When you’re a relatively small player in the global automotive market, it might seem risky (or even pointless) to invest valuable assets in a performance model that could become an epic fail. However, a halo model capable of running with the BMW M3, Mercedes C63 AMG and Audi RS4 could conceivably alter perceptions and turn around company fortunes.
This is the quandary faced by Volvo. Recently unleashed from Ford ownership to be scooped up by Chinese manufacturer Geely, it aims to increase sales significantly, but how can they do that?
The safest route is to produce cheaper cars for the largest segments and markets. But there is another way. And one that’s infinitely more fun.
How about introducing a performance model that stands shoulder to shoulder with the aforementioned heavyweights? A car with the adrenaline-pumping performance of an M3, the grip of an RS4 and the sound of, well, a Porsche 911 racecar, if we’re honest!
This is what we discovered when visiting the customer training center inside the Volvo manufacturing center in Gothenburg, Sweden. As one of the only two US publications invited, we’d been offered an exclusive preview of the S60 Polestar.
Regular readers will know this Swedish company from our Volvo C30 track test in the 9/12 issue and road test in 11/11. It built the bright blue 450hp C30 AWD to celebrate its involvement with the same model in the World Touring Car series.
The company additionally provides performance software for most Volvo T5 and T6 turbo engines, available directly from your dealer without affecting the factory warranty. It even trains Volvo technicians in Sweden, and has been Volvo’s motorsport partner for many years.
To coincide with the start of the new TTA Elite Racing Series, in which Polestar has entered four S60-based racecars, the company decided to build a second concept based on the S60 T6 AWD platform. “The performance road car concept is a spinoff from our work evaluating and developing the S60 for racing,” said Polestar managing director Hans Bååth.
As with the previous C30, Polestar claimed its S60 could be put into production either as a limited-edition or mainstream high-performance model. As such, it probably wouldn’t get the full 500hp T6 engine fitted here, and the suspension might not be as hardcore, but Polestar makes a convincing argument for a much-needed Volvo sports sedan.
When the C30 concept was introduced in 2010, many Volvo fans had apparently requested one of their own, but its custom bodywork and AWD engineering made it prohibitively expensive.
This time around, they wouldn’t make the same mistake. In fact, Bååth told us there were enough parts to build ten cars for an undisclosed price. Estimates put it anywhere from $100,000 to three times that amount. But a production version need not cost that much. Early adopters would be paying for custom engine and chassis work, one-off carbon fiber panels, and to have the body dipped in the rust prevention process at the factory.
The close relationship between Volvo and Polestar sees technicians developing new software upgrades in the carmaker’s powertrain department, and able to work at every level of production. As such, the S60 Polestar was designed with production in mind.
Although an independent company, Polestar makes a persuasive case for a range of high performance Volvo sports models, similar to AMG or BMW M. Perhaps all it needs is enough customers requesting such a model from their local dealer…
That said, Polestar will sell you software for an existing model, and is reportedly introducing a range of hardware, such as exhausts, suspension and wheels, later in the year.
Following its public unveiling to a crowded pit area at the Gothenburg City Track during a round of the TTA series, we were invited to Volvo’s test facility to experience the car for ourselves.
Originally intended as passenger laps alongside Polestar touring car ace Robert Dahlgren, we’d come a long way not to drive ourselves. So when nobody was looking, we took a few laps.
The test track was a wretched combination of decreasing radius corners, blind brows and double apexes that would make any car understeer. This, and a lack of familiarity, made our initial laps torrid. However, we remembered our experience in the C30 Polestar where the faster you went, the better it performed.
Having been warned this example was the only complete prototype and already sold to an affluent Swede, it was unnerving to take it by the scruff, but when we did, the experience was wondrous.
Under hard acceleration, its 500hp caused the all-wheel drive system to torque steer slightly. “It used to do it more,” Dahlgren admitted, “but we’re constantly working to reduce it and alter the power application. When we first started, the power would arrive in a big thump, causing the chassis all kinds of problems, but we’ve improved the delivery with electronics to help the drivability.”
While delivery may have softened, it remained hugely entertaining. Yet the track insisted you wait for its two short straights to exploit it fully. Otherwise, you were holding half-throttle around medium-speed turns for agonizing seconds. These were interrupted by dips and brows that could easily unsettle a badly sorted car.
“We’ve spent more than six months working solely on the suspension with Öhlins,” Robert said. “We were looking for grip, comfort and rotation, altering the e-diff in the rear to change the characteristics.”
Able to adjust the Haldex eLSD from 0-100% locking, Robert had dialed in his preferred lift-off oversteer to induce rotation but the engineers dialed it back to induce some initial understeer for safety.
On the track, we were able to overcome the understeer with a dab of throttle, finding the chassis very neutral mid-corner, and allowing you to promote mild oversteer out of the corners with heavier throttle application. The rear wheels would step sideways a few inches before the diff interrupted and brought everything into line. Then it was a case of holding onto the wheel to resist that torque steer as the engine hit its 22psi (1.5bar) maximum boost.
That said, the characteristics were delightful: both safe and entertaining, with just enough rotation to promote fast cornering without feeling like it was always on a knife edge. And the chosen 265/30 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires on custom 19x9.5" Polestar wheels gave high grip and were wonderfully predictable.
