Scandinavia's auto industry has long held sway over New England's car-buying habits, with only interloper Subaru enjoying more success than Volvo and Saab over the past few decades (and culminating in perhaps the only vehicle ever intended exclusively for the Yankee driver: the 'Saabaru' 9-2x). Similar climates and a desire to sample the finer things in life without appearing too ostentatious have allowed Volvo in particular to slide into the stealth luxury spot in many a Vermont, upstate New York, or Massachusetts driveway.
It was with this in mind that I slipped across the border between Quebec and New Hampshire behind the wheel of the 2017 Volvo V60 Polestar, the automaker's sole high-performance model, and an interesting juxtaposition of the brand's past and future, stirred by the bright blue swizzle stick of its now-in-house tuning division. My destination was Portland, Maine, where I would spend a few nights sampling the coastal hospitality of one of the state's most vital cities. Along the way, I would confirm a long-held suspicion: You don't have to cross an ocean to head home in a Volvo; you simply have to point it Downeast.
The V60 Polestar is a most unusual offering on the luxury scene, not the least of which because it's a wagon in a world that has fed almost all of its brethren to the furnace as fuel for the SUV and crossover machine that has taken over the industry (a sedan model, the S60 Polestar, is also available). With only BMW still delivering wagon-shaped utility for Euro car fans trapped in North America, the V60 enjoys few competitors. However, peel back its bright Rebel Blue paint and there are more than a few unique mechanical bits hiding under its skin that further separate it from the pack.
Supercharged AND turbocharged
First and foremost is the Polestar's new powerplant, a 2.0L 4-cylinder unit that is both supercharged and turbocharged to produce 367 horsepower and 347 lb-ft of torque (one of the 10 best engines of 2017 according to Wards). Replacing the older model's larger turbo-6, the complicated piping beneath the hood of this hot V60 is intended to make up for the torque drop of the smaller motor by engaging the supercharger until roughly 4,000 rpm, after which the turbo takes over to the redline.
Volvo fans will surely notice that this setup, called “Drive-E,” is similar to the arrangement available with the full-size S90 sedan and XC90 crossover, albeit with revised internals, spicier cams, and bigger mouths for the fuel pump, air intake, and exhaust. Those alterations shift the Volvo V60 Polestar away from the efficiency side of the spectrum that Drive-E was initially conceived to satisfy, in favour of more explosive power delivery through its standard all-wheel drive system (and a concomitant rise in fuel consumption—I saw no better than 10L/100km on my 1,100km round trip).
A bump in horsepower and a dip in torque versus the Polestar of old are more than balanced out by the inclusion of a much-needed 8-speed automatic transmission upgrade. The six ratios previously offered by the car were woefully incapable of harnessing the 6-cylinder mill's output in any fashion that could be considered fun, and was the weakest part of the performance formula. The 8-speeder banishes all of that to the past, as its paddle-shifted algorithms are far better suited to keep up with the frenetic forward pace the 367 horses command.
The twisting state roads that link Quebec to Maine through New Hampshire offered ample opportunity to punish the 2017 Volvo V60 Polestar's drivetrain as it scrambled for purchase over the snow-covered asphalt. Capable of sending as much as 65% of the torque to the rear wheels, the Polestar's front-wheel drive roots are still discernible when driven hard, its chassis defaulting to understeer in moments of centrifugal crisis. A little more leeway from the electronic stability control system and a lot more aural satisfaction from the wagon's exhaust are available by way of the tranny's Sport mode, but I became frustrated with how it kept the car pinned in fourth gear even during steady cruising. Given that there's no way to separately access Sport programming for ESC (unless you want to back it off almost completely by digging through infotainment system menus), I found myself moving back and forth between Sport and Drive on a regular basis searching for a non-existent sweet spot.
Quick, but nervous
The Volvo V60 Polestar's quickness is apparent in almost all situations, with a 0-100 km/h sprint of 4.6 seconds joined by the effortless ability to pass at highway speeds, regardless of what gear the autobox happens to be sitting in when you hammer the throttle. Launch control is available, but unnecessary—there's not enough torque here to break AWD grip on dry pavement.
Any road that isn't absolutely glass-smooth, however, gets the Volvo's chassis squirrelly thanks to the Öhlins adjustable shock absorbers at each corner. This setup, which is mechanically adjustable, was set to '10' out of a possible '20' in terms of stiffness from the factory, which turns out to be far too aggressive for New England and especially Quebec's frozen winter infrastructure. There was little I could do about it on my road trip, because while the rear shocks can be accessed by removing a small panel in the cargo area, the front ones require you to reach up under the car and twiddle with a small adjustment port—preferably with the vehicle on a lift. Is this something I was going to do, on my hands and knees, in the slush, ice, and snow mid-drive? Definitely not.
Posh price, compromised execution
It's this lack of execution, combined with an interior design ripped from a Volvo brochure circa 2007 and a whopping price tag, that makes me hesitant in recommending the 2017 Volvo V60 Polestar to fans of spirited Swedish driving. For the huge sum of just over $70,000, this model really should deliver the exceptional elegance—or a reasonable facsimile thereof—of the cabin found in its S90 sibling (or at least offer an updated infotainment system with a display larger than that of the smartphone in my pocket). You should also be able to access a stiffer or softer ride at the touch of a button, not get greasy under the car with a wrench in hand.
There's nothing wrong with an automaker releasing a “tuner” car that requires a little more engagement on the part of owners to get the most out of its performance potential. Problem is, when said vehicle is priced in the same neighbourhood as a similarly quick BMW M or Mercedes-AMG model, having to leave the driver's seat to summon up the optimal suspension setting becomes significantly less appealing.
As the only high-performance compact wagon still sold in Canada (albeit in extremely limited numbers), the Volvo V60 Polestar remains intriguing, but buying one is akin to getting engaged after a long period of cohabitation: You'd better be comfortable with all of its flaws before making a firm commitment.