Will Pumping Up With Polestar Make People Notice?

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design

There are injustices in the auto industry just like in life. Sometimes the right person gets passed over for a job, the best player doesn't get to start or the wrong verdict is reached by a jury. And sometimes a good vehicle just doesn't get bought. That's what is happening with the Volvo XC60, which ended last year at the bottom of the sales list compared to luxury crossover competitors from Lexus, Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lincoln and Acura.

While it's certainly true that luxury segments are packed with qualified candidates on which to spend your capital gains, the XC60 has compared favorably with the lot of them since its inception back in 2008, and so we're continually befuddled by its comparatively low sales numbers.

The blame could fall on a lack of marketing dollars behind it, a dearth of dealerships to sell it, or simply because some are wary of Scandinavian brands after what happened to Saab.
Whatever the reason, the XC60 has gone largely unnoticed by U.S. consumers. In response, Volvo is executing a plan that it hopes will attract new eyeballs not only to its attention-starved CUV, but the entire brand as well. That plan's name is Polestar, and it's already begun making its way across the entire Volvo lineup. The XC60 is one of the first models to receive Polestar's performance infusion, and we're going to find out if it's enough to make buyers take notice.

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

Polestar is far from a household name, but those who look it up will discover that the company is anything but new on the block. Founded in 1996 in collaboration with Volvo, Polestar has since been responsible for the automaker's works touring car racing teams. It began tinkering with production Volvos in a big way back in 2010 with the debut of a 450-horsepower Polestar C30 concept, and then stepped further into the role of becoming Volvo's AMG-like in-house tuner last year when it found an extra 25 horsepower and 29 lb-ft of torque in the company's T6 engine with a clever ECU reflash. That power bump debuted in R-Design models like this XC60 and the S60 before being offered as an $1,295-$1,495 upgrade for all T5- and T6-equipped models.

Plans continue to mold Polestar into Volvo's official performance tuning arm.

And then this summer came, and with it a 508-hp Polestar Volvo S60 concept aimed right at segment performance leaders like the BMW M3 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. Does Volvo have your attention now?

While the Swedish brand considers whether production is even a possibility for the Polestar S60, plans continue to mold Polestar into Volvo's official performance tuning arm, and the XC60 R-Design is an example of Polestar's influence making one of the brand's best products even better.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design badge2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design badge2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design badge

What's missing, however, is any visual evidence that Polestar has been here.

Fortunately for Polestar, Volvo's R-Design trim already takes care of the visual primping required of a performance vehicle. For our money, the XC60's basic shape is one of the most attractive crossover designs in its class, anyway. The R-Design package enhances things with color-matched lower body moldings; a silk metal finish trim on the side mirrors, door moldings, skid plates and twin tailpipes; and the largest set of wheels available for the XC60: 20x8-inch "Cratus" five-spoke alloys. Taken as a whole, the R-Design's visual elements add just a little bit more edge to the XC60's shape, like pairing driving gloves with a fine tailored suit. Far from overtly aggressive, it's nonetheless the XC60's most attractive form.

What's missing, however, is any visual evidence that Polestar has been here. We expected to find at least a Polestar badge somewhere, either on the grille, front fender or rear liftgate, but the only badging other than Volvo's own logo is the "R-Design" badge on the grille. Indeed, we initially weren't even certain our tester had the performance boost from Polestar until double-checking that it's included with all 2012 and newer R-Design models. Other models that carry the Polester Performance Package get a blue, square badge affixed to the left of their engine identification on the rear of the vehicle, but the S60 and XC60 are the only two models with available R-Design trims, and Volvo doesn't seem to have an answer yet for how the branding of these two performance packages will co-exist.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design headlight2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design grille2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design taillight2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design exhaust tips

We wouldn't call the cabin warm and cozy, but the modern design is attractive and communicates a sense of premium quality.

