2020 Volvo XC60 T8 Polestar Engineered first drive review: Almost Super Trouper
Volvo's second-generation XC60 has earned its bones as one of the industry's most well-rounded compact luxury SUVs since coming on the scene for the 2018 model year. It's become Volvo's best-selling model globally on the strength of its sculpted looks, sophisticated and well-appointed interior, generous cargo space and full complement of advanced safety gear. Practical and premium, the XC60 has also been a solid driver, though it's never quite managed to set our synapses alight. Evidently keen to capture that more visceral part of our psyche, the company's white coats have come up with this new-for-2020 Volvo XC60 T8 Polestar Engineered.
If you don't have your Clumsy Name Decoder Ring handy, know that you're looking at a high-performance plug-in hybrid version of Volvo's middle-child crossover SUV. Easier to spot on the street by its showy gold brake calipers than its gloss-black trim and subtle Polestar badging, this already good-looking utility has been made even more so thanks to handsome 20-inch Y-spoke alloys (which do an excellent job of showing off those bullion-colored Akebonos) and black chrome exhaust finishers. (My test car was specified with two-inch-larger wheels and matching 265/35R22 Pirelli P Zero rubber, an option box probably best left unchecked to ensure better ride quality and lower overall weight.)
Triple power play
Under the hood, you'll find a specially tuned version of Volvo's T8 Twin-Engine PHEV powertrain. No, "Twin-Engine" doesn't mean you'll find an extra set of cylinders firing away under the cargo hatch, amusing as that idea sounds. In this case, "Twin Engine" means two types of forced induction are being applied to Volvo's ubiquitous 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine. Turbocharged and supercharged, this engine whips up 318 horsepower 317 pound-feet of torque by its lonesome, but it's also backed by a two-motor hybrid system (one powering the rear axle and the other tied to the eight-speed automatic transaxle). For better or worse, this is about as complicated a powertrain as you'll find in a modern automobile.
Fortunately, as I learned spearing the XC60 PE through Banff, Alberta's stunningly mountainous scenery, all of those systems don't just talk to each other, they're actually on pretty good terms. Like Voltron, the three power adders come together to be more than the sum of their parts, delivering a robust 415 horsepower and 494 pound-feet to all four corners. Those are big numbers, but in truth, they're only 15 horsepower and 22 pound-feet more than standard T8 PHEV models, which are themselves surprising powerhouses.
Official estimates call for 0 to 60 mph in a tidy 4.9 seconds en route to a top speed of 143 mph. Thanks to electrification, even from a dead stop, power builds quickly in progressive, undeniable fashion. The center-spine-mounted battery pack sits low in this 60-series' Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) chassis to aid handling, but there's no doubt this is a very hefty proposition, weighing in at a portly 4,800-plus pounds.
Using a Level 2 charger, the aforementioned 11.6-kilowatt-hour battery pack can be topped off in about 2.5 hours. Fuel economy and electric-only range figures haven't been released for this 2020 model, but the 2019 model year's non-Polestar T8 PHEV model only had a 10.4-kWh pack, and it was good for a 58 miles per gallon equivalent; a modest 26 mpg combined (on premium fuel) and about 23 miles of EV range.
(It's worth noting that the latter is more of a theoretical figure, as the XC60's most parsimonious Pure drive mode will prioritize but not guarantee electric-only operation. There's also a helpful Hold And Charge function to reserve battery power for later use. Teenagers, take note: If you're lucky enough to have a parent lend you the keys to their Polestar, tread lightly when creeping up the driveway after curfew.)
You may recall that we previously tested the Polestar Engineered variant of Volvo's otherwise excellent new S60 compact sedan, only to come away a bit frustrated. Unfortunately, our fondness for the standard car was undone by a lack of smoothness from the PHEV powertrain, and in particular, the often discouragingly nonlinear braking, which suffered from awkwardly stilted handoffs between its regenerative and mechanical friction-based systems.
Fortunately, Volvo seems to have heeded our complaints, particularly about the latter issue. For 2020, the company has installed retooled braking hardware and software on its PHEV models, including adding a new hydraulic pump to create a more natural pedal feel. The powertrain seems more agreeable, too, although with only four cylinders (muffled under forced induction), the sounds this powertrain makes don't inspire, let alone speak to its high performance.
Akebono, Öhlins, oh my!
Even on mountain roads and with Volvo setting up a modest handling course set up on a small, rural airport runway, I never did get to fully heat up and test out the capability of the 2020 XC60 Polestar Engineered's Akebono brakeset, but few people will ever ask as much of a family-minded SUV anyhow. The important thing is that the upgraded brakes (six-piston calipers clamping on 14.6-inch front discs and single-piston rears acting on 12.6-inch discs) clearly inspire confidence in (simulated) panic stops from elevated velocities, and they offer equally friendly modulation at parking-lot speeds.
