Volvo’s active lifestyle focus and commitment to humanistic design are two reasons I feel a special connection to the automaker. My husband and I have owned three Volvos, including a C30 currently parked in our garage.
Before its demise, Saab had the reputation of attracting niche performance enthusiasts, whereas Volvo was the volume leader, focusing on safety in lieu of sportiness.
Volvo sought to shed its sedate image, beginning in 1995 with a series of R cars. The R cars looked like standard issue Volvos, but they were a lot faster. One encounter with the 850 T-5R was all most drivers needed to rethink their misconceptions about Volvo performance.
Unfortunately, the R cars remained a well-kept secret, despite their availability in the United States until 2007. If Volvo hoped to conquest performance enthusiasts from German and Japanese automakers, it was going to have to get more aggressive.
So it did. Beginning in 2009, Volvo began working with its motorsports partner, Polestar, on factory performance packages for its production models. Those products launched in North America last year. Today, owners of C70, XC70, XC60 and C30 models can add power with Polestar performance tuning.
Polestar recalibrates the car’s on-board computer for quicker throttle response and more turbo boost. The re-flash also modifies spark timing and fuel delivery, so the vehicle maintains its original fuel economy and remains emissions legal.
Buyers who want to push the performance envelope a step further can purchase R-Design models, which add unique styling, wheels, suspension tuning and brake components.
Polestar tuning adds juice to Volvo’s crossover vehicles
While both the XC60 and XC70 crossovers are geared towards outdoor enthusiasts, their personalities are quite different.
The XC60 rivals sport sedans in terms of power and performance. It competes against the BMW X3, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLK, appealing to driving enthusiasts who need more versatility inside the vehicle than passenger cars allow. Available all-wheel drive delivers engine power to the wheels with the best traction for better performance in wet weather.
The 2012 Volvo XC60 T6 R-Design comes standard with Polestar tuning, giving the engine a 25 horsepower boost, with 29 foot-pounds of additional torque. Zero-to-sixty acceleration is 6.9 seconds.
R-Design adds 20-inch alloy rims and low-profile tires, active bi-xenon headlamps, a stiffer suspension and quicker steering ratio. Base price is $48,150, excluding an $875 destination charge.
Recently, Volvo invited a group of journalists to test the XC60 R-Design and XC70 with Polestar on paved and dirt roads in wilderness areas north and east of Phoenix. I drove the XC70 with Polestar on the Apache trail, a paved and dirt road stretching between the foothills of the Superstition Mountains to Roosevelt Dam, near the mining town of Globe. The 20-mile stretch of dirt road includes some steep inclines and descents, with a net altitude gain up to about 4000 feet.
The route for the XC60 included a more significant altitude gain, climbing between Scottsdale at 1500 feet and the town of Payson, at 5100 feet. Driving south on the Bush Highway was a chance to test steering response on a two-lane road with some sharp off-camber turns.
While Polestar tuning adds a significant performance boost to vehicles, it’s by no means radical. Both vehicles maintain their basic personalities, but with a bit more punch. Horsepower and torque enhancements kick in at partial throttle, as opposed to some re-flashes, which only affect wide-open throttle.
Drivers will notice better power in the 20-to-50 mile-per-hour range merging into high-speed traffic. The additional horsepower and torque give vehicles more finesse climbing grades, and passing other vehicles at speed.
Polestar tuning enhances performance at altitude
Turbocharged engines have an advantage at altitude over naturally-aspirated blocks. There is considerably less parasitic power loss, due to the additional air charge. Since Polestar tuning boosts turbocharger performance, it’s ideal for driving enthusiasts who live in the mountains.
Driving the XC60 R-design between Scottsdale and Payson was an ideal test of the engine’s climbing ability, since the 3500 foot altitude increase takes place over a relatively short distance.
Standard 20-inch wheels with low-profile tires on R-design models provide a wide, stable footprint. The XC60’s all-wheel drive system is easily capable of navigating unimproved roads, but drivers need to be careful about damaging the larger wheels.
Quicker steering response makes it easier to navigate off-camber turns. Because of its relatively long wheelbase and large wheels, the turning circle is rather large: 38.4 feet. I wasn’t able to turn around on the two-lane road without using the shoulders on both sides of the paved surface.
The chassis can fly over pitchy hills at speed without bottoming out, thanks to its sport-tuned suspension with stiffer springs and struts. Specially-designed braking systems resist fade during extended periods of aggressive driving, stopping the car in a firm, linear fashion.
The XC60 is a heavier car than the XC70. Curb weight is 4225 pounds. Fuel economy suffers as a result. Average highway gas mileage is about 22 miles-per-gallon.
Versatile interiors appeal to active families
Both the XC60 and XC70 appeal to active families, with available heated seats in both first and second rows, height-adjustable boosters, navigation, spacious cargo bays and standard navigation with real-time traffic alerts.
Rear seats in both cars can fold flat, to extend the cargo floor. The XC70’s front passenger seat also folds flat, making it possible to load very long items inside the car. Aluminum cargo rails in the XC70’s cargo floor with tie-down loops on either side make it easy to secure large items. Both the XC60 and XC70 tow up to 3300 pounds: slightly short of our ALV minimum standard.
Available heated windshield washer nozzles work in extreme cold, while rain-sensing wipers keep the glass clear in intermittent rain. Headlamp washers prevent the lenses from becoming clogged with snow or dirt. In sunny weather, a panoramic sunroof on the XC60 brings an abundance of ambient light inside the cabin.
Despite their floor tunnels, both the XC60 and XC70 have plenty of room in the second-row seats for three adults.
Both the Volvo XC60 and XC70 come with front, side and side curtain airbags, a rearview camera, tire pressure monitoring, whiplash resistant front head restraints, antilock brakes, stability and traction control. Volvo’s factory warranty includes complimentary maintenance for up to three years or 36,000 miles, and four years of roadside assistance.
Likes: Volvo’s two crossover vehicles offer buyers a choice between sportier performance on paved roads, or more off-road capability. Both feature the innovative safety features Volvo is famous for and exceptional styling. Polestar tuning adds usable power under the hood, which drivers will find beneficial in everyday driving situations.
Dislike: The high MSRP of both models may keep them off the consideration list for some members of the target market.
Model: XC60 R-design
Base price: $48,150
As tested: N/A
Horsepower: 325 Hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 354 lbs.-ft. @ 2100 rpm
Zero-to-sixty: 6.9 seconds
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: Yes
Fuel economy: 17/22 mpg city/highway