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Volvo returns to the performance fold with a promising fast estate that delivers raw performance, if not the driving dynamics of its rivals

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Whether you’re a veteran collector of six-figure supercars or just an aspiring one, you’ll appreciate the appeal of a real-world driver’s car.

The opportunity to actually use a car that you love driving more often than another that’s equally compelling but less versatile gives the talents of the former so much more weight.

The Polestar's a practical estate that's capable of 0-60mph in just 5.3sec

Living with a fast car makes you understand that concept instinctively – and renders you vulnerable to the appeal of the performance estate.

They may not be as pretty or as light as a sports coupé, but there’s a good chance that they will serve your requirements better than any other kind of car. To many, the emergence of the gross performance SUV only confirms the fundamental ‘rightness’ of the fast estate.

The performance estate was 20 in 2014. As if to mark the occasion, one of its originators – Volvo – has moved back into the niche. Sweden’s automotive powerhouse has a reputation for usability few can match.

But can one of the first of a new line of Polestar-branded performance Volvos combine that with genuine speed and thrills?

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DESIGN & STYLING

20in Volvo V60 Polestar alloy wheels
The 20in rims cover uprated discs and pads from Brembo. The calipers are six-piston items up front

Audi beat Volvo to the fast wagon punch by a year with its 1994 RS2 Avant; the 850 T-5R followed in 1995. Porsche was involved in the engineering of both, but only the 850 went on to inspire European motorsport success.

Available as both saloon and estate, the T-5R became the 850R in 1996. And after 1997, when the 850 was re-engineered and rechristened V70, so the V70R came along, with the 296bhp S60R following it in 2004. Ebbing sales saw Volvo drop the ‘R’ brand in 2007.

I love the exhaust note of the V60 Polestar, it sounds deeply BTCC circa 1988

Having run Gothenburg’s entries in the Swedish and world touring car championships for the past two decades, Polestar Motorsport was subsequently announced as Volvo’s partner for a new line of performance parts, upgrades and fully re-engineered performance road cars in 2009.

There has already been an S60 Polestar, which was initially not destined for the UK will now join the V60 Polestar in making its entrance into the market as Volvo's performance vehicles. It’s what the series of bespoilered Volvo concepts you might have noticed at motor shows these past few years has been all about.

Not that Polestar Volvos are solely about spoilers. In the V60’s case, Polestar started with a 3.0-litre T6 R-Design model and then went to town as much as possible without needing to tear up the undemanding servicing and maintenance routine.

The straight six engine gets a new twin-scroll turbocharger from Borg-Warner, a new intercooler, a new stainless steel active exhaust system and new ECU settings. The six-speed automatic transmission and Haldex electro-hydraulic four-wheel drive system have more aggressive control settings, too.

What results is 345bhp, 369lb ft and a launch control-governed 0-62mph claim of 5.0sec. Not quite the stuff of like-for-like Audi RSs or Alpina BMWs, but it’s probably gutsy enough for a level-headed Volvo. There has never been a more powerful production car from Gothenburg than this.

That was until the 2017 model was announced which is destined for the UK. The changes under the bonnet are huge, mainly the 3.0-litre engine has been replaced with a 2.0-litre unit which has been tweaked to produce 362bhp, which certainly puts it in the same power ball park as the Audi RS3, Ford Focus RS and the Porsche Cayman S.

A bigger overhaul has been carried out on the V60’s chassis, informed by the experience of running current Volvo S60s as racing cars since 2012 but optimised for the road. Polestar Motorsport added the stiffness and dynamic poise required for this V60 in several ways, starting with a carbonfibre strut brace between the two front suspension turrets.

Shorter suspension springs were then fitted, making for a ride height lowered by just 3mm over that of the standard V60 T6 R-Design. That small difference may not strike you as much, but the spring rates were increased by a whopping 80 per cent, with the stiffer pair on the rear axle, as tends to be the case in performance cars where the need for clean directional response gets the nod over outright ride comfort.

New Öhlins dampers were specified, but damping was toughened up elsewhere through the use of stiffer top mount and tie blade suspension bushings.
The running chassis overhaul is completed by 371mm Brembo front brake discs with six-piston calipers and bespoke Polestar Motorsport 20-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres.

Outwardly, Polestar’s modifications to the V60’s body are quite subtle – and entirely suitable for an effective ‘sleeper car’ mystique. The extended front lip spoiler reduces high-speed front axle lift, while the new roof spoiler and diffuser do the same for the rear. Small, blue Polestar badges also feature on its nose and rump.

