Driven: 2012 Volvos With Polestar Tuning

By John Beltz Snyder

March 15, 2012

—Scottsdale, Arizona
 
Unless you’re an avid fan of Swedish speed machines, you could be forgiven for not committing the name Polestar to memory. Volvo has officially partnered up with the performance brand since 1996, and Polestar has mainly been known for its hand in Volvo racing development. Whether we knew it or not, we North Americans have been waiting since sales began in 2009 to flaunt the blue square badge on our own roads. Our introduction began when Volvo invited us out to Arizona to sample a handful of its models equipped with Polestar tuning: the XC60, XC70, C30, and C70.
 
In some cases, such as the 2012 XC60 R-Design and C70 Inscription, Polestar tuning comes standard in these upgraded models. In other new models, as well as some previous-year Volvos, it is available as an optional package. If you opt in, you’ll be hard to spot—some models with Polestar tuning included in the trim level won’t get any added visual cues giving away the upgrade. Other cars, where the Polestar is a standalone option, you’ll get just the signature blue badge on the back to set yourself apart from the herd. The best part is people won’t be expecting to get smoked by your humble Volvo.
 
Available for certain vehicles with Volvo’s T5 and T6 turbocharged engines, this tuning does essentially three things: increases turbo boost, optimizes timing (spark, fuel mixture, etc.), and recalibrates the throttle mapping for better response from the right pedal. For the five-cylinder engine (in the 2008 to 2012 C30 and C70, 2008 to 2011 S40, and manual-equipped 2008 to 2011 V50 AWD), this means an additional 23 horsepower and 37 pound-feet of torque (250/273, up from 227/236). In the six-cylinder models (2011 to 2012 S60, XC60, and XC70), gains equal 25 horsepower and 30 pound-feet of torque (325/354, up from 300/325). As an option, Polestar tuning costs $1295 (installed) for the T5, and $1495 for the T6.
 
Of course, these power upgrades translate to real-world speed. Power and torque curves for each engine are extended, without sacrificing power anywhere in the rev range. This means longer lasting low-end power, a vastly improved middle range, and more momentum high into the tachometer. It improves 0-60 times, with the XC60’s dropping from 6.9 to 6.6 seconds, and the C30 (6MT) shaving the sprint from 6.2 seconds to 5.9.
 
And, no, it doesn’t include any suspension tuning, special wheels, or handling upgrades, aside from those included in the trim level (e.g., XC60 R-Design, C70 Inscription).
 
More pragmatic buyers will appreciate the fact that it’s a quick and easy install (essentially just an ECU flash), doesn’t affect the vehicle’s warranty, and has no effect on the car’s fuel economy rating, regardless of model or engine. Polestar tuning, is, purely, added power with—for better or worse—no added complexity.
 
 
2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design
 
As soon as you sit down inside the 2012 XC60 R-Design, you’ll become aware of the appropriately sporty visuals on offer here. The leathers inside the cabin and on the upholstery are rich, tight, and clean to sight and touch. The “watch dial” gauges are simple, yet very attractive in silver and blue, and also quite easy to read. Our tester had a handsome dark-and-light two-tone interior, with beautifully sculpted and supportive seats. The sport steering wheel and sport pedals are a nice touch to the R-Design’s interior experience, as well.
 
The XC60 makes good use of space, especially for passengers. The front seats offer a bit more legroom than the slightly narrower confines of the XC70. The large panoramic sunroof with power shade helps add airiness to the cabin for both front and rear passengers. Of course, cargo needs are attended to as well, with lots of storage compartments, and 40/20/40 split- and flat-folding rear seats. While not quite as capacious as the XC70 wagon, the XC60 still offers 30.8 cubic feet behind the rear seats, and up to 67.4 cubic feat with the rear seats folded.
 
If you’re looking for the blue Polestar badge on the XC60 R-Design, you’re not going to get it. Volvo decided not to include it here, as the performance tuning comes standard in the R-Design model. Also, if you bought last year’s model, and thus missed out on the included upgrade, you can purchase it for your 2011 T6 for $1495.
 