Much like the exterior, the inside of this XC60 R-Design is the same as it was before anyone began talking about Polestar. That's far from a bad thing, though, as we've long been fans of the XC60's unique, elegant and (for the most part) functional interior design. Those who've never experienced a Volvo interior will find the design refreshingly simple and the brand's trademark floating center stack a unique touch. R-Design models are set apart with the addition of blue-ringed gauges; aluminum inserts in the doors, steering wheel and dash, and an attractive two-tone leather seating package with "R-Design" embossed in the seat backs. While we wouldn't call the cabin warm and cozy, the modern design is attractive and communicates a sense of premium quality.

Not all is perfect inside the XC60, though. While the controls are as logically laid out as Einstein's sock drawer, the navigation system is a difficult thing to operate. Lacking a touchscreen, inputs must be made via a single knob on the center console. As if that bottlenecked user interface weren't enough, the knob that controls the nav system is placed on the far side of the center console (and at a glance looks nearly identical to the center console's other three knobs), so any operation requires a reach from the driver. The system is still better than the old one that accepted inputs only from a remote control or hidden steering wheel nub, but as infotainment systems begin to weigh more in the decision to buy one vehicle over another, Volvo will find itself out of the running more often if it doesn't begin offering the latest tech paired with a user-friendly interface.

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

No one, however, can fault the XC60 when it comes to functionality. Not only can it carry 30.8 cubic feet of cargo behind its second row of seats, but fold those forward and the rear opens up to accept 67.4 cubes. That's greater cargo-carrying capacity than the BMW X3, Audi Q5, Acura RDX and Cadillac SRX. Best of all, the second row of seats fold flat to make a completely smooth and level surface over which to slide objects as they're loaded.

The Polestar Performance option is not an overhaul of all the car's systems to increase overall performance.

But we're not interested in this crossover for how many boxes can be loaded in the back; we want to know if Polestar's power bump will help it stand out among the top trims of its premium competitors. To be clear, what Volvo bills as the Polestar Performance option that comes standard with R-Design models is not an overhaul of all the car's systems to increase overall performance. That's what an M badge does and Polestar just isn't there yet. Rather, Polestar has applied a little know-how earned from running these engines on the track to increase output in the production versions without taking a hit to fuel economy.

The numbers speak for themselves: Horsepower from the turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine increases from 300 to 325 and torque from 325 to 354 pound feet. Peak horsepower arrives a little earlier than before at 5,400 RPM, while the top of this higher torque curve moves back from 2,100 RPM to 3,000. The engine's redline remains the same 6,500 RPM as before. With all that, fuel economy doesn't budge at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 on the highway. We observed a range of 18-21 mpg – right in the middle of official estimates.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design engine

Even in pre-Polestar times, the XC60's 300-hp T6 engine was among the most powerful in this class. With 325 hp, however, it is the most powerful in this class, handily outstripping the next three most powerful competitors: the 308-hp Cadillac SRX, 305-hp Lincoln MKX and 300-hp BMW X3. What that translates to on the road is a crossover that feels unburdened by its own 4,225-pound weight (and yours). The engine is undeniably strong with an aggressive pull, and power delivery is so linear that we barely felt the turbocharger's presence while the six-speed automatic was resetting the tachometer with each shift. The Polestar upgrade simply makes this good engine better.

These performance enhancements also contribute to the main criticism of this crossover: a stiff ride.

And the XC60 R-Design is already arranged to take excellent advantage of this upgrade. The R-Design trim adds a 10-percent stiffer suspension, a quicker steering ratio and those larger wheels wearing 255/45-R20 Pirelli rubber. Body control is excellent during cornering, particularly for a crossover, and while some lean is to be expected, the combination of Volvo's all-wheel-drive system and those meaty tires tells your frontal lobe that it will stick where other CUVs would be begging for a reprieve. The steering, too, is also surprisingly good with an accurate and nicely weighted feel that never felt over-assisted in our hands – a welcome experience in this age of overly numb electric power steering systems.