INTERIOR

Volvo V60 Polestar interior
Leather, nubuck suede and blue stitching add just enough performance flavour to the Polestar's cabin

Shiny alloy pedals, some carbonfibre-effect centre console trim, sports seats and a pair of wheel-mounted gearshift paddles. These are the changes that instantly identify a V60 Polestar’s cabin from its rangemates – and at first, they don’t seem like much for your money.

But there’s more than first meets the eye to this gently purposeful cabin if you take the time to uncover the details.

All-round visibility is good. Standard kit also includes a reversing camera and parking sensors, making maneuvering even easier

All Polestars come with a mix of dark charcoal leather with downy nubuck suede panelling and contrasting blue stitching.

It’s just about sporty enough to give the car a performance flavour, but it’s far from over the top. In fact, it’s spot on.

The driver’s seat feels high-mounted when you settle into it – Volvos always give good visibility first and foremost – but headroom and legroom are generous enough and the seat itself is typically comfortable and supportive.

There’s plenty of adjustment in the steering column, while the wheel itself has a perforated leather outer rim and an Alcantara inner. You can brush the latter with your fingertips, but it won’t wear as quickly there as it might elsewhere on the rim. There’s pragmatic thinking for you.

The instruments are conveyed via a TFT display, with interchangeable modes for the outer readouts that are perfectly clear and easily swapped. The central multimedia system is navigated via the upper rotary knobs on the centre stack and the shortcut keys around the inner console. These are the kinds of solid, fixed buttons you can find without needing to take your eyes off the road, and they feel like they’ll last. There isn’t a touchscreen interface in sight.

Passenger space isn’t outstanding, but it’s competitive for a compact executive wagon. Boot space is slightly below par for the class, but it’s still quite plentiful. A standard folding front passenger seatback only adds to the carrying capacity.

The sub-£50k Volvo comes with plenty of kit as standard, as you'd expect, including climate control, xenon lights, parking sensors, a rear view camera, lane departure warning and an electric sunroof. The manufacturer’s Sensus infotainment system comes with, a 12-speaker Harman/Kardon surround sound audio system with a DAB tuner, sat nav, DVD player, Bluetooth, and a hard drive. 

The multimedia set-up pairs quickly with your mobile phone and, once it has, serves up a web browser and a range of web apps through the seven-inch colour display when the car is stationary. The screen is beginning to look small by premium-brand standards, but it’s decently clear and bright. The system also features a USB input, Bluetooth media streaming, DVD playback and hard disc music storage.

The satellite navigation system gets points for simplicity and ease of use, if not for dazzling mapping detail or technical sophistication. It’s voice-programmable and gives clear directional instructions in plenty of time for a turn.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volvo V60 Polestar rear quarter
The Polestar's six-clinder engine is mounted transversely

Volvo’s move to its new family of four-cylinder powerplants – whose diesel and petrol variants all share the same cylinder block, and where supercharging and turbocharging will do the hard work – is under way. As such, there’s a certain end-of-era naughtiness to the idea of the Polestar’s 3.0-litre turbocharged straight six engine.

Its power increase over the regular variant of the same engine comes courtesy of a bigger Borg-Warner twin-scroll turbo. It helps to produce a 362bhp peak at 5250rpm, with 369lb ft from 3000rpm. The engine runs into the limiter at 6500rpm, so, as the figures suggest, the meat of the performance comes through the mid-range.

The Polestar dispatched the standing quarter in 13.9sec at 102.9mph

The six-speed automatic transmission tends not to leave you languishing at low revs anyway, so there’s always performance on tap. It’s pretty vivid performance, too.

At our test track we recorded a 0-60mph time of 5.3sec, which is respectably close to the official claim, given that we test two up, averaged in two directions and with plenty of fuel on board.

But is it enough performance when an Audi RS4 – more expensive, admittedly – covers the same benchmark 0.9sec quicker? Tough call. At no point on the road does the Volvo feel like it’s short on accelerative urge, but for a car that is meant to be a performance flagship and which carries the burden of a 35 per cent benefit-in-kind tax rate, you could expect more.

In daily driving, though, we suspect you’ll not routinely wish the V60 was faster. Hold third gear as you exit a roundabout at 30mph and 6.1sec later you’ll be at 70mph. An RS4 is only 0.4sec faster over the same yardstick. And the Volvo’s torque converter auto, which gets manual override controls, is a journey-easing accomplice, providing the right amount of creep at low speeds while smoothing gearshifts pleasingly.

Also strong are the V60’s brakes, which let it pull itself down from 70mph in 43.3 metres in the dry, despite a weight as tested of 1805kg.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volvo V60 Polestar cornering
Polestar's chassis mods over the regular V60 include stiffer springs, new dampers, a carbonfibre strut brace and new bushings

Let’s deal with the ride part first, because it’s a low point of not just this section of the road test but the whole V60 Polestar driving experience. It’s one thing to expect a firm ride in a pseudo-sporting car, but when you’re driving a Volvo and thinking that a Renault Mégane Trophy-R would be a more compliant companion, you’ve got to start asking questions.

