Driven: Volvo V60 T6 AWD R-Design Polestar meets Shelsley Walsh

V60T6Polestar-shelsley

There was a time when owning a Volvo was considered cool – the year was 1994 and Volvo had teamed up with Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) to contest the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC).

To help raise the brand’s profile, Volvo originally chose the 850 Estate, which they reasoned would generate the most media exposure. The race car was penned by the designer responsible for the Jaguar XJ220 supercar and powered by the car maker’s 2.0-litre, 5-cylinder, turbocharged engine, producing a heady 290bhp.

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3.5/5

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DISCOVER MORE ABOUT THE V60..

Volvo’s touring car success gave rise to the production 850R in 1996, with its 2.3-litre 5-cylinder engine producing 250bhp at 5400 rpm along with 350Nm of torque. In its day, the 850R was perhaps the ultimate ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’, capable of accelerating from 0-62mph in 6.8 seconds and reaching a top speed of 155mph. Porsche drivers learned to pay attention to their rear-view mirrors, while BMW drivers envied the 850R’s torque-laden mid-range grunt.

Memories of the 850R came flooding back recently when I drove the Volvo V60 T6 AWD R-Design Polestar – its spiritual successor. The nomenclature may have changed, but the ingredients seems remarkably similar – this time Volvo’s performance estate is fitted with a 3.0-litre 6-cylinder engine, turbocharged (of course) and now with four-wheel drive to handle all that mid-range torque. And although the V60 T6 has put on a bit of weight since the 850R – 1784kg vs 1545kg, it makes up for it with 329bhp and a whopping 480Nm (355 lb-ft) of torque.

The result is 0-60mph performance in 5.8 seconds and an identical top speed of 155mph (limited).

The other similarity between Volvo’s first and latest performance estates, is the price. Back in 1996, the 850R retailed for £33,550, and for just £36,285 you can now pick up a V60 T6 AWD R-Design, although our test car topped out at £43,715 after adding Drivers Support Pack (£1,485), Premium Pack (£1,280), Active Lights (£1,025), Convenience Pack (£1,025), Sunroof (£870), Security Pack (£665), Polestar Performance Upgrade (£645) and Digital TV (£435).

So now that we’ve been introduced, what should we do with our V60 T6 AWD R-Design Polestar? – The most powerful Volvo ever.

Well, let’s start with shortening its name – we’ll call it ‘T6 Polestar’. Then we’ll return to the birthplace of the 850R, the circuit, to find out if Volvo’s modern-day sports estate has managed to retain some of that 1990’s soul.

* * *

Rather than visit the usual circuits like Silverstone or Bedford Autodrome, we chose somewhere with real history – Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb Circuit – also known as the oldest operational motorsport venue in the world. First used in 1905, Shelsley Walsh has played host to numerous motorsport heroes, including Sir Henry Segrave, Hans Stuck, Raymond Mays, Sir Stirling Moss and 1995 British Hill Climb Champion Andy Priaulx.

Like Volvo, Shelsley Walsh is going through a period of rebirth. You may remember those ‘Save Shelsley’ campaigns from a few years ago. That was back in 2004, when the circuit’s original 99-year lease came up for renewal and needed £1.05 million to secure its future.

The Midland Automobile Club, which runs the venue, gained the support of members and enthusiasts from around the world and since then the historic 1,000-yard track, north-west of Worcester, has been renovating and restoring the venue’s facilities.

As our T6 Polestar sits on the starting line, we could feel the history of this place already asking questions of Volvo’s sports estate. Shelsley is a place where motorsport is revered, and is far more than just a winding stretch of tarmac, so Volvo’s most powerful production car would need to pay it’s challenging twists and turns due respect.

Our original intention was use Shelsley for a spot of photography, but once past the start-line it felt ‘rude’ not to comply with the circuit’s remit and climb it as quickly as possible.

The T6 Polestar, with its Haldex all-wheel drive system, launched with barely a murmur of discord – far removed from its unruly predecessor. But once underway you miss the absence of drama – this is a 330bhp sports estate after all, which back in 1995 would have earned it the accolade of being one of the fastest saloon cars in the world.

With 25bhp more than the regular V60 T6, I was expecting the T6 Polestar to be reasonably swift, and it was, although not as quick as you might imagine. Picture BMW 335i performance (almost), but a long way short of anything sporting an ‘M’ or RS’ badge.

It’s a relaxing sort of engine to drive on the road, fitted its standard Geartronic auto box, but it’s not an engine which encourages you to explore its outer reaches, nor play music through its fruity induction or exhaust. In fact, despite the twin-scroll turbocharging of its 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine, the only fruitiness you’re likely to experience in the T6 Polestar is when you bite into an Apple at your next fuel stop.

