Think Quick: Volvo’s New Engine Rejuvenates the Polestars
I loved the last Volvo Polestar, both the S60 (sedan) and V60 (wagon). Perfect? No, it had flaws. But the ideas behind the S60 and V60 Polestars are so good that the flaws can be overlooked. Think about the first Nirvana album, “Bleach.” Obviously, it didn’t have the David Geffen-bankrolled major label appeal of the band’s seminal smash record, “Nevermind.” Hell, Dave Grohl wasn’t even in Nirvana yet. But “Bleach” is completely charming in its own way. Kinda like the outgoing Polestars. Sure, a transverse inline-six is nobody’s idea of a smart layout. Worse, the old slow-witted, six-speed automatic transmission had no business whatsoever being in a performance car. But again, despite the flaws, the Polestars were lovable. Also, unlike the German premium C-segment rivals, Volvo had the good sense to offer its sportiest product to Yanks as a wagon.
Meet the new Polestars. Same basic recipe as before, and only a few of the ingredients are new. The headline grabber is the engine. Good-bye, sideways straight-six; hello, Drive-E motor. For those not updated on Volvo lingo, Drive-E refers to Volvo’s supercharged and turbocharged, 2.0-liter inline-four. The same engine as found in our 2016 SUV of the Year winner, the Volvo XC90 T6. Only for Polestar duty it’s been souped up a touch with a new turbo, connecting rods, camshaft, fuel pump, and fuel filter, plus a larger air intake along with 3-inch “full-flow” exhaust systems that raise power from 345 to 362 horsepower. Torque is actually down a touch from 369 to 347 lb-ft, but seeing as how the cars are now 44 pounds (20kg) lighter than before, you won’t miss the torque. It does, however, go to illustrate that even with a super- and turbocharger, there’s no replacement for the old I-6’s 3.0 liters’ worth of displacement.
Also new (yay!) for the 2017 Polestars is an eight-speed Geartronic automatic transmission. Not only are the paddle shifters, thankfully, new, but they also treat you to relatively quick gear changes when you pull them, a massive difference between the old Star and the new. The new eight-speed feeds a BorgWarner Haldex all-wheel-drive system that features a biased torque split of 40/60 front to rear. Combined with sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport 245/35ZR20 tires, Volvo is claiming that the S60 can hit 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds and that the V60 can do the same in 4.5 seconds. No word on the quarter mile, but both Polestars are limited to a top speed of 155 mph (249 km/h). Braking duty is handled by Brembo—14.6-inch discs up front, 11.9-inch discs out back. The new wheels, sized 20 by 8 inches, sport a little Swedish Racing Green Polestar square. (The color’s actually called Rebel Blue—Swedish Racing Green’s a joke.) Suspension changes feature 80 percent stiffer springs, 15 percent stiffer anti-roll bars, and new bushings. The body gets a little splitter below the nose and both a spoiler and diffuser in the rear. That splitter actually provides 46 pounds (21 kg) of downforce.
If you flip the transmission into Sport, you get a launch control mode. Even cooler (in a sense) is the secret Sport Plus mode. Remember the video game “Contra” with its famous up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, select, start routine to activate cheat mode? The new Polestar’s Sport Plus is kinda like that. First thing you must do is make sure the car isn’t moving. Then flip the transmission into Sport. Then with your right hand push the transmission lever forward (+) and hold it there. Simultaneously with your left hand pull the downshift (-) paddle twice. You’ll see an orange S blink twice on the dash, and you did it. You’re in Sport Plus mode. Thing is, Sport Plus mode doesn’t do a whole lot. Basically, you’re opening up the exhaust valves a little more and lengthening the shift points. But what it really does is prevent the engine from falling below 4,000 rpm. Personally, I found Sport Plus more manic than useful. And besides, with the paddle shifters, any driver is able to keep the revs at the right level. You exit Sport Plus mode by simply pulling a paddle or moving the shift lever. I’d call the whole thing more theater than effective.
Personally, I didn’t care for plain old Sport mode all that much, either. It makes the engine rev out too high for no good reason. Sounds loud and buzzy, and honestly it was actually just fine on the racetrack. But Sport mode made me feel nervous and stressed on the street. Part of that could be due to the fact that the supercharger is essentially done (meaning decoupled) above 4,000 rpm, and as Bob Lutz famously said, “Americans buy horsepower but drive torque.” I’m sure the turbocharger provides plenty of punch, but the car just felt like it was hyperventilating when in Sport. Luckily, both the S60 and the V60 feel great when just in vanilla drive.
Although we did spend some time lapping the pancake-flat Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille, France, the Polestars are much happier on winding mountain roads. On the track, the FWD-based nature of the chassis shows up. But on the road, it’s as solid and planted to drive as an Audi. Understeer doesn’t show up too terribly unless you’re really pushing things, like you would on a racetrack. On the road, the front end of either Polestar feels both lighter and stiffer than before. Turn in was sharp and crisp, and although the electric power steering wasn’t the best I’ve ever driven (think Jaguar), it surely wasn’t the worst (think a German company who shall remain anonymous-ish). Grip on the road was outstanding, surely due to a combination of the adjustable hlins dampers, the rest of the suspension, and the wise decision to slap on Michelin Super Sports. Power was always there, and although it wasn’t copious by modern standards, every time I looked down, I was breaking the (French) law. Volvo’s mid-4-second 60-mph claim feels accurate. Bottom line is that any enthusiast would enjoy himself or herself behind the wheel of either body style.
The updated Polestars are better than the cars they replace. That much is certain. However, please remember that they aren’t aimed squarely at the top dogs from the Big German Three. Rather, they’re aimed at the volume performance models. Think S for Audi, M Sport for BMW, and until recently AMG Sport for Mercedes, as Mercedes now lumps everything under the AMG banner. So the new, spicy Volvos will be going up against the AMG 43 models, not the steroidal 63s. With all that said, you know what? Compared to the S4, 340i M Sport, and C43 (previously known as the C450 AMG Sport), the S60 and V60 Polestars are quite compelling. The biggest demerit against the Swedes would be the frankly outdated navigation and entertainment system. Which is a shame because both the XC90 and S90 feature Volvo’s fancy new, big touchscreen system, one of the best in the industry. On the plus side, Volvo has quietly started building some of the best-looking cars in the industry. If you can overlook one glaring issue, you’ll find yourself behind the wheel of an excellent alternative to mainstream sporty performance cars. My advice? Get the wagon, a product that the Germans don’t even bother selling in our country.