The current Volvo V60 and S60 only have one year left in them, but that didn't get in the way of big changes for the high-performance Polestar models. Gone is its hilariously loud turbocharged straight-six, and in its place is a 362-hp turbo- and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder.
The six-cylinder Polestar was a car for Volvo fans but not necessarily one that was going to draw in those looking at its competition. It lacked handling finesse and drivetrain refinement, but more than made up for with oddball charm.
Unfortunately, the S60 and V60 Polestar have lost some of that charm with the switch to four-cylinder power, but gain what is, ostensibly, a much-improved drivetrain.
`The engine is a remarkable piece of engineering, with a specific power output of 181 horsepower per liter. That nearly makes it the most powerful four-cylinder engine on the market, second only to Mercedes-AMG's 2.0-liter 375-hp unit.
This 2.0-liter starts life as the 316-hp four-cylinder found in the new XC90, among other cars, but gets some hardware improvements. Of course, there's a bigger turbo, which works in tandem with a redesigned air intake, new connecting rods, a new camshaft, and a beefed up fuel pump. Despite having a supercharger and a turbo, the new engine is slightly lighter than the old six too, helping take weight off the front axle.
Naturally you'd expect a 2.0-liter making this sort of power to be peaky and undrivable, but the opposite is true. That's thanks to the supercharger, which gives virtually instant throttle response below 3000 rpm, which is when the turbocharger kicks in. On mountain roads north of Phoenix and at Arizona Motorsports Park, it was easy to enjoy the car's 347 lb-ft of torque. It pulls hard from low revs in third and even fourth gear, making it a remarkably tractable street-car engine.
The engine is hooked up to the same Aisin eight-speed auto found in other new Volvos, but with Polestar-specific software tuning. It's a huge improvement over the six-speed in the previous S60 and V60 Polestar, with much quicker upshifts, though downshifts still aren't rev-matched. This gearbox isn't on the level of the ZF eight-speed used in Jaguars, BMWs, and others, but it's a step in the right direction nevertheless.
As impressive as the engine is, I couldn't help but think it was just a little bland compared with the old six. It sounds sort of like a GTI, but with a few extra pops on full-throttle upshifts. It's hooked up to a dual-mode performance exhaust, but even in Sport mode, this engine is just too polite. Polestar should look to Mercedes-AMG and Fiat-Abarth (or, the old S60 and V60 Polestar) for inspiration.
What isn't bland is the Polestar's semi-secret Sport+ mode. You activate it by holding the gearshift in the "+" position and tapping the downshift paddle twice in quick succession. This mode keeps revs above 4000 rpm, increases shift speed and keeps the exhaust valves open. It only works in automatic mode, and while it's a little too ridiculous for the street, it's perfect for the few people that will dare take their Polestars to the track.
The drivetrain changes make up the bulk of what's new for the 2017 S60 and V60 Polestar, but there's another change worth mentioning–electric power steering. Yep, the Polestar has eschewed hydraulic steering, but don't get your pitchforks yet. The old Polestar had nice steering, but it really wasn't anything to write home about, so there's no significant loss here. The EPAS system is nicely weighted and accurate, but lacks feel. On track, you hear the tires more than you feel anything with your fingertips.
In corners, the S60 and V60 Polestar are composed, but not nearly as playful as you'd want with a road-oriented sports sedan. There's a lot of grip from the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires and all-wheel drive system, but it all feels just a bit safe. Only 50 percent of torque is sent to the rear wheels, and that's only in the most aggressive drive modes. This contrasts with competing all-wheel-drive systems from Audi, BMW, and Jaguar, which can send most (if not all) torque to the rear wheels.
The Polestar is capable–it just doesn't goad you into driving it hard.
Unchanged from the previous S60 and V60 Polestar are the manually-adjustable Ohlins dampers. These are the sort of dampers you'd install on your car if you're a serious track-day junkie, and while they are undoubtedly impressive hardware, I'm not convinced they belong on this car. For the on-road portion of our drive, they were set to medium stiffness, but they felt far too harsh for the street. Even on smooth roads, the Polestar bounced and jiggled far more than it needed to.
On track, Polestar technicians stiffened them further, which somehow made a relatively smooth track feel bumpy in places. Body control with these shocks is impressive, but they really don't jive with the Polestar's street-car intent. This isn't a track-day special, so why should it ride like one?
The ride isn't helped much by 20-inch wheels wrapped in ultra low-profile tires. Someone should tell Polestar's engineers that you don't need super stiff suspension and big wheels to make a nice handling car. Among Polestar's competition, Jaguar and Cadillac seemed to have figured that out best.
The Polestar offers a high level of real-world performance, but with a suspension setup that really only works on track. The car isn't quite sure what it wants to be. The engine and gearbox are improvements on the last Polestar, but the chassis is showing its age. Still, there's reason to be excited about Polestar's future.
Soon, it'll offer versions of Volvo's all-new 90-series. That mighty little four will also be joined by electric motors to generate even more performance, and offer an interesting alternative to the German mainstream.
Going forward, Polestar should take a close look at what made the older six-cylinder S60 and V60 Polestar so charming, and take some stiffness out of the suspension. It could have a really interesting, daily-drivable performance car on its hands.