Swedish Model Goes To The Polestar Gym, Comes Back Stronger

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design front 3/4 view

BMW has its M Division. Mercedes-Benz has AMG and Audi has a range of S- and RS-badged models. Volvo has... well, what does Volvo have, anyway? Yes, we're all familiar with the brand's sterling reputation for safety, and in recent times, for attractive Swedish design. Not long ago, with the introduction of the latest S60 sedan, Volvo even took a stab at injecting some so-called naughtiness into its machinery. And while all those adjectives are welcome, Volvo's reputation in the United States has never really included performance, despite some credible offerings like the 240 Turbo, 850R and S60R.

Interestingly enough, that's not necessarily the case in its home market of Sweden, where Volvo has been racing and winning in competition for years, oftentimes with the assistance of a tuning company known as Polestar. Since 1996, Volvo has been working with Polestar in an official capacity, and for 2012, the automaker is introducing its United States customers to a slew of Polestar-infused models.

Volvo's entire range of five- and six-cylinder models have been bolstered with performance updates from Polestar, and for the purposes of this article, we'll be taking a closer look at the XC60 crossover. As it turns out, this Swedish 'ute offers up plenty of reasons for consideration, even in the face of stiff opposition from Volvo's formidable competition in the entry-level luxury segment.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design side view2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design front view2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design rear view

Styling on the XC60 remains typically crisp in the recent Volvo tradition, with just the right amount of edgy character lines to break up the monotonous two-box crossover shape. The R-Design gets a few bodywork updates to spice things up a bit, including a more aggressive front fascia and side sills. You might also notice the silver side mirrors that match the roof rails and faux rear skid plate with cutouts for the sporty-looking dual exhaust tips.

Inside, occupants are greeted with a beautiful cabin appointed in soft two-tone leather, with a simple and well-laid-out dash ahead. Volvo's trademark waterfall-style center console is present and accounted for, as are the watch-like gauges the company uses for its sporty models, each inset with its own LCD information screen.

All the surfaces and textures used in the XC60 R-Design are attractive and impart a high-end Scandinavian feel inside. We've long been fans of Volvo's climate control system, which allows you to quickly direct cool or warm air to whatever part of the body you'd like in a different, intuitive and attractive way. The steering wheel, too, deserves praise for its nice leather wrap with aluminum trim and thick, meaty rim. We do take some issue with all the little plastic buttons in the center of the console, but the four dials that surround them are large, easy to use and house the most important functions.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design interior2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design interior2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design rear seats2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design rear cargo area

We're happy to report that you can get around the frustrating in-dash key system used in the Volvo XC60 by opting for either the Premier Plus or Platinum trim levels. We highly recommend ditching the standard key for the Personal Car Communicator system that includes a more traditional proximity key. It's also worth mentioning that the navigation system used in the XC60 isn't a touchscreen, and it requires use of buttons on the steering wheel or the dash, though it can also accept voice commands.

The power-adding Polestar updates to Volvo's six-cylinder models basically add up to a reflash of the engine's electronic brain, and it results in more power without adversely affecting fuel mileage or driveability. In fact, for the first half of the engine's rev range, power remains at factory levels; it's not until the upper reaches of the tach that the driver will notice any significant increase in horsepower or torque.

All told, Volvo's three-liter inline six is bumped up to 325 horsepower with Polestar tuning, a useful gain of 25 horses over standard models. Torque makes a similar jump to 354 pound-feet, an increase of 29. According to Volvo, those figures are good enough for a 6.6-second run to 60 miles per hour – more than acceptable for a vehicle of this ilk, and .3 seconds quicker than non-Polestar models. Better yet, it feels about that quick from behind the wheel, with a surging midrange and a strong pull to redline. Fuel mileage on regular gas comes in at 17 miles per gallon city and 23 highway – right in line with competitors like the BMW X3, Audi Q5 and Mercedes-Benz GLK.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design engine

Polestar tuning comes standard on the XC60 R-Design, which resolves one of our complaints about the 2011 model, which saw no boost in power over other XC60 models. In a nod to past buyers of Volvo's turbocharged machine, the Polestar tuning can be added at the dealership to previous-year models that use the T6 engine at a cost of $1,495. While that sounds pretty spendy for a software update, we think most performance-minded enthusiasts would jump at the chance to add such worthwhile gains in horsepower and torque for that sum.

