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Volvo attempts to combine the super-saloon and PHEV with its flagship S60 - but is it more a rival for the Mercedes-AMG C43 or the hardcore BMW M3?

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Since the turn of the millennium, Volvo has changed out of sight. Some may continue to think of the now Chinese-owned firm as a purveyor of boxy Swedish estates, but the situation on the ground couldn’t be more different, very much including the Volvo S60.

Catalysed by the arrival of the Volvo XC90 in 2002, Volvo’s growth has been built on an expanding range of suave, sophisticated SUVs. A look at its 2018 annual report confirms it: of the 642,253 cars sold globally last year, 56% wore ‘XC’ badges.

Polestar’s new mirrored arrowhead brand identity is straight off the Polestar 1 sporting GT. It also appears on the radiator grille, where it has a bit more visual impact against a gloss black background. Nicely understated.

It’s interesting to ponder, then, just where the subject of this week’s road test might fit into that broader picture. Any premium car maker worth its salt needs to be represented in the compact executive saloon class; and while the Volvo S60 has always been a more leftfield alternative to rivals from BMW, Audi and Mercedes, that hasn’t stopped it from being a strong performer for Volvo.

However, as the second-generation S60 aged, it inevitably began to take a back seat: of the 50,319 Volvos sold in the UK in 2018, the S60 accounted for just 960. The weight of expectation placed on this new US-built, third-generation model to revitalise those sales will be significant.

The more workaday variants of this latest S60 will likely account for the lion’s share of those sold. But with the latest BMW 3 Series reaching new heights of dynamic prowess, it’s this performance-oriented S60 T8 Twin Engine Polestar Engineered that’s piqued the interest of the Autocar road test desk enough to lavish our weekly battery of performance and handling tests upon it.

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Time to find out how worthy this range-topping, uncompromisingly engineered performance plug-in hybrid really is.

The Volvo S60 range at a glance

Volvo’s bold decision to gradually phase out diesel engines from its model ranges means, unlike in the closely related Volvo V60 estate, there is no diesel engine option in the S60 range. That truncates the choice at least for the moment, with only the 2.0-litre turbocharged, front-driven T5 and plug-in hybrid T8 in the range – although the latter can be found in cheaper and less performance-biased R-Design Plus trim. Inscription Plus trim sits above R-Design Plus on the T5 option, adding standard equipment.

Price £56,105 Power 400bhp Torque 494lb ft 0-60mph 5.4sec 30-70mph in fourth 6.2sec Fuel economy 33.9mpg CO2 emissions 45g/km 70-0mph 51.8m

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered 2020 road test review - hero side

If this section were judged on looks alone, the S60 would walk away with a five-star endorsement. Alas, things aren’t quite that simple, but few testers could deny how well Volvo has translated its current design language onto the canvas of a fairly compact modern saloon car here.

As with almost every other car Volvo now makes (the Volvo XC40 is the sole exception), the firm’s Scalable Product Architecture – SPA – sits beneath the S60’s striking exterior. Diesel engines have been removed from the line-up, with Volvo instead choosing to focus on a range of turbocharged petrol (T5) and petrol-electric (T8 Twin Engine) powertrain options, all of which are based around a turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder ‘Drive-E’ block and an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Suspension damping is adjusted via gold knobs found under the bonnet, on the top of each front strut. Equivalent ones at the rear can only be accessed by jacking up the car.

In standard T5 guise that engine makes a fairly modest 247bhp, which is sent to the front wheels. However, the further addition of a supercharger and some other special internals raises that figure to 299bhp in the T8 Twin Engine, while Polestar Engineered software and hardware tweaks see it pushed even further here, to 314bhp. With an entirely separate electric motor driving the rear axle, the combined system outputs of our test car are a fairly hefty 400bhp and 494lb ft. That said, with only four cylinders, it seems unlikely that the S60 will be able to match the six-cylinder performance character of the BMW M340i or Mercedes-AMG C43 – but we’ll see.

