Roadkill Review: 2017 Volvo V60 Polestar

Roadkill fans overlap with Volvo fans, so we decided to see what the new version of the wagon we all love is like by sending Ben Hunting ice racing in one.   

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Few automakers are left to defend the humble station wagon’s honor, with the last vestiges of this once-proud and ultra-practical body style having been cut off at the knees by the SUV hordes that crowd the left lanes of highways across the country. It’s fitting then, that one of the final bastions of wagon-shaped goodness in America should hail from Sweden, and more specifically Volvo, a brand that has historically put these people movers in showrooms even in the face of a largely indifferent car-buying public.

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Toss away your visions of tank-like boxes, however, because Volvo has spent the last few years shredding its reputation for frumpy styling with models like the V60 Polestar. This collection of sheet metal curves jazzes up the rectilinear wagon trope and then splashes it with bright Rebel Blue paint, ensuring you’ll always be able to find your ride in a parking lot infested with gray and white Camrys and Accords.

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The Polestar name has racing heritage. Since the mid-1990s, the racing shop (originally called Flash Engineering) has been flying the Swedish flag in touring car championships around the world, including a stint in Australia’s V8 Supercars series. Along the way, the company found the time to partner up with Volvo (whose models it had been campaigning on the track) to produce a series of performance packages and special edition vehicles before being bought outright by the manufacturer in 2015.

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The 2017 Volvo V60 Polestar wagon (also available in sedan form as the S60 Polestar) is the shop’s latest factory-backed effort – and it’s also one of the weirdest. I mean that endearingly, for the most part, but after having spent hundreds of miles behind the wheel of the blue wonder wagon, it’s hard not to notice just how unusual the Polestar effort is compared to any other performance car at its price point.

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It starts under the hood, where the 2017 edition of the  Polestar sports a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that is both turbocharged and supercharged. Yes. Both at the same time. No, this wasn’t the result of a late-night project pulling junkyard parts from the hinterlands of Scandinavia, as much as it might seem that way, but the fruits of a long-term engineering effort from Volvo with the goal of….no one seems to know, exactly. Ostensibly, the company claims replacing last year’s turbo six with this odd-duck drivetrain was a matter of balancing gas mileage with performance, but given that no other production car features two types of forced induction fighting it out in the engine bay (and that fuel mileage during my drive remained uninspiring at 20-mpg combined) has me raising an inquisitive eyebrow.

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At least half of that equation checks out, however, as the stout four-banger pulls strong when provoked. Rated at 367 horsepower and  347 lb-ft of torque, the 2.0-liter relies on its supercharger off the line until about 4,000 rpm, at which it hands over its heavy breathing to the turbo. The engine, which is shared with a few other (larger) Volvo models, has seen its cams and internals upgraded (along with its intake and exhaust), for extra beef. Matched with an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive, the end result is a sprint to 60-mph that takes a mere 4.5 seconds.

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Even more pleasing? The fact that this year’s eight-speed auto is a huge step up over the six-speed unit yoked to the older Polestar’s six-cylinder motor, which was frequently confused by prods from the throttle and offered no paddle shifters to play around with. The eight ratios in the fresh tranny are more than willing to engage with the flip of a finger, and while that might not be as fun as banging through the gears yourself by way of a third pedal, it’s a significant upgrade over the previous V60 Polestar.

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In an effort to make sure that the Volvo wagon’s V60 chassis could keep up with the extra hustle from its super-turbo twin-charged setup, Polestar also bolted on a set of springs that are 80 percent stiffer than the next-step down V60 T6, on top of Ohlin adjustable coilover shocks, six-piston Brembo brakes up front (measuring over 14-inches in diameter), and a front strut brace. Michelin Pilot Super Sports come straight from the factory, although my winter trajectory from Montreal, Quebec to Portland, Maine’s snow coast had me riding on 20-inch Pirelli Sotto Zero winter rubber.

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It’s here where the second weird chapter in the Polestar story can be found, as the Ohlins offer control over rebound and compression settings. The V60 offers 30 discrete settings for each corner, with 20-30 representing varying degrees of ‘soft’ and everything below that dialing in some track-style stiffness. The catch? The adjustments have to be made manually, which at first doesn’t sound like much of an issue (after all, most Roadkillers can turn a wrench), until you open the owner’s manual and realize that the access points for the adjustments are, in a word, inconvenient. For the front shocks, you have to either hoist the car up on a lift or turn the wheel all the way to the opposite side to open up enough space for you to reach up underneath the bottom of the strut and fiddle with the settings knob. At the back, there’s an access panel of sorts that must be removed inside the cabin to get your hands on the same hardware.

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From the factory, the wagon is set to 10 front and 10 rear, which the two-lane mountain roads of Maine very quickly revealed to be way too ornery for comfortable driving. Even with an all-wheel drive system capable of shuttling 50 percent of engine torque to the back axles if necessary, I found the V60 Polestar to be skittish over rougher pavement (although well suited to hooning over a frozen lake on the outskirts of Montreal, where a friend had recently carved out an ice course). To make matters worse, I was powerless to do anything about it, because winter weather had filled the wheel wells with so much snow and slush that there was no way I could try to balance out the car’s handling on the side of the highway without requiring a complete change of clothes, or maybe a blowtorch to melt the ice.

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Here lies the final conundrum of the latest Polestar. I don’t mind busting knuckles to dial-in my own personal car’s handling, and in fact it’s something I do on a regular basis – from the top of the car, of course, as with most adjustable coil suspension setups. On a factory-built vehicle with a price tag of $61,600, however, it’s a little bit much to expect owners to get down and dirty on their hands and knees when they can drop a few thousand more – or in some cases, less – and pick up a similarly-quick European sport sedan from BMW or Audi that does the same work at the touch of a button. It’s also tough to envision Polestar owners using the V60 as a track-day weapon and making these adjustments in the pit stall, given its auto-only gearbox and sharp, but not telepathic handling.

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The caveat, of course, is you simply can’t get a wagon from any other brand – regardless of its continent of origin – which means that Volvo is playing to a captive audience of fans seeking a family-friendly, go-fast commuter that won’t leave them numb on a twisty road. Given that it has limited production of both the V60 and S60 Polestars to a handful of examples for the North American market, the automaker seems all-too aware of the very specific niche vehicle plays in. Of course, there’s always engine-swapping an old one as an option.

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Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover