kilometer magazine

celebrating european cars and motorcycles


km : Tuned


23 June 2011

“It’s cool, but they’ll never build it.” That’s what we thought when the Volvo C30 Polestar PCP debuted last year in Gothenburg; if you’re a Volvo fan, we know you thought the same thing. But here we are, sitting on a canyon road in Southern California in that very same car with Polestar’s marketing director in the passenger seat. Would he really fly himself and the car all that way for nothing?

“Come to a stop and rev it to 3000,” he tells us, probably to change the subject from whether this car will marry an assembly line and make many babies. All we can think is how a stock C30 would handle this, and images of one smoking, screaming front tire flash through our mind. That, plus the fact that this is a one-off concept car. But okay, whatever you say.

Polestar’s engineers aren’t stupid. These same people built two C30 race cars that went on to claim the 2009 and 2010 Scandinavian Touring Car Championship’s team titles, and they’ve branched out this year into WTCC racing as well. The company résumé doesn’t include building useless cars. That’s why in addition to a ton of power (405 hp total, and 376 lb-ft of torque), the team robbed a V50 of its all-wheel drive system and bolted it up under this C30. “The Haldex will sort it all out,” our friend in the passenger seat assures us. But we’d just had a Red Bull and our feet are jittery. Three-thousand rpm becomes more like 5000 by the time we dump the clutch, which slips slightly as the little Volvo jumps forward without so much as a chirp from the tires. This is the first hint that this isn’t just the best C30 we’ve driven, it might be the best Volvo we’ve driven.

Polestar describes this C30 as “what happens when racing engineers and designers get free hands to build a street car without any limitations set by a specific racing regulation,” but naturally, people like them start with what they know, which is how to win on the track. As a result, its street car borrows aerodynamic elements from the STCC racers, including spoilers front and rear and those slick flares that trail back into the front fenders. The Swedes behind it like to call the glowing blue paint color “Swedish Racing Green” as a way of explaining that it isn’t just attention-grabbing, it’s as traditional a racing color in Sweden as the famous dark green is in England. The graphite-colored wheels are Polestar-branded but come from BBS.

Inside, the Polestar C30 presents a more subdued atmosphere, though the flashiest element — the gauges — glow the same blue as the paint outside. The otherwise basic C30 cabin has been draped completely in organic Tärnsjö leather and suede in either black or tan; all four seats feature stitching in a repeated pattern of the company’s four-pointed star logo. The steering wheel is all suede with a Volvo badge peeking out from the fuzz. Additionally, the standard front seats have been swapped for racing buckets and way back in the rear, there’s a metal holder for a racing helmet and a bottle of victory champagne.

All of those things, including even the aero to some extent, primarily exist to make this C30 a good concept car. They succeed, but what about those parts that make it a strong performance car?

As usual, those all lurk below the surface. The car uses a 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder like any other C30, but this one has a stronger block and upgraded components, all designed to handle a larger KKK 26 turbo and the 405 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque it helps create. Don’t think that it’s tweaked to the max, though; Polestar’s engineers tell us it’s capable of far more, and those of you who modify Volvo five-bangers know that’s true. It’s connected to a V50-sourced Haldex system via a stock six-speed manual, though its clutch has been swapped out with one that’s stronger and also has a seriously heavy take-up.

Out at the corners, an Öhlins shock and spring setup replaces the all the soft stock components. We crawl under the rear to get a peek at the differential and see a sticker on the rear sway bar. A Ford blue oval and the world “PROTOTYPE” are printed across it. Interesting.

People love seeing big brakes and the Polestar C30 doesn’t disappoint. Up front sit six-piston Brembo calipers biting down on 15.0-inch rotors. The smaller rear brakes are still larger than the fronts on a stock C30, with four-piston calipers squeezing 13.0-inch discs. In truth, they’re probably overkill on a car like this, even with the giddy-up of 405 horses to reign in. Too much is just fine with us, but they do tend to get squeaky after being worked hard. The brakes are nowhere near as loud as the exhaust, though, which doesn’t calm down in lower revs. On the highway, it’s boomy and pretty fatiguing after a while. But when you’re on it, that five-cylinder just sounds amazing, whether the noises are coming from the exhaust or the very vocal turbo.

The way all of the car’s systems work in harmony is the second-best thing about the Polestar (we’ll get to the best next.) If we’re going to pick one aspect we love best, it would be the steering, which has the same general feel as a normal C30’s, but with a much quicker ratio. It’s a change that demonstrates just how close the little Volvo is to being a very good hot hatch. Close behind the steering is the suspension, which remains remarkably flat through corners without the trade-off of being brutal on rougher roads. Perhaps the Öhlins setup is really good, perhaps the rear differential does great things for the car’s weight balance, or maybe race engineers can just work miracles. Regardless, Volvo handling has just reached new heights.

The immense power of the car is great as well, but we feel that it’d all be a waste if the rest of the car weren’t so good. The fact that it is just makes the power seem natural. We’ve driven the new Audi TT RS, which with its five-cylinder and all-wheel drive is probably the closest competitor, and we feel comfortable saying the Polestar C30 would knock that car’s socks off. It certainly makes the platform-sharing Ford Focus RS seem a bit tamer. Which brings us to the most interesting take-away from our drive.

This isn’t some multi-million-dollar concept built from irreplaceable one-off parts. It’s actually been crashed twice by the media and lives to tell the stories. All of the core components, we’re told, are straight from the Volvo parts bin. That includes the Haldex system, which bolts right in without a single cut or weld, as well as all the engine components, which we are told came from “other Volvo models.” It seems possible much of it is just the S60’s new updated T5 components. Apparently a normal C30 block would crack under the pressure of this much power, but the mystery block in the Polestar C30 isn’t stressed at all. We’re also not sure where the steering rack came from, but we’re ready to buy a whole crate of them to sell to current C30 owners.

Now obviously some parts didn’t come from Volvo. The Brembo brakes could be downsized and the suspension could be re-developed in-house for a production run of fast C30s. Those new body pieces are just plastic molds while the interior could get by with a few nice R-Design touches. That’s what we’ve learned from the Polestar C30: that it’d be so darn easy to build. Putting a price tag on it is hard because there’s matters like volume left to consider, but even at $40,000, about $10,000 more than a well-equipped C30, it’d cost $20,000 less than that aforementioned Audi and not a ton more than where we figure the upcoming Volkswagen Golf R will land.

What’s it going to take? Our sources say the odds are about fifty-fifty right now. In its favor, we know that Polestar would like to make itself more of a household name, and now that it is offering tuning through American dealers, Volvo Cars of North America would like that, too. Speaking of VCNA, its former president, Doug Speck, was one of the most vocal proponents of more performance models and he’s now taken a VP job in Gothenburg. He must have an even bigger voice there. But then there are the number crunchers, not to mention the generally conservative and safety-focused nature of Volvo’s corporate culture. No, nothing is for sure, but considering the car was flown all the way to the US just for us and a few others to drive it, we’re liking the odds more than we did a few weeks ago.

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