Edition to any but my most masochistic of friends.

That's upsetting to me, because as I said before, I like everything else about the XC60. Truth be told, I'd buy the regular T8 version in a heartbeat, just for the power and fuel economy. But the Polestar? No thank you.

Alternatives to the Volvo XC60 Polestar

Even if you can stand the super-stiff ride, bear in mind that the XC60 Polestar Edition is built to compete against high-performance Germans like the Audi SQ5, Mercedes AMG GLE 53, and BMW X5 M50i. With a starting price of $70,495, the Volvo has a healthy price advantage over the Mercedes and the BMW, though not the Audi, which is (relatively speaking) a screaming bargain with a starting price below $54,000. The Volvo, however, has the advantages of better fuel economy courtesy of its hybrid drivetrain (27 mpg combined per the EPA, compared to the 18-20 mpg combined of the three Germans).

What it lacks is the integration. With the flaws in its ride, steering, and corner-exit power delivery, the XC60 Polestar Engineered just doesn't feel as well-engineered as its German competition—or its American competition in the form of Ford's Edge ST, which is surprisingly competent and even cheaper than the Audi.

So it is with a heavy heart that I advise you to take a pass on the XC60 Polestar Edition. By all means, don't miss out on the other XC60s. I think the T5, T6, and T8 models are stellar, and if it were my own money in play, I'd buy any one of them. But when it comes to out-and-out performance, which is the XC60 Polestar Engineered's raison d' être, well… I'm sorry, dawg, but this just isn't your thing.

2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered Highlights:

  • AWD plug-in hybrid with 416 system horsepower
  • Yellow brake calipers and seat belts
  • 0-60 mph in 5.1 seconds

2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered Pros:

  • Very quick acceleration
  • Decent fuel economy
  • High-class interior

2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered Cons:

  • Ride is way too harsh
  • Feedback-free steering
  • Corner-exit rear wheelspin
2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered eAWD Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $71,940
ENGINE 2.0L supercharged and turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/329 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
ELECTRIC DRIVETRAIN 11.6-kW-hr Li-Ion battery pack, permanent magnet synchronous electric motor; 87 hp, 177 lb-ft; 416 hp combined
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, rear-motor, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 26/28 mpg city/highway
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 5.1 sec
TOP SPEED 140 mph