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Sweet Swedes

Volvo's family sedan and wagon get a kick in the pants with some serious performance tweaks

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Photos by Postmedia News Inc. The Polestar editions of the Volvo S60 sedan and V60 wagon are quick vehicles that really strut their stuff when driven between 80 and 120 km/h.

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GOTHENBURG, Sweden -- Sometimes, the Swedes do something that's totally uncharacteristic. Volvo is, in general, a very conservative company -- boxy design and safety was its bailiwick. However, as the years have ticked on, its style evolved to the point where a new owner could throw away the box and finally show off the car.

Now comes the advent of the 2015 Polestar editions of the S60 sedan and V60 wagon. When tasked with the job of tweaking the 60, Polestar's engineers asked themselves a simple question: What makes a great car? It did not take long for them to realize the clinic route was not the right way to go -- ask 10 people that question and you get 10 very different answers. So, the decision was to make a car the engineers themselves wanted to drive.

The starting point for the S60 and V60 Polestar was where rubber meets road -- the stock tires went away in favour of a meatier set of P245/35ZR20 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. The team then engineered back from this point. First, the springs were stiffened (90 per cent up front and 70 per cent in the rear), as were the anti-roll bars (up 15 per cent). Then came a cross-car brace to add rigidity to the front end and new Ohlins shock absorbers all around. The latter feature dual-stage damping. In a nutshell, they are designed to allow the wheel to move up or down as quickly as needed to keep the tire on the road, but without sacrificing the damping qualities. It sounds -- and is -- complicated and involves blow-off valves, but the setup works exceptionally well.

Next, the team turned to the Polestar powertrain. The engine gets a new turbocharger and a larger intercooler. This work bumps the stallion count to 346 and it ups the torque production to 369 pound-feet. They also turned up the new turbocharger's wick -- the regular car has a boost pressure of 12 psi; the Polestar blows the air into the engine at 17.5 psi. This brings a much more rewarding turn of speed -- the torque floods to the fore and gives the mid-range some very real urgency. The S60 sedan, which is 40 kilograms lighter than the wagon, runs from rest to 100 km/h in 4.9 seconds. The wagon and its mass add a tenth of a second to that time.

Both are very quick, but it is through the mid-range that they demonstrated their wares -- the 80-to-120-km/h time comes in at a blistering 4.4 seconds and the surge forward does not let up there (I would need a get out of jail free card in Canada).

To make sure the Polestar sounded the part, an active exhaust system was added. Below 4,000 rpm, it sounds like any other Volvo. However, swing the tachometer beyond that point and a flap opens, creating a straight-through system from the catalytic converter back. It certainly did howl delightfully.

The transmission and all-wheel drive were also reworked to make better use of the power at play. The transmission's shifts are faster and there are paddle shifters. In Drive, the tip-in is responsive and the gearbox upshifts early. Switch to Sport and the tip-in becomes very aggressive and the gears are held much longer. If the paddles are used in this mode, the box becomes a true manual, meaning it will crash into the rev-limiter if the driver falls asleep at the switch.

The all-wheel-drive system behaves like the regular car until the stability control system is switched off. At this point it sends more power rearward, and for more of the time. It's still a front-biased system, but because it splits the power more or less evenly front-to-rear during a fast run or hard cornering it adds much better balance to the car.

The work done on the Polestar came through loud and clear when both the sedan and wagon were flogged around the Ring Knutstorp racetrack in southern Sweden. The grip delivered by the tires and the fact the suspension did an excellent job of keeping the rubber planted made it a very rewarding run. Likewise, the upgraded six-piston front Brembo brake system proved to be fade-free and, thanks to the new master cylinder booster, it had superb pedal feel.

Both Polestar cars also have a neat trick: When the stability control is switched off and Sport mode selected, there is a launch control feature. Applying the brake and pushing the gas pedal past the kick-down detent sees the turbo spin up to five psi of boost. When the brake is lifted, the built-up boost pressure banishes any sign of turbo lag, so both the sedan and wagon romp off the line. It's nothing fancy technically but, as with the Ohlins shocks, it works and very effectively so.

As with the regular S60/V60, the steering can be adjusted for weight -- light, medium, and heavy. The light mode is just that, too light. The heavy mode is a tad too firm, which makes the medium setting the best choice. In this mode there is some very real feel in the feedback and the turn-in response is blindingly fast and precise. The nit is that, as with the mortal car, changing the setting requires delving down through several menus to find the right one and make the adjustment. A button on the steering wheel that allowed the driver to scroll through the modes would make more sense.

Cosmetically, the Polestar has winglets on outer edges of the lower front valance that manage the flow of air under the car, along with a rear diffuser and a much larger rear wing. The last two provide significant downforce at speed. Inside, there are some nicer materials on the seats and steering wheel, but the changes are very subtle compared to the mechanical upgrades beneath. In both cases, there are no options -- everything is standard.

The limited edition S60 and V60 Polestars are formidable cars in many respects. In fact, the sedan reminded me of the original BMW M5 -- it was family friendly, but it was also a very serious driver's car. No, the Polestar duo are not outright track monsters, but they are very quick and proved to be remarkably accomplished at darting into a corner and hauling its way out with a great deal of alacrity.

The S60 Polestar is priced at $64,895; there is a $2,000 premium for the V60 Polestar.

 

-- Postmedia News Inc. 2014

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