A NUMBER of years ago Paul Newman drove a Volvo with a Ford V8 engine squeezed into it. And he used to blow everybody’s doors off. People were astounded that this Volvo was so fast. It was just the idea that you took a car everybody thought was a little boring and you made it really exciting.
Well, now Volvo has done that for itself. It has come up with the ultimate hot station wagon — or estate, as you say in Britain. It’s a Volvo on steroids.
The V60 Polestar will change the way you think about the Swedish car maker. Polestar is essentially the motor sport partner of Volvo. It started life as an independent company racing Volvos in the mid-1990s and selling aftermarket tuning kits to owners who wanted a bit more power and performance. This is the first production car to wear the Polestar badge (the company is also working on an S60 saloon version).
At first sight it doesn’t look so different from the standard V60 estate, apart from the garish blue paint job. But under the bonnet is a 345bhp engine, which will take the estate to 62mph in less than five seconds and on to a top speed of 155mph. It has all the sporty kit you would expect of a performance-oriented car too: four- wheel drive, sophisticated sports suspension and a very loud exhaust.
This is no ordinary Volvo to drive. The Polestar has plenty of power and a lot of torque, but not overwhelmingly so. It feels like a good old-fashioned American V8 and it handled very, very nicely.
I think you’d say this is the ultimate sleeper car. If you want to fool your insurance man so you don’t pay a high-performance premium, this is the car to get. Because as soon as he sees it’s a Volvo, he’ll go, “Oh! That’s quite sensible. What engine has it got?”
To which you’ll reply, “I don’t know . . . it’s a Volvo estate. Built like a tank.”
“Yeah. No problem,” he’ll say. Little will he know.
This is no ordinary Volvo to drive, either. The Polestar has plenty of power and a lot of torque, but not overwhelmingly so. It isn’t one of these peaky things you have to rev the heck out of to get anywhere. It feels like a good old-fashioned American V8 but it might rev a little more happily. Of course, it has four-wheel drive, so the grip is unbelievable. And the suspension is quite comfortable — firm but sure-footed. The steering felt extremely direct too and the brakes were more than up to the task. It handled very, very nicely.
I think the point of a vehicle such as this is, if you’re a sports car guy and you have to sell your MG or your Chevrolet Corvette, or whatever, because you now have a family — especially one with two kids or more — it is sort of the perfect vehicle, isn’t it? Because you know when the family’s in the car you can be responsible and do the right thing, and then, when they’re not in the car, you’ve got a bit of a hoon wagon that you can drive round and have a good time in.
But that got me wondering: what would kids think of it? Is it the sort of vehicle that would turn a kid on to cars?
Almost 21 years ago I got a letter from a 12-year-old boy. “Dear Mr Leno,” it said, “I have told a kind of fib that got me into trouble and now I need your help. I told everybody you were my uncle. And that you and I go driving round in your Lamborghini at weekends. Well, my friends didn’t believe me and started making fun of me. So I wonder if you could help me out. Is there any chance you could maybe pick me up one day and give me a ride to school so all my friends could see that you really are my uncle, even though you’re not?”
Here was a kid after my own heart. This just made me smile, that he had fabricated this fantastic story. So I thought, “OK. Let’s do it.” And I called his parents and I arranged to take him to school one day. So we drive to the school and wait until the opportune time when the buses are all unloading. Then, of course, we drive up in the Lamborghini and all the doors go up and the kids all go, “Wow! He really is his uncle — he really does drive him in a Countach!”
Twenty years after the Countach school run, I thought I would try a similar trick with the Polestar while in Britain. I would take two boys — sons of friends of mine — to school, but divert from the school run to do a hot lap of the Top Gear track at Dunsfold in Surrey.
Their parents knew what we were doing. The boys had no idea — even though we were filming, they didn’t know what was in store. They sat in the back on their iPads. You know how uninterested kids can be, especially early in the morning. And they live in their own private world. So they didn’t catch on until we had turned into the old airbase and they actually saw the Top Gear sign. That’s when I think it hit home what was about to happen.
Now if you haven’t already, you should watch the video. I pull onto the Top Gear track and the meek school-run estate turns into a monster. All the famous corners from the show flash past. From the back seat there are whoops of delight and a few moments of silence. To reassure you, at no point were any children injured in the making of this film. Their mum had willingly given her consent. Maybe because when she heard it was a Volvo she said, “Oh, it’s a Volvo — I guess it’ll be OK. I mean, how fast can a Volvo go?”
You know how uninterested kids can be, so they didn’t catch on until we had turned into the old airbase and they actually saw the Top Gear sign. That’s when I think it home what was about to happen
In fact Volvo had a great advert about 25 years ago that showed its 740 Turbo Wagon and a Countach in the same shot and then kind of morphing into one another. Cars have moved on a bit since then and, truth be told, this Volvo estate is probably faster round the Dunsfold track than my Countach would have been.
Driving it at speed reminded me that I always like estates. I was never an SUV guy. You really can’t do anything with them — they always seem a bit cumbersome to me, with their centre of gravity too high — whereas the fun thing about an estate is that it’s really just a saloon with a cargo box on the back. You simply have a little more room to carry things.
I think years ago a Volvo was the safe car — that was the company’s claim to fame. But these days all cars are pretty safe, so you need something to liven up that staid, boring image it had for a while. It was just a school-run car; this gives it a bit of cachet and makes it kind of sexy.
So will it make petrolheads out of the boys I drove to school? I have no idea. When we were young the only way you could get away from your parents was to hop on your bicycle and pedal, which was way too hard, or to get your driving licence, so you could jump into your car and go wherever you wanted to.
Now, with iPhones and iPads, young people can go places and do things we couldn’t even dream of without leaving their bedroom. In fact a study a few years ago found that if forced to make the choice, teenagers would rather have an iPhone than a car.
Cars are also less relevant culturally. When I was growing up, cars were in the movies; they were in the music. When was the last time you heard anybody sing a car song? I mean, when I was a kid there was Route 66, Little Deuce Coupé, Mustang Sally … They were all songs about cars and where they could take you or what you could do with them.
I hope my Polestar film might just inspire a handful of kids to get interested in automobiles again.
Jay’s rating ★★★★☆
It’s more fun than an iPhone, kids
2014 Volvo V60 Polestar specifications
Engine: 2953cc, 6 cylinders, turbo
Power: 345bhp @ 5700rpm
Torque: 369 lb ft @ 2800rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Performance: 0-62mph: 4.9sec
Top speed: 155mph
Dimensions: L 4635mm; W 2097mm; H 1484mm
Fuel: 28mpg (combined)
Road tax band: L
Release date: On sale now