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The Volvo S60 Polestar is bravely being pitched as a rival to German sports sedans.
But it also undercuts the Audi S4 by $10K, and the BMW M3 and Lexus IS F by $15K. Its claimed 4.9-second 0-100km/h makes the Volvo S60 Polestar a tenth quicker than the S4, neck-and-neck with the IS F and a tenth slower than the M3.
A 50-unit limited edition, Volvo's hottest model has been developed by Polestar, its official tuning company that has now for the first time made a proper production car.
Australia gets the entire allotment, with our country being tagged as performance-focused – we buy more AMG and Renault Sport models in proportion to other Benzes and Renaults respectively than any other country – and therefore a test-bed for future Volvo Polestar models. If we like the car, Polestar will build more of them for other countries,
The release of the S60 Polestar also nicely complements the announcement that Volvo Polestar Racing will start on the 2014 V8 Supercars grid.
Chassis modifications compared with the S60 T6 R-Design include 20-step manually adjustable Ohlins dampers with 80 per cent stiffer springs; new stabiliser bars; a carbonfibre reinforced front strut brace; new top mounts front and rear; and new tie blade bushings.
Ventilated brake discs move to 336mm in size, and Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres wrap around 19-inch alloy wheels.
Engine alterations extend to a new Borg Warner twin-scroll turbo, new intercooler, larger stainless steel exhaust and new engine management software with launch control.
That takes the 3.0-litre single turbocharged petrol six-cylinder from 224kW of power to 257kW at 5700rpm, and from 440Nm of torque to "500Nm-plus" from 2800-4750rpm.
In addition to equalling rivals for straight-line performance, the engine modifications get the 1684kg S60 Polestar to 100km/h 1.3 seconds faster than S60 T6 – though the 10.2L/100km economy is unchanged.
A chart produced by Volvo at the local launch also proudly claims that the S60 Polestar makes more kilowatts and Newton metres per litre of engine capacity than the Audi S4, BMW M3, Lexus IS F and even the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG.
Big-name claimed competitors means raising expectations.
There is initially a hint of ‘aftermarket’ about the suspension of the S60 Polestar, which requires owners to get under the car and manually ‘click’ each damper from a setting from one through to 20, to increase or decrease its stiffness.
Set in the mid-range tenth-click for our drive through the twisting roads of Mount Glorious, west of Brisbane, the S60 Polestar felt anything but aftermarket. Its ride is actually more settled than that of the regular S60 T6 R-design, ignoring minor road irregularities but remaining tightly controlled over undulations.
In fact, its 80 per cent stiffer springs seem to deliver a similar percentage increase in body control compared with the S60 T6 R-design. No longer does the long nose of the S60 slap against its suspension bump-stop over big hits and take a while to regain composure.
The S60 Polestar still feels nose heavy and mildly understeery, however. Tight bends require long braking application on turn-in to wash off speed and keep the nose in line. The need to work the brakes hard meant the pedal went soft surprisingly early in our drive, and having the air conditioning on the outside-air setting meant the smell of brakes of the S60 Polestar in front, which indicated it had much the same problem.
Blunt initial turn-in isn’t helped by steering that is unchanged compared with the regular model. Its consistent mid-weighting – neither too light nor heavy – is backed by a nice directness when winding on lock. But the steering is slow to initially bite, and too slow overall for a sports model, which means plenty of arm twirling during tight manoeuvres.
Get past the initial front-end resistance, and the S60 Polestar feels grippy, balanced and rewarding. Allow the front end to wash wide a bit, lift the throttle mid corner and the rear of the S60 Polestar swings around slightly to get the nose tracking true again.
The S60 Polestar does, however, love faster and free-flowing roads more than a tight mountain pass. Whether the surface is smooth or craggy, it blasts backroads with proper sports sedan discipline and composure.
There’s very little body roll in sweeping corners, the Bridgestones grip determinedly, and the turbocharged six-cylinder fires when the throttle is pressed. The engine also sounds great, with a deep but ultra-smooth crescendo to redline. It just needs a louder exhaust to differentiate it from the regular S60 T6.
As with the steering and brakes, however, the S60 Polestar engine is let down by its automatic transmission. In Sport mode it is way too relaxed to find higher gears, and it fails to react decisively to harder driving.
There are no steering wheel-mounted gearshift paddles, either, and the tipshifter is the wrong way around – the need to grab lower gears when braking, and braking momentum pushing the driver’s body forward, means you should press the tipshifter forward to find a lower gear not pull it back as in the Volvo.
Inside, the Volvo S60 Polestar is virtually unchanged compared with the regular models, so it doesn’t feel particularly special. The leather-trimmed seats are delightfully comfortable in normal duties, but their side supports crumble during hard driving.
The highlights are the intuitive central colour screen, the hidden storage bin behind the ‘floating’ centre console and the B-pillar-mounted face-level air vents for rear passengers.
Unlike the four-seat IS F, the S60 Polestar can seat five, and delivers a similar level of comfort to the Audi S4, if not a similar level of quietness – there’s plenty of road rumble on coarse chip surfaces, especially.
Time with the S60 Polestar ended on the racetrack, where the launch control function proved to be one of the least effective around; it barely spikes revs and delivers quite a soft take-off.
Perhaps most impressively for a first-time tuner effort, however, is that the S60 Polestar has no disastrous flaws. It is quick, sounds great, and handles well, yet is very comfortable. Perhaps aptly it is in the fine tuning that the car can’t match similarly priced rivals – in areas like steering, braking and transmission calibration, particularly.
The Volvo S60 Polestar is very likeable and very worthy – and the talented Polestar people should be allowed to do more and go further with engineering.
But the limitations of this car should be reflected by a more appropriate, cheaper price tag, because it is isn’t nearly as finessed as an Audi S4 or even a BMW 335i, let alone an M3.