Polestar is Volvo's official performance partner but with a name like Polestar you'd be forgiven for thinking it might be the name of a raunchy late-night reality show. This small company, based in a modest workshop in suburban Gothenburg, Sweden, has been brought in to sex-up a brand traditionally known in Australia for its staid station wagons and steadfast commitment to safety.
A lot of automotive brands now come with tuning companies attached. Some of them are in-house and official, such as BMW’s M division and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG while others remain external and unofficial, but accepted as being authorities on their chosen marque - think RUF and Porsche.
Polestar sits somewhere in the middle. They are their own entity but a couple of key Polestar employees now have seats in Volvo’s engineering offices and it’s from here that they fine-tune Polestar’s performance-enhancing products in conjunction with Volvo Cars.
Polestar’s work doesn’t stop at tuning however, in fact, the tuning business is an offshoot from their core business, racing.
Step into that modest, modern workshop outside Gothenburg and the first thing you see isn’t a bunch of boffins in lab coats, the boffins come later, the first thing you see is a collection of trophies lined up outside one of the company’s glass-walled meeting rooms. These trophies, around 20 of them, are the ones they don’t have space for in the boardroom - the people at Polestar are very good at what they do.
We’ve all seen behind-the-scenes coverage from Bathurst and Formula One but it’s one thing to see the amazing work that a racing team can do on the television, it’s another thing entirely to see it first-hand. I had a guided tour around the Polestar workshop for an hour, getting a close-up look at the cars, the strip-down engine benches, dynamometers and the chassis jigs that are used to ensure that absolutely everything is properly aligned.
The two Volvo C30 racecars are both immaculate, inside and out. You could eat your lunch off the bare passenger side floor. Every aspect of the car exudes a quality finish and all key components are built in-house to the team’s exacting standards. Like all race teams, Polestar is proud of what it does, and the cars they put on the track are its best advertisement.
The results are impressive, too. The Swedish Touring Car Championship has proven to be Polestar’s bread and butter, and test bench, for nearly a decade. With support from Volvo, its success has grown to a point where the team has dominated both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships for the last three years. They’ll take this success into a new series in Sweden for 2012, the Swedish Racing Elite League. In 2011, Polestar also ran a development team in the World Touring Car Championship. If all goes to plan, full participation will most likely begin in 2013.
Polestar’s success is no accident. After starting life as ‘Flash Engineering’, the team was taken over by Christian Dahlgren in 2005, taking the Polestar name as a reference to both the northern origins of the team and their desire to always be at the front of the grid.
Dahlgren has successfully diversified the team’s operations, securing the all-important tighter integration with Volvo. Today Polestar provides engineering services to paying customers, ‘lean’ customer service training for Volvo service workshops, as well as supervision over an educational program supported by Volvo aimed at teaching Swedish high school students about automotive engineering. And then there’s the performance-tuning business.
Polestar has been offering its factory-backed tuning in various markets around the world for a few years now. As of April 2012, the Polestar tune will be available for Volvos in Australia.
With Polestar engineers now embedded at Volvo’s vehicle development headquarters, everything they develop is designed to be fully integrated into standard vehicles from the factory. What this means for consumers is a decent rise in both horsepower and torque without sacrificing drivability or reliability.
The recent limited edition Volvo S60 Polestar sold in Australia featured upgrades that are typical of what a factory Polestar tune will bring to other Volvo models. Tuning packages with various levels of boost (up to 15kW and 50Nm, depending on model) will be available for Volvo T5, T6 and D5 engines with Polestar also dialing up the vehicle’s throttle response, so owners not only have a higher performance ceiling, they have more fun getting there.
There are other benefits, too. Firstly, a Volvo loses none of its standard fuel efficiency with a Polestar tune. While the engine’s capabilities might increase, the owner will use the same amount of fuel while enjoying the enhanced drivability. Secondly, and more importantly, a Volvo tuned by Polestar retains its full factory warranty. This is the single most important aspect of the Polestar tune that aftermarket tuners simply cannot match.
Will Polestar be partnering with Volvo more extensively in the future? For now, it’s simply performance tuning that’s on offer, but the company has a wealth of experience in vehicle hardware that could be added to Volvo’s line-up in the future.
Though Polestar hasn’t specifically committed to anything on that yet, the limited Aussie edition S60 tuned by Polestar in 2011 had more than just software to cut it from the herd. I drove a carbon copy of that vehicle in Sweden and, while it was the middle of winter and conditions weren’t really conducive to daring driving, it definitely wasn’t your Dad’s Volvo.
Volvo should be applauded for taking the step toward injecting a bit more adrenalin into its Swedish family sedans and wagons. In an automotive world that’s becoming more cookie-cutter every year, it’s nice to have the chance to drive something a little bit different.
Note: the author visited Polestar during a trip to Sweden, paid out of his own pocket. Neither Polestar nor Volvo offered any form inducement or incentive for this article.