BANFF, ALBERTA, CANADA – With the decline in luxury car sales not abating (down 2.4% in the U.S. through first-half 2019 per Wards Intelligence data), premium brands are scrambling to imbue their hot-selling crossovers with the performance attributes formerly the domain of sedans and coupes.
The new Polestar Engineered variant of Volvo’s XC60 midsize CUV is just one of the performance luxury CUVs (Audi SQ5, BMW X3 M, Porsche Macan S and Mercedes-Benz AMG GLC43) now available in the U.S. market, and after hours behind the wheel here, we can say it lives up to the hype that preceded it.
For those not in the know, Polestar now is the standalone tuner offshoot of Volvo (both owned by China’s Geely) and is promising to bring its own models to market in the near future (Polestar 1 is due late this year). But it also is working closely with the Volvo brand to make performance variants of standard Volvos – think BMW M and Mercedes-Benz AMG for comparison.
Unlike previous Polestar Volvos, these new models are electrified. The Polestar Engineered XC60 with e-AWD, on sale now in the U.S., also is a hybrid, a plug-in hybrid at that, with an estimated range of 18-21 miles (29-34 km) on battery power.
For most of our time behind the wheel of the vehicle, it has a quiet, pedestrian demeanor. We stay mostly in hybrid mode or pure (i.e. electric) mode on a first leg, basically drain the battery (which was about 3/4 charged at our start, per a display) and end up with a stellar 181 mpg (1.3L/100 km) rating.
Our second leg throws eco-friendliness to the wind and is driven entirely in Polestar Engineered mode. The vehicle’s 415 hp and a blistering 494 lb.-ft. (670 Nm) of torque is mightily revealed as we continuously mash the accelerator. The engine alone makes 328 hp and 317 lb.-ft. (430 Nm); the electric motor, an AC synchronous unit, 87 hp (65 kw) and 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm). The CUV has the same engine as the standard XC60 T8 PHEV, a 2.0L, direct-injected 4-cyl. with turbo- and supercharging, but tweaks to powertrain software “provides faster access to torque,” in Volvo speak, plus sends added power to the XC60’s rear wheels. In the non-Polestar Engineered T8 Inscription, Momentum and R-Line grades of the PHEV, horsepower is 400 hp and max torque 472 lb.-ft. (640 Nm).
Volvo promised enhanced “throttle response” on the Polestar Engineered XC60 and they deliver. To put it simply, this thing goes like a bat out of hell under heavy acceleration.
Not surprisingly our ending fuel economy is poor relative to our eco-conscious, electrification-heavy first leg, at 26 mpg (9.1 L/100 km).
Brakes exhibit a linear feel during our time behind the wheel, not always easy to achieve in hybrids with their regenerative braking. Volvo says it swapped vacuum-boosted brakes from the outgoing T8 PHEV’s for electric-assisted brakes, made by Akebono and with discs painted gold to tell the world this CUV is “Polestar Engineered.”
Braking is firm and assured in a drag strip test at a small airport, and the car stays relatively flat in a hard stop.
The CUV’s electric power steering is direct in a slalom test on the same runway. On longer highway stretches there unfortunately isn’t much feedback, giving the steering a disconnected feel.
Besides its powertrain, another example of the CUV’s dual personality is the XC60 Polestar Engineered grade’s adjustable suspension from Öhlins. But unlike most modern vehicles with the feature, this one is not push-button-activated from the comfort of the interior, but manually adjustable, as in you must use your hands to tune it from outside the vehicle. Fortunately, no tools are required, just turning knobs (also painted gold) at the corners of the vehicle. We didn’t adjust, but there are roughly 20 settings per damper and the owner’s manual tells owners how many clicks they must turn knobs to achieve hard or soft settings.
Whether on the road, or on the runway, the Polestar Engineered Polestar XC60 has a stiff suspension befitting a vehicle aiming for athleticism. Fortunately, Banff-area roads are smooth. In Metro Detroit we’d certainly be clicking the knobs for softer settings.
The interior is up to Volvo’s usual high standards. Most materials are superb, especially the wood and metal trims. Fit-and-finish is perfect, with no flubs found.
Gold seatbelts and gold door-mounted speakers provide a nice pop of color in an otherwise dark cabin.
A minor niggle is the amount of hard plastic in a vehicle stickering at $73,490. Some pillar trim was hard plastic, as were seatbacks. At this price point it’s not unreasonable to expect soft surfaces everywhere. However, we give kudos to the supplier of the B-pillar trim, which has us second-guessing whether it was hard plastic thanks to its convincing suede-like texture.
Volvo’s infotainment system is getting better, but still lags the competition in ease-of-use. Despite its giant, tablet-like touchscreen, icons tend to be small, making it difficult to zero in on the correct selection when the vehicle is in motion.
Organization of information also could use improvement, as could the voice-recognition system, which requires some relatively unique language. For instance, when asking for a satellite radio station, you don’t say “tune to” as you do in most vehicles today, but “play,” a word usually associated with summoning songs from a phone or USB playlist.
Still, we have the most success yet getting the results we want via voice recognition in a Volvo, so that’s an improvement.
We also can’t knock the look of the touchscreen and the large, fully digital cluster display. Both have stellar resolution and graphics.
Given that this is a somewhat specialized vehicle, we won’t gripe too much about the small backseat. But it is worth noting that the model it was benchmarked against, the Audi SQ5, has a smidge less legroom in the rear (37.8 ins. vs. 38.0 ins. [960 vs. 965 mm] in the XC60). The XC60 also tops the SQ5 on front legroom, with 0.5 ins. (13 mm) more space.
The Volvo is about an inch longer than the Audi, with a wheelbase 1.5 ins. (38 mm) longer.
Volvo officials here say Audi is the brand it is the most cross-shopped against at the moment, hence setting its sights on the SQ5.
However that model, despite its 3.0L turbo and supercharged V-6, has less power and torque (349 hp, 369 lb.-ft. [500 Nm]) due to its lack of electrification. Price-wise the comparison is lopsided too, as the Polestar Engineered XC60 comes virtually fully loaded and starts around $72,000 including a nearly $1,000 destination and handling charge, compared with a $52,400 entry price for the ’19 SQ5. Loading up the top grade of the latter should bring the cost closer to the XC60, but really they are two different animals.
That said, we think the electric range, while modest, is a welcome addition on the Volvo. For those who live and work close to home 18 miles could be plenty for daily driving and gives the performance CUV a unique place in the U.S. market, something not ever easy to come by.