There is, of course, an associated weight penalty to consider: on our scales, the S60 came in at 2013kg, while a competitive figure for a modern sports saloon would be closer to 1700kg. The mass is accounted for by those batteries and the electric motor, along with all of its high-voltage electronics. The benefit is that, unlike the BMW or Mercedes, the Volvo can travel on electricity alone for a claimed 27 miles and has far better economy and CO2 figures.

More impressive than any software tweaks, however, are the mechanical modifications that have been introduced for this Polestar-branded range-topper. An aluminium strut brace has been installed in the engine bay to improve rigidity and sharpen front-end response, while larger Brembo brakes have also been fitted.

But it’s the adjustable dampers from Swedish suspension specialist Ohlins that are the most intriguing aspect of this car. They employ dual-flow valve technology, which allows the damping fluid to behave in the same way during rebound as it does during compression. The result, it’s claimed, is that the wheels maintain more consistent contact with the road, improving handling, traction and ride quality versus what you’d expect from a conventional strut. Each strut has 22 presets for damper rate, although you’ll need to make adjustments manually via a dial that protrudes from the top of the strut tower, which is easy enough to get at. To find the dials for the rears, however, you need to jack the car up and remove the back wheels.

INTERIOR

Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered 2020 road test review - front seats

Volvo has shown restraint inside its new, range-topping performance saloon, except for borderline garish yellow-gold seatbelts. Unusually for such colourful items, they’re standard-fit, their hue a kind of Polestar visual calling card, we’re told. And while they met with the approval of some testers, all agreed they were the kind of embellishment you expect more of a fast Porsche 911 than a petrol-electric Swedish saloon.

Generally, this is a more understated, luxury-first Polestar treatment than the one given five years ago to the six-pot V60 Polestar. There is no carbonfibre here, no Alcantara and none of the go-faster blue stitching we saw last time out.

Bit puzzled why Volvo didn’t knock up a special Polestar digital instrument display mode. Would have been a cheap way to add a special touch in an interior in need of one.

Modestly bolstered part-leather sports seats with adjustable under-thigh support hold you comfortably but assuredly and are a delight over long distances. Ahead is a digital instrument screen and a head-up display. Between them they relay information clearly and with plenty of flexibility, although neither offers much of a performance flavour about its appearance.

The S60’s materials palette makes for a smart and classy wider cabin ambience, but it hardly advertises the car’s sporting ambition. Front-row passenger space is quite generous by class standards, providing more for taller and longer-legged drivers than cars in this class sometimes can. Second-row space is less distinguishing, but there’s plenty of useful storage around the cabin.

If anything is missing, it’s the sense of occasion you get when you slide on board a sporting option that makes its abilities more apparent. That said, an appreciation of the art of understatement is nothing if not a reasonable expectation of the driver of a fast Volvo.

While most S60 drivers will get a 442-litre boot, that figure is cut to 390 litres in the case of these Twin Engine hybrid examples as a result of the necessary packaging of the rear axle drive arrangements. Unlike with the old diesel-powered V60 plug-in hybrid, however, you’re unlikely to notice much in the way of missing capacity this time around: the new S60 T8 provides good loading length, width and depth, and it really only misses out due to the absence of underfloor storage space.

All S60s come pretty well-equipped as far as on-board infotainment features are concerned. Navigating the firm’s 9in portrait-oriented Sensus Connect touchscreen display now seems more intuitive than it used to, the lateral-swiped menus having become more typical of other manufacturers’ systems than ever it used to be. You get navigation and some connected functionality as standard, as well as onboard wi-fi with a year’s worth of data included.