Fully electronic all-wheel drive comes standard on the XC60 T6 R-Design, and it works flawlessly. Power is automatically diverted to the wheel with the most traction, and, while we can't see anybody taking the XC60 R-Design on any hardcore off-road trails, it provides an added dose of confidence when the roads get wet or slick. Brake performance, too, feels solid, safe and secure.

Ride height is unchanged, but the suspension is said to be about 10-percent stiffer, and the steering ratio is cranked up a similar degree. Those efforts pay off when the roads get twisty, keeping the somewhat high-riding crossover's 20-inch 255/45 Pirelli Scorpion tires well planted and secure on the pavement (20s are exclusive to R-Design models). We noted good control of body roll and the steering felt tight and direct – a noteworthy trait in today's age of sometimes off-putting electronic power steering technology.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design grille2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design headlight2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design wheel2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design taillight

On the flip side, though, we found the ride on uneven surfaces a bit harsh, and by more than just 10 percent. This makes sense, as the standard XC60 can be a bit stiff on broken pavement. In any case, we'd almost always prefer a ride and handling scale skewed a bit toward the less comfortable range if it means better road feel and grip, and that is indeed the case with the 2012 XC60 R-Design. At highway speeds on smooth asphalt, there's a good bit of wind noise that seeps into the cabin, but nothing we found too objectionable.

Volvo has priced the XC60 R-Design to go up against the mainstream players in the premium crossover segment. That means, in addition to the already mentioned Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz CUVs, it has to do battle with the likes of the segment-leading Lexus RX along with the Acura MDX and Cadillac SRX. That's a lot of competition, but the Volvo manages to stand toe-to-toe with its international foes on just about every level, all while offering a different blend of style and performance than any of those combatants.

Plus, Volvo boasts a well-earned reputation for safety innovations that carry over to the XC60. Indeed, the number of safety acronyms affixed to the window sticker number well into the teens. There are technologies designed to keep occupants safe in a crash, such as an inflatable curtain airbag as well as rollover- and whiplash-protection systems. But there are also innovations designed to keep you from getting into an accident in the first place – notably including Volvo's City Safety system that can detect an obstacle and autonomously stop the vehicle before an impact. It all adds up to the 'ute earning a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Five-Star designation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design rear 3/4 view

Volvo has priced the 2012 XC60 R-Design at $43,700 to start, but a heavy-handed swipe at the options tab will bring that price up quickly. Our test car was nicely equipped with heated seats, in-dash navigation and all the safety tech you can shake a stick at for a sum of about $53,000, but it's possible to push an XC60 R-Design past $55,000 with every single box checked. That's certainly not cheap, but it compares rather favorably with its German counterparts and is about on par with the offerings from Lexus and Cadillac.

That said, we highly suggest you also take a look at the 2012 Volvo XC70 T6, which we drove back-to-back with the XC60. For our money, the XC70 is the best crossover-minded vehicle Volvo makes, and it offers pretty much everything the XC60 does for slightly less money. It's very attractive inside and out, is available with the same Polestar-tuned engine, six-speed automatic gearbox and all-wheel drive, and it features every safety innovation Volvo can cook up. Plus, it is quieter, boasts a better ride, handles at least as well and offers more practical room inside.

Bottom line: If you're in the market for a premium crossover, the 2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design deserves your consideration. No, we're not going to be mentioning Polestar in the same breath as AMG and BMW's M division – at least not yet anyway – but that hardly seems to matter. Those looking for a bit more poke from their stylish Swedish models finally have options from the factory, and for that, we're thankful.