Power is ample and effortless. The XC60 makes excellent use of the Polestar tuning’s 325 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque, and this crossover really hustles. Throttle response is very quick, making it good for, aggressive maneuvering. Somehow, though, the power and speed doesn’t feel quite as dramatic as it does in the equally fast Polestar XC70, perhaps due to the XC60’s higher stance.
 
Besides the extra power and torque available from the Polestar tuning, the R-Design has some other inherent advantages as well. This model includes a unique exterior, including the front and rear fascia, twenty-inch alloy wheels, and active bi-xenon headlights. Also, the R-Design has a 10-percent increase in suspension damping and 10-percent faster steering ratio than the standard T6 AWD. It also comes standard with Volvo’s City Safety system, with the Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake technology available as an option. Impressive stuff, but not all too surprising from this traditionally safety-conscious brand.
 
 
2012 Volvo XC70 T6 With Polestar Performance Tuning
 
This is a new and wonderful take on an old classic. The Volvo wagon has been a beloved, practical vehicle for years. We have fond memories of parents of friends proudly putting multiple “100,000-mile” badges on their Swedish station wagons from the early 1990s. The XC70 continues this shape and tradition, only updated with more comfort, safety, and technology than ever before. Also, the T6 comes with all-wheel drive for better grip and handling, especially on loose or slippery road surfaces.
 
Steering feels appropriately quick and direct, but heft of the wheel in turns feels slightly artificial. Also, there is a bit of an elastic feeling as you turn off center. That said, we got used to the steering feel pretty quickly, and didn’t find it to be a big problem. As expected, feedback was a bit on the numb side, but it wasn’t completely lifeless. We could discern some road feel through the wheel, especially when traversing less-than-optimal surfaces. The plus side is that the minimal vibration that does come through gives the driver some information without fatiguing the hands or feeling at all jerky.
 
The XC70 is very comfortable and functional. It’s composed, quiet, and calm in normal driving situations. Road and wind noise are minimal, and bumps in the road are very daintily transmitted through the suspension. The design is staid, and unassumingly attractive. In our Platinum model surfaces and touch points were all garbed in fine materials, and the seating was supportive, but still fairly soft on the bottom. Layout of instruments was intuitive, and everything is labeled very well.
 
There is good room for passengers, and even better space for oodles of cargo. Load volume is 72.1 cubic feet behind the front seats, and 33.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up. This vehicle just begs to be taken on road trips, anywhere and everywhere.
 
It feels downright fast. Step into the right pedal, and the XC70 takes off with gusto. Passing slower drivers is a cinch, even at high speeds, as the high end feels long-lasting. The six-cylinder engine lets itself be heard in these instances, and it has a very nice singing voice. Listen carefully, and you can even hear the turbo breathing under the hood—a sweet sound indeed.
 
Of course, the XC70 T6 also offers the same safety equipment as the XC60 R-Design: standard City Safety and optional Pedestrian Detection.
 
Despite its humbler appearances, of the two crossovers we sampled, this XC70 was the one that got our blood pumping the fastest and elicited the greater smiles when driving.
 
You’ve come a long way, baby.
 
 
2012 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design With Polestar Performance Tuning
 
Start with Volvo’s C30 T5 R-Design three-door hatchback. It boasts the sort of comfort and upscale driving experience the brand has come to represent. This means a suspension that soaks up the bumps on the road like a magician slipping a coin into a pocket sewn into his sleeve; it’s done quietly, effectively, and in such a way that you don’t even notice. The car is quiet, with little in the way of road and wind noise making itself heard inside the vehicle. It’s a smooth, supple ride with a touch of firmness that lets you know it’s sharp on its toes.
 