Polestar Engineered trim upgrades the standard audio system to Volvo’s Harman Kardon premium setup, which has all the power and clarity you’re likely to want and brings with it smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android phones (a feature which really ought to be standard across the range, in our opinion). You can upgrade again, though, to a Bowers & Wilkins system with 1100W of power, for a further £1675, should you want to.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered 2020 road test review - charging port

Until the arrival of the 850 T5 in the mid-1990s, memorable performance was something of an abstract concept for Volvo. The boxy new five-cylinder saloon and estate models changed that, supplementing the demure looks with a serious turn of pace.

With a ‘combined’ 400bhp produced by its petrol-electric plug-in hybrid powertrain, meanwhile, the S60 Polestar Engineered could never be described as ‘slow’ – although it is in danger of pulling off the same trick as its forebears, albeit to opposite effect. Against the stiff asking price, muscular looks, Pirelli P Zero tyres and gold brake calipers, our tested 0-60mph time of 5.4sec looks underwhelming and is some way shy of the more impressive 4.4sec to 62mph that Volvo claims.

Steering and brakes are a cut above Volvo’s usual and would work even better without the weight of the hybrid powertrain. In fact, a front-driven T5 version for around £42,000 might be more convincing all round.

Admittedly the car had damp test conditions with which to contend, but even with the entirety of this downsized engine’s power and torque delivered to the front contact patches, traction off the mark was not the problem – a fact that surprised some testers. In fact, even without a dedicated launch-control function, the Volvo leaped forward from a standstill mostly thanks to its electrically driven rear axle.

Thereafter, however, it struggled to deliver truly strong acceleration, and the drawbacks of the car’s powertrain layout became plain. Upshifts are suitably slick, but as your speed increases and the tachometer needle is kept usefully within the middle of the rev-range – a point at which the powertrain’s generous combined torque output should really be making itself known – the car’s apparent force of acceleration dwindles slightly.

At times it can seem as though the gearbox has failed to engage fully whenever a new ratio is selected, although moments of axle tramp suggest that the car’s chassis electronics may be intervening in order to maintain the best possible traction and prevent progress from becoming too ragged. In the dry this frustrating characteristic never manifested itself, but even in the damp we would expect any £60,000 performance saloon with four-wheel drive to accelerate with more panache than your average 300bhp hot hatch.

And it is the cost and the implied character of the car by which this powertrain should be judged. While it works well in casual driving, during which it gently slips into and out of pure-electric operation, buyers at this level have a right to expect more – and they frequently ask for it.

To this end, although the electric motor is always quick to respond, in general the S60’s power delivery lacks the precision and linearity of non-hybrid alternatives. The Volvo’s hybrid rivals, meanwhile, including cars such as the BMW 330e, which channels the totality of its efforts through one transmission, also seem to offer more linear responses and better drivability.

Under load, this Volvo powertrain also lacks a quality which is abundant elsewhere in the S60 Polestar Engineered package: audible character.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered 2020 road test review - cornering front

Bluntly put, this S60 falls some way short of the dynamic mark set by the usual super-saloon suspects. It lacks the steering alacrity and outright grip of rivals such as the Mercedes-AMG C63 and BMW M3 Competition. Being the only car in this clique whose powertrain leads from the front, the Volvo also lacks the balance inherent even in far less powerful rear-driven saloons.

So much, of course, many might expect of it; and none of which is to say the top-billing S60 doesn’t drive well. It does, with its sophisticated Ohlins dampers lifting the car’s character beyond the inoffensive security of typical Volvo fare and into a more entertaining dimension.

The S60 Polestar Engineered’s party trick of exemplary damping and supple, isolating ride is courtesy of its adjustable Ohlins dampers; steering is involving and precise

To cope with British roads, the Ohlins need to be set close to their most forgiving configuration. Thereafter they provide on-road vertical body control so deft it is perhaps unmatched by anything else in this class. Underlined by the succinct management of weight transfer that this suspension provides, the steering revisions are easy to detect, and those first few degrees of direction change are more involving and accurate than expected.

Consider also that the small, rear-mounted electric motor often helps neutralise mid-corner chassis balance, and what you have is a sure-footed sports saloon with just enough dynamic interest to warrant a keen style of operation.