Another key upgrade component in the Polestar Engineered program is the addition of a set of costly and rather exotic Öhlins dampers. While ride height remains unchanged, these dual-flow valve units are adjustable to suit individual tastes.
Unusually, they're not like traditional adaptive dampers whose firmness is tweaked via a dashboard switch or touchscreen swipe -- these are manually tunable, as on race cars. Pop the hood, look for the gold caps atop the Polestar Engineered shock tower (bridged by a front strut bar), twist to suit and Bob's your uncle. This is a novel and racy touch from Öhlins (a Swedish firm best known for its work on motorcycles), albeit somewhat out of character for what is generally a convenience-oriented family SUV.
I was able to hurtle test vehicles through a closed course featuring a coned-off slalom and an emergency lane-change test ("We're not allowed to call it 'The Moose Test' anymore, but it's The Moose Test,' said one waggish Volvo official.) The Polestar cornered flatly and predictably. We were only granted two run-throughs of this section and an acceleration and braking exercise, but if we had more time, we would've happily flung this SUV through the cones at ever-higher speeds until we nuzzled the chassis' limits. Overall, the XC60 PE is a confident handler, but some rivals feel more playful and eager to change direction, and all of them Do The Hustle with more muscular soundtracks than this Swede.
Expected interior excellence
I haven't really talked about the XC60 Polestar's cabin to this point. Not because it isn't spectacular -- it is. I've held off on talking about the interior mostly because if you're familiar with any recent Volvo, you already know the script: Minimalist Scandinavian design, furniture-grade leathers and low-gloss woods, excellent fit and finish. Unlike some sports models, the Polestar treatment doesn't result in aggressively bolstered seats that hug your hips like a pair of super-slim Nudie Jeans. Volvo's nicely supportive chairs have simply been overlaid with a set of gold seatbelts, a dash of flash that ties in nicely with the brakes and dampers.
In fact, there are precious few signs that you are driving anything more than a garden-variety XC60 inside -- no thicker three-spoke steering wheel, no drilled alloy pedals, etc. While too much boy-racer gear would probably be harsh with the zen aesthetic of this SUV's cabin, a bit more differentiation wouldn't go amiss. At least the concert-hall-worthy Bowers & Wilkins audio system comes standard, all 15 speakers and 1,100 watts worth.
Sensus and safety
As with every other new Volvo, a 9-inch tablet-like infotainment touchscreen forms the heart of the XC60 Polestar's infotainment capabilities. The attractive-looking interface includes such niceties as a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot as well as apps like Google Local Search, Spotify, Pandora and Yelp searches. One nice byproduct of the display's vertical orientation is that it's possible to run Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (both standard) while simultaneously affording access to the system's other functions. Volvo updated Sensus' computing firepower last year, so it should be both snappier and more stable, but it's still not my favorite interface.
Even with its performance-oriented mission, Volvo hasn't forsaken its safety-first mantle. There are loads of Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) standard, including forward collision with auto brake (including pedestrian, cyclist and large animal detection), blind-spot warning, lane keep assist and a basic driver attention monitor. Pilot Assist, a partially automated, hands-on Level 2 stop-and-go-commute easer is also part of the package.
Go for the gold?
Pricing for the 2020 Volvo XC60 T8 Polestar Engineered starts at a heady $71,050 plus $995 destination fee. With $645 for metallic paint and $800 for the aforementioned 22-inch wheels, my tester's bottom line was $73,490. That's a long way from a base front-drive T5 Momentum's starting price of $39,200, but it's also a competitive MSRP. Thanks to its generous equipment levels and peerless interior quality, this XC60 Polestar Engineered manages to avoid feeling overpriced, but neither does it feel like a particular bargain.
Volvo mentioned the Audi SQ5 as the XC60 PE's most natural rival, but the BMW X3 M and Mercedes-AMG GLC43 also come to mind, along with the tighter-inside Porsche Macan S. All of these athletic SUVs are tremendously accomplished overall. In truth, even with the Polestar Engineered trappings and its limited-edition appeal (Volvo hasn't said how many of these it plans to produce, but they figure to be very rare), you'll likely have to be a very committed Volvophile to consider spending the extra money for the Polestar Engineered model over the standard T8. Of course, the same can be argued when comparing the base T8 against its lesser T5 and T6 non-hybrid siblings, both of which can be had well equipped for tens of thousands less.
At least for the moment, the T8 Polestar Engineered is the most extreme distillation of Volvo's winning XC60 formula. It adds a modicum of performance to the already burly T8, as well as a dash of limited-edition style and cachet. Ultimately, the 2020 Volvo XC60 T8 Polestar Engineered may not be as engaging as its German rivals, but this Swede still manages to set itself apart on the strength of its electric-only range as well as the many attributes found at the core of every 60-Series.
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