Riverside, California -- Sweltering in the blazing desert sunlight outside the 110-year-old Mission Inn, it seems pretty dumb to be getting ready to drive the 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar. Just minutes ago, we were shown a picture of this all-wheel-drive car in its natural environment, an icy road in Sweden. We have looked carefully, yet can see no signs of frozen Arctic tundra in the vicinity of the Mission Inn.
But then we kind of get it. As we’re told, the Volvo S60 Polestar is supposed to be the same kind of specialty car as a BMW M3 sedan, only it’s meant for every day, not just Sunday. This is a smart thing to say, since there are days when you’re not profiling your Audi, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz hot rod outside some cafe (the natural environment for such cars, our experience suggests), and instead actually want to drive somewhere far away.
Some days it might be a place north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden. Other days it might be a 10,000-foot mountain overlooking the Mojave Desert in California.
Like the Germans, only really bad dressers
The Polestar people have added a lot of snap to the Volvo brand in a short time, which is something of a miracle, since you could fit all 45 of them into a small neighborhood bar in Gothenburg, Sweden, where Volvo and Polestar are both located. First Polestar developed street-legal performance chips for the ECUs of various Volvo models, then it put a broader array of specially tuned hardware on display in the limited-production Volvo C30 Polestar. It even created a handful of Volvo S60 sedans powered by a 508-hp tuned engine.
Now the 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar and 2015 Volvo V60 Polestar are leading Volvo into the same place where Audi Quattro, BMW M, and Mercedes-Benz AMG do business. Yet Polestar couldn’t be more different than its rivals. It’s really just a small racing team that has kept Volvo on the top step of the podium in the Swedish Touring Car Championship the last few years, and it cleverly uses Volvo’s own research and development labs and manufacturing facilities to create and produce specialty tuned cars.
Polestar is more like Alpina than BMW M -- more focused on racing, more dependent on its manufacturer’s production lines to build the products it creates. Just like the Swedes themselves, the Polestar people are like the Germans, only more modest and practical, even as they make plans that are anything but.
Setting out for the Arctic tundra
Last spring, our man had a chance to drive the 2015 S60 Polestar in Sweden, but this is the all-wheel-drive car’s first outing in America, and we can’t think of a harsher test than pounding down a concrete freeway in the unfashionable 909 telephone area code near Riverside. Our spirits are high because we’re headed toward Big Bear Lake in the San Gabriel Mountains, where it will be cooler by about 30 degrees compared to the Mission Inn.
Unexpectedly this Polestar drives like a Volvo, not a racetrack monster. Sure, you can hear the persistent drumming of the track-ready 245/35R-20 95Y Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires on the concrete, but the chassis remains poised and the suspension is supple. For all you know, you’re driving one of Volvo’s own R-Design models, not a car with low-profile 20-inch tires, springs that are 80 percent stiffer, double-adjustable Ohlins dampers, and some racing-style trickery in the bushings. This S60 Polestar is actually comfortable.
Mostly you notice that the seats feel plush in the usual Volvo style, only these are actually supportive. The hydraulic-assist steering can be adjusted to three different effort levels, though only by pulling to a stop and diving into the electronic menu displayed on the 7.0-inch touchscreen on the dash. (There will be no distracted driving, the safety-conscious Swedes say.)
Mountain driving without reindeer
We’re climbing the San Gabriel Mountains through a pine forest, and it’s not something you’d see in Sweden, not the least because the primary obstacle to forward progress is a tourist bus, not reindeer. Fortunately the intercooler and twin-scroll turbo help the 3.0-liter inline-six engine make enough power to speed us on our way, as the broad powerband works with the six-speed automatic to ensure the car is always ready for speed even if you are not. Once past 4000 rpm, the Polestar exhaust system will even growl louder for you.
You’ve got plenty of power here, and the Polestar-calibrated automatic transmission makes quick work of things through shift paddles on the steering wheel. Of course, if you look at this car’s specifications, you’ll be reminded that it is not a BMW M3. First, the turbocharged engine makes 345 hp @ 5,250 rpm and 369 lb-ft of torque @ 3,000-4,750 rpm, and this is just 20 hp more and 15 lb-ft more than the Polestar-tuned Volvo S60 R-Design. The BMW M3’s 425-hp turbocharged inline-six is simply in another league.
And yet as we corner through the switchbacks down the hill after reaching Big Bear Lake at 6,752 feet, we realize that we have no complaints. (Perhaps we are becoming Swedish.) All the dynamic performance of this car -- speeding, steering and stopping -- has been so well blended together that you’re aware only of driving, not specifications. This is what you want from a mature, well-developed sporting sedan, and it is as if the Volvo S60 Polestar has taken all the best aspects of the Audi S4, BMW M3, and Mercedes-AMG C63 and stitched them together.
On the track if you must
Polestar has won three STCC titles in a row, so we feel obligated to drive the S60 Polestar on the infield circuit of Auto Club Speedway just to recognize that it can be done, especially since Polestar’s Thed Bjork -- who won the STCC title for the second time this past year -- is here to show us how it should be done.
And this car will definitely go when you adjust the stability control, which not only becomes more permissive but also biases the drivetrain torque to the rear. (Launch control is here too if you want it.) The racing-style, 14.6-inch, floating brake discs with six-piston Brembo calipers deliver predictable (not sudden) bite from the Brembo SPS-1000 brake pads, and the 20-inch Michelins will not wimp out in the corners. The torque-vectoring rear differential of the Haldex all-wheel-drive system does its magic, though it’s fair to say that this car still feels like a front-wheel-drive car in the corners, as most AWD cars do. There are no easy-peasy electronically adjustable chassis calibrations available, but if you’re serious about track duty, the racing-spec, double-adjustable Ohlins dampers await you.
But the whole point of the 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar really has nothing to do with the track. When the weather is a challenge, a driver wants a car that delivers predictable dynamics, and this means softer responses from the steering, throttle, and brakes than what might seem thrilling at 45 mph in an empty parking lot behind some café. (If you want proof, just bring your C36, M3, or S4 to Detroit in February; remember to pack your snow boots.)
Not available in stores
At $60,225 with destination, the 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar is priced right on top of the $62,925 2015 BMW M3, and the Volvo’s engine falls 80 hp short in the process. This doesn’t sound so good, except then you remember that BMW charges you $2,900 more for a dual-clutch automatic, $1,900 more for a package that includes a simple backup camera, and $1,200 for 19-inch wheels. (And what about the tires, eh?) And then there’s the question of all-wheel drive.
Sadly, it’s likely that there are few examples of the 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar (and its companion, the 2015 Volvo V60 Polestar wagon) left on the shelves of the 56 Volvo dealerships that are Polestar outlets across the country. That’s because only 750 examples of these two cars have been built, and only 120 of them will reach the United States. The Polestar people tell us that its label will only trickle out of Gothenburg until 2017, when there will finally be a Polestar for everyone.
But we’re interested in this car nevertheless. It proves that there are a useful number of people who still believe that Volvo continues to have a unique identity. And even better, Volvo has the resources and the corporate will to take advantage. As for us, we like the idea of a car that can tear across the tundra at a time of year when only the reindeer are there to see.
2015 Volvo S60 AWD Polestar Specifications
Engine:3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve I-6; 345 hp @ 5,250 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,750 rpm
Layout:4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA Mileage:18/26/21 mpg (city/highway/combined)
L x W x H:182.5 x 73.4 x 58.4 in
0-60 mph:4.7 sec
Top Speed:155 mph (electronically limited)
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