Steering in the C30 is quite good. It feels very quick and direct, and offers a predictable amount of heft, avoiding the elastic feeling in some of its larger siblings. It doesn’t offer a lot of strong feedback, but it’s not completely numb, either. It responds to the road surface palpably in the driver’s hand without a constant vibration or hard jerking over the rougher stuff. The combination of leather and light metals on the steering wheel feels nice, and the contour of the tiller lends itself to a good, sporting grip from the hands of the driver. An apt tool for a chuckable little Swede, say we.
 
It comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission. For an additional $1250, you can have the five-speed geartronic automatic transmission, which could also earn you a groin punch from one of the Winding Road editors if we ever find out about it. The manual transmission is light and short of throw, making it easy and fun to flick quick shifts as you move your speedo needle northward. The clutch is easy to modulate whether you’re trying to drive effortlessly smoothly, or need to dole out just a bit of abuse to make good use of the strong low end.
 
With the Polestar performance tuning (a $1295 option), the diminutive and perky C30 T5 R-Design gets boosted to 250 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, up from an already respectable 227 and 236. This shaves 0.3 seconds from sprints to 60 (at 5.9 sec with the manual transmission). The magic trick this time is that there is no sacrifice anywhere in the horsepower or torque curves to create this higher top end. Another rabbit in the hat: fuel economy rating is unaffected.
 
This is the performance bargain of the bunch, as you can get the C30 with Polestar tuning starting at $26,245; the C30 R-Design with Polestar tuning that we tested begins at $2500 more ($28,745 MSRP).
 
 
2012 Volvo C70 Inscription
 
Just because it’s the slowest of the bunch doesn’t mean this car’s a slouch. With the top down, you can hear the whistle of the turbocharger as you lay into the throttle, combined with a heartily smooth engine note we don’t usually associate with a five-cylinder engine.
 
The Inscription package has some nice offerings to add to the premium feel of the C70. Besides coming standard with the extra power of the Polestar tuning, it offers active dual xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights with chrome trim, gloss black finish on the grille, and two additional color options: Black Sapphire Metallic or Ice White. Inside, the Inscription adds an off-black leather dash, Sovereign Hide leather upholstery, and a whole bunch of contrasting stitching. Make no mistake; the Inscription is eager to set itself apart from the herd.
 
The C70’s steering has a lot of play in it. We’d generally prefer a quicker rack with more direct response, but we don’t imagine many C70 buyers fancying themselves hardcore autocrossers (that’s what the C30 is for!). This tiller offers a laidback, stimulus-free experience for cruising on the open highway. It ain’t twitchy, that’s for sure, and drivers won’t find themselves accidentally jumping across lanes if their hand slips a little to either side.
 
There’s also a bit more motion through the chassis. Riding over slightly rougher stretches of road, we could feel more vibration and shaking making its way through the suspension and into the floorboards. Still, it’s a comfortable ride, and we’d imagine only the pickier passengers complaining much about it.
 
And let’s be realistic. If you’re buying this car, it’s because you like what Volvo has to offer, and you want a convertible. Satisfying those conditions, you want the most powerful option available. That’s exactly what you’re getting with the C70 with Polestar performance tuning.
 
2012 Volvo XC60 T6 R-Design
Engine: Turbocharged inline-6, 3.0 liters, 24v
Output: 325 hp/354 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.6 sec
Weight: 4225 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 17/23 mpg
Base Price: $43,700
 
2012 Volvo XC70 T6 With Polestar Performance Tuning
Engine: Turbocharged inline-6, 3.0 liters, 24v
Output: 325 hp/354 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 6.6 sec
Weight: 4279 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 17/23 mpg
Base Price: $40,595
 
2012 Volvo C30 T5 R-Design 6MT With Polestar Performance Tuning
Engine: Turbocharged inline-5, 2.5 liters, 20v
Output: 250 hp/273 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.9 sec
Weight: 3211 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 21/29 mpg
Base Price: $28,745
 
2012 Volvo C70 Inscription
Engine: Turbocharged inline-5, 2.5 liters, 20v
Output: 250 hp/ 273 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 7.0 sec
Weight: 3843 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 19/28 mpg
Base Price: $44,350