Thank goodness the V60 has large, comfortable seats, because the brittleness with which the Polestar rides on its 245/35 ZR20 Michelin Pilot Super Sports comes damnably close to ruining the whole car. Whether you’re in town, where it jiggles, or on a motorway, where the ride is improved but remains unacceptably firm, this V60 really doesn’t offer a great deal of respite either way. And even if there is a touch less intrusion on fast roads, the pressure isn’t eased, because with speed comes a road boom that’s equally unpleasant.

The V60 Polestar's usability is marred by an overly firm ride

Is there a trade-off on a B-road? A little. Body movements are firmly controlled, but don’t think the Volvo ever feels like anything other than a large estate, albeit one that can certainly cover ground at an impressive lick. Traction, thanks to a Haldex four-wheel drive system that can push up to 100 per cent of power to either axle, is exceptionally good – probably the Volvo’s party trick, in fact. A 2.2sec 0-30mph time lags behind that of an RS4 by half a second but doesn’t reflect how trustworthy the V60 feels if you want full acceleration on slippery surfaces.

How much the Volvo responds to your inputs depends on how ambitious you are on corner entry. Brake very hard and late, and ask it to turn in faster than it’s inclined to, and you’ll incite a lot of understeer.

This car’s chassis isn’t playful like that of some four-wheel-drive cars, such as a VW Golf R, or one that responds by shuffling power around to find grip where it otherwise wouldn’t, as an Audi RS4 might. And, of course, its power isn’t biased to the rear, so it doesn’t like a ‘bung’ like some super-saloons.

It pays to be more cautious and nudge up to the Volvo’s tendency to let go at the front first. Then, by smoothly applying the throttle, it’s easy to get the best out of it by allowing the four-wheel drive system to send power to the rear if the fronts become troubled, in turn pushing the Polestar out of corners at a genuinely impressive lick.

Driven thus, the Volvo V60 is at its most rewarding. Which means not as rewarding as the finest fast estates but a darned sight more so than any Volvo in recent memory.

But although it’s impressive and at times engaging, the Volvo seldom strays into an area you’d consider to be truly fun. It steers pleasingly enough, with medium weight and good consistency, but this is a front-led, mostly sensible estate car that happens to have quite a turn of pace.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volvo V60 Polestar
The V60 Polestar is powered by a 345bhp turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six engine

Before we highlight the pitfalls of buying a £50k, petrol-powered Volvo estate, there is a virtue to extol.

First, the manufacturer wasn’t punting the concept as a stock range-topper. There was only meant to ever be 750 V60 Polestars, sprinkled lightly around the US, Europe and Japan.

We averaged 25.6mpg in the Polestar, not far from the official claim of 27.7mpg

Add to that the Polestar’s decent practicality, Q-car looks and the standard fitment of every possible factory option – buyers only have to choose from one of four colours – and a production run sell-out seems a certainty. Especially when you consider that upgrading to an equivalently specified RS4 Avant would cost the thick end of £20,000 more.

That doesn’t make this car one for the neutral buyer, though. In order to see your signature on the Polestar’s V5 document, you will need to consciously avoid putting it on that of a big diesel-engined BMW 3 Series Touring – a car which, with xDrive, will do everything the Volvo V60 Polestar can while being cheaper to buy and run and almost certainly easier to sell on.

The only decision you have to make when buying a Polestar is which colour you'd like. The options are blue, black, silver or white. We'd recommend the blue.

VERDICT

3.5 star Volvo V60 Polestar
More appealing than its outright performance and abilities suggest

Browse the Volvo V60 Polestar’s vital statistics alongside its competitors and you’ll think it’s hard to make a good case for buying this car.

But there’s rather more to the V60 Polestar than bald statistics. Despite the harshness of its ride and the average economy it returned in our hands, the truth is that it’s a rather easier car to like than you might imagine.

Hard and uncompromising, but surprisingly appealing despite the flaws

It feels like the sort of car of which there won’t be another: harsh and fast, with an appealing engine and immense traction.

Ever since an 850 estate was campaigned in the BTCC, there’s been something distinctly appealing about a fast Volvo wagon, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the UK, received an allocation of 125 Polestars, and was the world’s largest market for them.

This new model with its smaller displacement engine certainly won't disappoint those who plunder best part of £50,000 on one, but overall it won't be anywhere near as evocative as the 3.0-litre limited edition run that went before.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Volvo V60 Polestar 2014-2016 First drives