Volvo’s phase-out of all engines with a capacity greater than 1,969 cubic centimetres and with more than four cylinders continues. Sadly, the intoxicatingly tuneful in-line twin scroll turbo six which powered the V60 Polestar is no more, replaced by a supercharged and turbocharged Drive-E unit. So, what’s the verdict on the new four-cylinder engine?
The S60 Polestar was originally available only in Australia, a low-volume experiment in a far-off country where motorsport-themed editions of family sedans sometimes sold strongly. Volvo announced the car in April 2013, the extreme climate which comes as standard in parts of the land down under proving the perfect durability test for this hotted-up sedan. Heat, humidity, dust, snow – if the S60 Polestar’s in-line six-cylinder engine could survive and thrive in all of these conditions, it would surely cope with other countries’ less severe conditions.
The built-in-Wales (at Ford’s Bridgend plant) but developed-in-Sweden 2,953cc engine sounded fantastic but it did have a bit of a drinking problem. That didn’t matter too much in places such as Australia where the taxation on fuel is low compared to Europe. Yet Volvo must have even at that stage been thinking about what to replace this 257kW (350hp) six with. The CO2 number wasn’t ideal either.
Named after the company’s touring car championship partner, and, since July 2015, wholly owned subsidiary, the S60 Polestar became available to Australian buyers in June 2013. The experiment was soon a qualified success and production for other countries, including left-hand drive ones, started in June 2014. This was also when the V60 Polestar was added.
One or both of these two high performance cars went on sale in Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, the USA and Australia. Just 750 were made and the sedan soon became something of a cult object in North America with many potential buyers wishing they could have an estate instead of only the S60.
In February 2015, Volvo announced that the cars had sold out and that there would be another run of 750 for its 2016 model year. After rolling out the Polestars to customers in the above eight countries during 2014, they were expanded to the Middle East in 2015. The additional markets to receive the MY16 Volvo S60 and V60 Polestar included Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The manufacturing story of these cars is unusual: the V60 was originally built at Torslanda, and the S60 at Ghent. The latter had switched production locations from Sweden in September 2015. The reason was strong demand for the XC90 and the addition of the V90 and V90 CC: S60 production at Volvo Cars’ home plant was stopped to free up more capacity.
The S60 Polestar and V60 Polestar are now made in Belgium, but final assembly takes place at two other locations. In the case of the V60, body panels are still made in Sweden and transported to Ghent. Then, every V60 Polestar is sent to Gothenburg for final assembly at Volvo Cars Special Vehicles.
Volume remains low and this plus the complex manufacturing chain show how much the high performance estate and its sedan counterpart matter to Volvo. Indeed, for cars which have fewer than two years of production remaining, the decision to re-engineer them for a new engine was an interesting one.
The fresh engine for the 2017 model year S60 and V60 Polestars was announced in April last year and the first deliveries took place in certain markets during the fourth quarter. The old six-cylinder 350hp & 500Nm engine was replaced by a 367hp (270kW) & 470Nm version of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder Drive-E. Zero to 100km/h now takes only 4.8 seconds, top speed is limited to 155mph and CO2 is 186g/km.
Changes for the Polestar extend to a bigger turbocharger, a supercharger, new conrods, new camshafts, a larger air intake and a higher capacity fuel pump. BorgWarner supplies the Haldex four-wheel drive system and the former Aisin six-speed automatic gearbox is replaced by an eight-speed transmission from the same firm. Volvo terms this a Geartronic. The model year 2017 cars can be identified by special 20-inch wheels. Both sedan and estate were world premieres at the LA auto show in November 2016.
Volvo and Polestar have doubled build for the current model year to a combined 1,500 cars. It’s fascinating to note that while the estate wasn’t originally sold in the USA, California is now the world’s top market for Polestar vehicles. Los Angeles alone accounted for two thirds of sales in the state last year.
After that log back story, what then of the driving experience? I do hate to say it but the engine’s sound is probably the weakest thing about this otherwise impressive estate. And in a car such as this, the aural delights do matter, which is why the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz ensure that their equivalent models sound so good.
The problem with the Drive-E is that its best aspects happen high up in the rev range when the turbo really comes alive and whistles away, whereas in the old twin scroll single turbo 3.0-litre, there was a lot of fruity-sounding oomph going on right from idle.
In common with other supercharged engines, this one can be a bit on the muted side lower down in the rev-range. When you start the car, there’s not much in the way of a lumpy-menacing exhaust note from the big-bore Polestar-branded tailpipe tips.
Lifting the bonnet underlines how other manufacturers – again, I am going to single out Audi – can do presentation better. Volvo does get points for the glossy carbon cross brace by the firewall but you can’t see the engine. That’s because it’s covered by an admirably thick and soft chunk of black plastic. Yes, that’s EC legislation and what matters more – something which looks fantastic or something which prevents the head of a pedestrian being cracked open should it come into contact with your bonnet? Exactly. All OEMs who sell cars in the EU must comply with the same norms so perhaps this is something for Volvo’s design people to take a look at for the next generation Polestar models.
If there are some minor disappointments with the V60 Polestar then equally, there are multiple strongpoints. The all-wheel drive system is superb; never do you want for grip. Likewise, the stopping power of the Brembo-Polestar braking system would be hard to improve upon, and for a model which has been around since 2010, the V60 is surprisingly capable. Volvo and Polestar have some very able chassis engineers in their employ though the specially tuned Öhlins shock absorbers should also be given credit for the lack of nose-dive under braking plus the beautifully damped ride and low-roll cornering.
This car also has to have the best steering of any Volvo, as did the six-cylinder V60 Polestar. That’s all the more impressive given that the former system was electro-hydraulic and its replacement is fully electric. It’s never heavy, you have to push hard to notice the front-wheel drive nature of the basic platform and the worst roads I could find were no match for the suspension. The ride in some of Audi’s RS models is inferior to what Volvo has achieved with this model.
It looks as good inside as it does out, the Polestar. Even if it’s fair to point out that all those buttons on the centre stack look dated if you’ve just stepped out of one of Volvo’s 90 series models. The infotainment system feels fiddly compared to that of an XC90 but if you don’t like the minimalist dashboards of the newer, bigger Volvos, then the old-school V60 is going to have added appeal.
There’s much in the way of understated Swedish design all through this car’s interior and the blue-accented touches such as stitching and how the word Polestar appears on the automatic transmission shift lever are nice touches. These also lend this car a properly premium feel.
The 2017 V60 Polestar is one of those cars which, like the 850 Turbo from so many years ago, will no doubt end up being seen as a future classic Volvo. It has the looks – those new wheels manage to blend sportiness with a subtle premium appeal – and also the performance to make perhaps quite a few people who would never consider a Volvo think again. The lack of a V8, V6, inline-six or in-line five means that for many, a Mercedes-AMG, Audi RS or BMW M equivalent is going to remain the default choice. But those people would be missing out on what is one of the high performance estate market’s best kept secrets.