That being said, the car never stops being a Volvo. In road driving, most forms of chassis rotation are quickly ruled out of the question, not least because the ESC can never be fully disabled. The car is unambiguous in stating how it wants to be driven: quickly and neatly. One tester put it well when he described the S60 Polestar Engineered as being an otherwise sensible car that will adequately enliven those five miles of your commute where the route gets interesting – and that feels like the beginning and the end of its dynamic ambition.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

There are some boxes a modern Volvo saloon simply has to tick, and one is that which is marked ‘rolling refinement’. They haven’t forgotten this in Gothenburg, and so while the S60 Polestar Engineered falls short of more powerful, extroverted rivals as a pure driving event, it mostly surpasses them in its ability to isolate occupants from the outside world.

The sensation is enhanced by the high scuttle, deep seats and the cabin’s air of indestructibility, but our test microphone showed that noise from the engine, tyres and oncoming air are indeed less intrusive than for the equivalent AMG or M division wares. The last Audi RS4 Avant we tested did prove fractionally quieter on the move, however.

The Polestar-branded car treads a finer line regarding out-and-out ride quality. The Ohlins dampers are changeable through 22 positions – the higher the number, the softer the damping force – and on anything lower than position 18 they telegraph the road surface into the body too faithfully for comfort. Venture into single figures and at low speeds there is the same hyperactive jostle well-known to Lotus Exige owners, although equally, as speeds increase, so the flow dramatically smooths, as though by magic.

Impressive? Yes, but ultimately this lack of breadth is unbecoming of any four-door saloon whose sensibilities are more all-rounder than all-out attack. For daily driving, the Polestar Engineered S60 is therefore best left in its more conservative and absorptive suspension settings, where it rides with impressive poise and very little of the unnecessary harshness found in many top-flight performance saloons.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered 2020 road test review - hero front

The S60’s powertrain might not be as characterful as that of a BMW M340i or a Mercedes-AMG C43, but it has merit – particularly from a fleet driver’s perspective. With a CO2 rating of 48g/km and benefit-in-kind tax at just 16% (dropping to 14% next April), this S60 would tempt those after a fast and engaging company car that, comparably speaking, won’t cost the earth to tax.

Its 27-mile electric range should mean you save money at the pumps, too. We saw an average of 33.9mpg – some way off its WLTP-certified 104.5mpg – but the return you’d see would depend entirely on use.

Forecasters don’t expect the high purchase price to deliver relatively favourable residual values for this top-of-range S60

Standard equipment is generous, but it’s also worth noting that, as a plug-in hybrid, the Volvo is expensive to buy – and that high purchase price has as big an influence on BIK tax liability as anything. A BMW 330e is nearly £20,000 cheaper in its most basic form.

 

VERDICT

Volvo S60 Polestar Engineered 2020 road test review - static

Consider the marketing power of Mercedes-AMG and similar performance sub-brands and nobody should be surprised to see Volvo attempt to join that clique with Polestar Engineered. This initial product has plenty going for it – not least some inspiring design and excellent body control. There is also the versatility of its plug-in hybrid powertrain, which is unique among cars of this ilk, and the easy-going driveability and rolling refinement for which modern Volvo is known.

And yet for all that, the S60 T8 Twin Engine Polestar Engineered is not quite the drivers’ car it aims to be. The precision and control in the handling and steering are new benchmarks for the brand but still fall well short of truly sporting rivals. The four-cylinder powertrain offers neither the performance nor the character that so often defines quick saloons, and its complexity can render progress unintuitive and lethargic.

Ploughs its own performance furrow but doesn’t always enthral

This remains an esoteric concept. With low emissions and strong if not outstanding performance, it will appeal to company car drivers in search of a special saloon, but for now, BMW, Mercedes-AMG and the others needn’t be too concerned.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volvo S60 First drives