While the tires provided lots of feedback, Robert and the Polestar engineers had also experimented with bushings and even recalibrated a Volvo V40 steering rack. “I’d like more [feedback] but it probably won’t happen,” laughed Dahlgren as he described the partnership between the development team and its goals. He was determined to create a razor-sharp track machine while the engineers would tame it for regular road conditions.
Given our previous briefing, these safety margins were appreciated, but you knew everything could be overwhelmed by a hard squeeze on the throttle. And this would undoubtedly call on the final piece of the chassis puzzle: the brakes. Sporting massive 380mm front discs, clamped by six-piston Brembo calipers, they could be modulated perfectly, while giving you the ability to stop on a dime.
Trying to eek the most out of the short straights, we’d hammer on the brakes at the last possible moment, happy to discover their performance was powerful and consistent.
High horsepower allows fast entry speeds, necessitating wide tires to provide lots of grip. This simple formula resulted in widened fenders to accommodate the big Michelins. Up front, they were constructed from carbon fiber (along with the front bumper, side skirts, rear bumper, diffuser and trunk spoiler). The rear fenders were constructed from steel, along with rear door skins to blend into them. Once attached, the body was galvanized at the Volvo factory.
The extra 20mm width allowed the track to be widened 20mm front and 40mm rear. And with the car 30mm lower on its coilovers, it created an aggressive stance on the unique wheels.
With an estimated top speed in excess of 185mph, Volvo made its wind-tunnel available to verify the reduced lift offered by the new spoilers.
The use of carbon fiber, and the decision to fit a close-ratio manual transmission instead of an auto, dropped the overall weight to 3615 lb from 3812 lb. Fitting a smaller battery and other concessions also allowed them to optimize its distribution.
Painted in vibrant Polestar blue, the car is undeniably arresting. As much part of its signature as the high output and competition chassis, we can’t help speculate how the car would appear in a gunmetal grey, for example. Losing some of its cartoon persona might help people view the concept differently, see it as a more viable competitor to the M3 perhaps?
In production guise, 400hp would be ample yet the tuner went for a headling-grabbing 500hp, and we’re grateful it did. Its savage yet linear acceleration was accompanied by both a racecar wail and a hapless grin.
There aren’t many Volvos that would make you giggle this way, but a larger Garrett turbo and modified head play their part. As does a custom exhaust manifold and 3.5" Ferrita exhaust system that give the 3.0L T6 its baritone voice. Reinforced with forged rods and fueled by Polestar software, the engine is similar to the thousands of big-turbo T6 built in barns across Sweden every winter, except this one could carry a warranty.
That manual transmission was from the S60R, modified with closer ratios for uninterrupted acceleration. Its only issue was the heavy-duty clutch installed to cope with the 424 lb-ft of torque, which made low-speed starts a challenge. Once underway it was quickly forgotten, but a production version will require lighter pedal pressure and more slippage than this on/off switch.
The short-throw lever, like the steering wheel and seats, wears a strip of alcantara to improve grip. It sits in a center console that was lowered to improve the ergonomics and it does indeed, as the cliché suggests, fall nicely to hand.
The Volvo seats have been enhanced with larger bolsters and lumbar, creating excellent support in this high-g sports sedan.
Considering the car was completed only three days before our visit, it was a remarkable testament to Polestar’s expertise and the S60’s versatility. In fact, this was the first time everything had been put together, with development of the engine and chassis being conducted by two different mules.
“There was so much to do in order to get everything working together,” explained Dahlgren. “This car is still early in its development phase and there’s plenty we can do, but we’ve been very close to its development for so long that it’s good to get feedback from other people to help us assess where it stands. Hopefully, we’ll be working on the cars until the last one is delivered because I always feel there’s more we can do.”
That said, the S60 Polestar had all the high production values of Germany’s best tuning houses, while having obviously been built by a company with a strong motorsport background that strived to preserve some of the original Volvo sensibility. It’s anything but a “sensible” car, yet it manages to feel safe and predictable, as a high-performance Volvo should. All that remains to be asked is whether Volvo Cars feels the same way we do about the prospect of a sports sedan.
Volvo S60 Polestar Concept
3.0L B6304T4 T6 inline-six with modified cylinder head and combustion chambers, inlet manifold and air intake, special connecting rods, Garrett 3171 turbo, custom exhaust manifold, Ferrita 3.5" stainless steel exhaust system, Polestar software
reinforced close-ratio M66C six-speed manual transmission, Haldex Gen4 XWD system with rear eLSD
Polestar/Brembo six-piston calipers and 380mm rotors f, Polestar/Volvo calipers and 302mm discs r, front cooling ducts
Öhlins three-way coilovers, front and rear sway bars, wider track, strut braces, modified control arms with uniballs and reinforced bushings in control arms and subframe, uprated engine mounts, Polestar-tuned V40 EHPAS steering
Wheels & Tires
19x9.5" Polestar wheels, 265/30 R19 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires
carbon fiber front spoiler, fenders, diffuser, side skirts, trunk spoiler and rear bumper, metal rear fenders and door skins
Polestar seats, alcantara on steering wheel, shift knob and seats, center console lowered
508hp at 6500rpm, 424 lb-ft at 5500rpm, 0-62mph 3.9sec, top speed 300km/h (186mph), 3615 lb