These performance enhancements, however, also contribute to the main criticism of this crossover: a stiff ride. It's certainly the case that the XC60 lets more of the road through than some other luxury crossovers, and the R-Design additions, particularly the stiffer suspension, larger wheels and lower-profile tires, only accentuate that trait. At no time, however, did we feel the ride was unbearable or an unacceptable tradeoff for the level of handling that was delivered in return. Any driving enthusiast would agree, and those looking only for luxury and a cush ride should look in a Lexus showroom.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design wheel

And that's exactly what they do. While the XC60 was last year's least popular mid-size two-row luxury crossover with sales of just 12,932 units, the Lexus RX was the segment's runaway leader with 82,595 units sold. As we mentioned earlier, that disparity exists exists for reasons like Lexus' larger marketing budget and dealerships that just get the job done on every level (though curiously, Lexus operates just 231 dealerships in the U.S. compared to Volvo's 315). And it's not just the segment's heaviest hitter: The 2013 Acura RDX received a ground-up redesign on account of the previous model's slow sales, which in 2011 still exceeded the XC60 by 2,264 units.

The XC60 is priced right in line with the competition and in some cases offers more for your money.

But we've also heard criticism that Volvos are overpriced, come with a built-in premium and are only appealing to those willing to pay extra for the privilege of being different. While that may be true of some Volvo models (C30, we're looking at you), the XC60 doesn't support that stereotype; it is priced right in line with the competition and in some cases offers more for your money.

Take our loaded-up example of the most expensive trim you can buy. We begin with an XC60 that starts at a reasonable $33,300. Standard at that price is the attractive Scandinavian design inside and out and enough standard safety equipment to support Volvo's well-earned reputation for leading the industry in occupant protection. The all-wheel-drive R-Design model raises the price to $43,700 and then we check off the top-of-the-line Platinum trim that adds a navigation system, premium sound system, rear-view camera, power tailgate and other premium features for another $4,450. The Climate package costing $1,000 includes heated front and rear seats, heated windshield washer nozzles, rain-sensing wipers and an air filtering system, and the Technology Package for $2,100 adds Volvo's full suite of optional safety technologies: Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake (CWAB), Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake, Distance Alert (DA), Driver Alert Control (DAC), Lane Departure Warning (LDW) and active high beams. The cherry on top is our tester's optional Electric Silver Metallic paint for $550. The damage to your wallet at the end of the day is an MSRP of $52,675, which includes an $875 destination charge.

2012 Volvo XC60 R-Design rear 3/4 view

While by no means cheap, let's see how that price compares with Lexus' latest offering. A 2013 Lexus RX 350 has a base MSRP of $39,310, while its most expensive model, the RX F Sport, starts at $47,000. If we option up the RX F Sport to similar equipment levels as the XC60 R-Design, its price would reach $55,645, which also includes an $875 destination charge. That's $2,970 more for 55 fewer horsepower, 106 fewer pound-feet of torque and 285 more pounds of vehicle to move around – not to mention a performance sport package that more looks the part than drives like it. To its credit, the RX is larger on the inside than the XC60, but we doubt winning that particular column on the comparison chart is the sole source of its sales lead.

Why, then, are so few people buying the XC60 compared to its competition?

Why, then, are so few people buying the XC60 compared to its competition? The reason really does have more to do with exposure than how the XC60 actually rates among its peers, particularly when comparing this XC60 R-Design to the best the other brands have to offer. Be it a lack of marketing or the nearest dealer being too far away, the majority of luxury-crossover-buying-populace doesn't appear to be thinking to include the XC60 among its options.

Polestar may be able to improve Volvo's visibility with buyers one day just like M does for BMW and AMG for Mercedes-Benz, but it won't get there with just an ECU reflash, no matter how welcome the rearranging of ones and zeros is from behind the wheel. While Volvo figures out how to make that happen, buyers can take heart in the fact that their XC60 purchase has reduced the amount of injustice in the world, if only by a little.