And fuel is one thing you’ll need to budget on for with the T6 Polestar. Most of our time with the car was spent schmoozing along, enjoying its fine ride and handling or swallowing up huge motorway miles – in this mode you’re likely to see between 27mpg and 29mpg, exactly the figure claimed by Volvo. But put your foot down, and it’s not long before the Polestar is drinking a gallon of fuel every 20 miles or so.

* * *

Into the first corner at Shelsley, the fast left-hand Kennel Bend, and the T6 Polestar is flat in 3rd. Whilst there’s very little body roll, the nose of the V60 reminds me of Jag’s early XFR, the float and bounce of its front suspension encouraging some caution before committing it into a fast bend.

It’s a marginal blip in the composure of the T6 Polestar’s suspension (MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link suspension at the rear), which you’re unlikely to notice on the road, but nevertheless it reminds us the V60 was designed for a lighter, less powerful engine.

The pedal remains firmly nailed over the Crossing kink, with only the slightest of lifts for the tight and cambered S-bend that follows. This is where we uncover another of the V60 Polestar’s flaws. It’s steering, whilst accurate, is a little ‘dead’ just off centre and too slow for the quick flick of that S-bend.

But it’s time to give all of our attention to the track again, as the scene of Shelsley’s most embarrassing incidents rapidly approaches.

Bottom Bend is the reincarnation of every slippery moment you’ve had on the road, tree lined, seasoned with silt from the banks of earth above, it tempts you to brake later into its uphill camber, only to play a cruel trick on your confidence as the road’s traction dissolves away.

The V60 has a chassis that resists understeer far better than most similarly configured Audis – with a slight lift on turn-in before re-engaging full boost, the T6 Polestar can be made to oversteer in a safe and predictable way. Whilst this might sound the death-knell for the T6 Polestar’s sporty credentials, exactly the opposite occurs.

For a car designed principally with front-wheel drive in mind, the all-wheel drive V60 is wonderfully adjustable on the throttle for such a sensible looking estate car.

Lift – turn – accelerate, and the T6 Polestar comes alive. Now the steering feels sharp and incisive, the engine punchy and the chassis as balanced as any car in its class.

Bottom Bend was made for the V60. We repeat the corner, again and again, just to see if we can unsettle the cool Swede, but the T6 Polestar revels in such tightly cambered corners as we lunge towards the next right-hander, Top Bend, before bursting on to Main Straight and across the finish line.

* * *

Out on the public road again and I’m reminded that the T6 Polestar is an excellent mile-muncher, but unless pushing it on a twisty circuit you’d never know the chassis could be so capable. There’s still that ‘floaty/untidy’ feeling on fast A-roads, where an Audi S4 would be pushing on even harder – it’s as if Volvo were in two minds about how sporty the T6 Polestar should be.

The Geartronic automatic gearbox doesn’t help – it shunts when taking off from rest, so noticeably that I chose to select ‘2nd’ in the gearbox’s manual mode whenever accelerating onto a roundabout. And that’s another faux par committed by Volvo’s engineers – manual selection of gears requires the counter-intuitive ‘push-forwards’ to change up and ‘pull-backward’ to change down. I was forever selecting the wrong gear, making me wish for paddles on the T6 Polestar’s steering wheel.

Of the options fitted to our test car, the only one I would heartily recommend is the £645 Polestar Performance Upgrade – 329bhp and 354lb ft of torque is not to be sniffed at, even if it does test the V60’s body control.

Beneath the ice white exterior of our car, lies a fast, competent and relaxing sports estate. It goes about its business with a likeable determination without raising the driver’s heart by more than a few beats. And that’s perhaps the main shortcoming of Volvo V60 T6 Polestar.

It’s a great car to live with, stylish and classless to look at and a fabulous all-rounder, but to become the spiritual successor to Volvo’s 850R it needs to become more Danny O’Donoghue than Tom Jones. There’s a great engine and chassis in the T6 Polestar, but it needs to decide what it wants to be – cruiser or sports saloon.

The T6 Polestar is good – nearly very good – and a real pleasure to live with, but when we handed the keys back to Volvo we didn’t miss it. Our Swedish affair was over, and beautiful though she was, there wasn’t much more to enjoy beyond what we initially discovered.

A more vocal exhaust, stiffer front springs and a DCT gearbox would work wonders for its personality and make it not just the most powerful Volvo, but also the most exciting (by far) to drive.

Photo credits: Noremac, Midland Automobile Club

Specification

Model:  V60 T6 AWD R-Design Polestar
Engine:  2,953cc 24-valve six cylinder
Transmission:  6-Speed Geartronic Auto
Weight:  1784kg
Colour:  Ice White
Interior:  R-Design Off Black Ceramic
Mileage:  8,756 miles (at end of test)
Price (as tested):  £43,715 (base price – £36,285)

Performance Standard T6 Polestar Upgraded
Power (bhp): 304 329
Power Max (rpm): 5600 5400-6500
Torque (lb-ft): 325 355
Torque Max (rpm): 2100-4200 3000-3600