Forget everything you know about Volvo because the Swedish hippy haulers and soccer-mom mobiles are a distant memory. The modern Volvo is as much about performance as it is style and safety. One look at the model lineup and you'd be hard-pressed to find fault with the S60 sedan with its turbo six-cylinder and AWD, or the C30 hot hatch that's as stylish as it is capable.
Volvo has done a remarkable job of reinventing itself over the past few decades with turbocharged cars and high profile touring car racers. Although bold design is an important factor, the company has joined a handful of manufacturers that offer factory-backed performance upgrades for enthusiast drivers.
It's doing it through a collaboration with Swedish specialists Polestar. The company is both Volvo's official racing and performance partner, even running training programs for Volvo technicians. In fact, we recently looked in detail at both Polestar's 450hp C30 T5 AWD concept (EC 9/12) and the 500hp S60 T6 AWD concept (EC 11/12). Both cars aim to undermine preconceived ideas and prompt Volvo into building high performance models to combats the M, RS and AMG monikers.
However, its bread and butter comes from offering approved software upgrades for most Volvo turbo engines. These are often developed in the Volvo engineering facility alongside the production vehicles, allowing the carmaker to approve the upgrades.
In North America, many of the R Design models now come with Polestar software as standard equipment to make the packages more attractive to enthusiast drivers but you don't have to buy a new car to take advantage. Currently Polestar offers software for the US-spec C30, C70, S40, S60, V50, XC60 and XC70 equipped with either the T5 or T6 motors.
Models equipped with the T6 are said to increase power and torque from the stock 300hp and 325 lb-ft to 325hp and 355 lb-ft. While the T5 is bumped from 227hp and 236 lb-ft to 250hp and 273 lb-ft. What's more, the software is claimed to boost performance without hurting fuel mileage or drivability and preserving the factory warranty.
According to Andreas Naeslund, Polestar's North American Sales Manager, the company differentiates itself from aftermarket tuners because the Polestar software is fully integrated into the factory ECU. "When Polestar develops software, we not only increase power and torque, but also re-optimize several other functions of the ECU like the DEP dependability system, which prevents partial malfunctions and certain conditions that could damage the engine. We also conduct extensive drivability and reliability testing to ensure nothing is compromised. There's no fine print with our software that states the Polestar upgrade is for 'off road use only' because all Polestar upgrades are certified and approved for use on public roads in all 50 states," he explained.
On The Dyno
Since the Polestar software can be dealer installed on new or used cars, depending on the model, we decided to test the software for ourselves. So we rounded up two Volvo C30s for a day of dyno thrashing and canyon carving to see if the upgrades live up to their promises.
The two test subjects consisted of a stone-stock '10 C30 R-Design equipped with an automatic transmission and owned by Kenric Anthony, as well as a '08 C30 Phase II six-speed manual with an Elevate cat-back exhaust owned by Justin Lee.
Before uploading the new software, we paid a visit to BRG Racing Services in Pacheco, CA for benchmark dyno numbers. Renowned in the motorcycle industry for race motors and dyno tuning, BRG is a veteran of the automotive arena, putting its Mustang Dyno to the test on a daily basis. Ultimately, we hoped to find dyno numbers for both cars, but torque-converter inconsistencies meant the only accurate numbers we achieved were from the manual car.
In stock form, save for a cat-back exhaust, the C30 six-speed spun the rollers to 233.5hp and 233.7 lb-ft, which was stronger than expected. Our boost gauge saw the stock software hover around 7-9psi during the runs.
After putting down some impressive numbers we visited Lawrence Volvo in Walnut Creek, CA. The dealer has been around since 1921 and its service department has installed dozens of Polestar upgrades. And although the actual software upload took roughly 15min, expect about an hour of labor for the prep work, installation and double-checking that factory settings are preserved.
With the Polestar software on board we strapped Justin Lee's C30 back on the dyno at BRG and made another succession of pulls. This time, the boost arrived much sooner, with the peak numbers jumping to 252.2hp and 256.8 lb-ft. This equated to gains of 18.7hp and 23.1 lb-ft at the wheels. This time the boost gauge read 10-12psi range.
If you look at the power curves, both runs are devoid of spikes or dips, as you'd expect from factory software. And while the peak numbers were impressive, the Polestar tune adds its 23 lb-ft advantage at just 2700rpm and carries it through to redline, where the stock software peaked at 4000rpm: this is the type of low-speed torque you really notice out of corners or when overtaking. It's no accident the Polestar software makes 90% of its gains from 2500rpm to redline, which should give a great driving experience...
On The Road
Torque is the name of the game and with more boost coming in much sooner, the traction control light is blinking in first gear with anything more than 75% throttle. With the TC off, the tires go up in smoke!
Once into second gear, the C30 T5 is wickedly fast, with very strong acceleration from 2000rpm to redline. Serious thrust is also available in the higher gears, with a blast from 60-120mph proving far stronger with the tuned ECU.
As you'd expect, the drivability is flawless. Back-to-back tests proved the Polestar software is transparent. There are no hiccups, bogging or surging, just crisp throttle response in the canyons and during the daily rush-hour commuter test.
The C30 with the automatic transmission, where the stock engine would only deliver one gear downshift in certain full-throttle situations, the Polestar-equipped car would often downshift two gears with more verve. And while Polestar doesn't alter the transmission software at all, the higher torque is probably encouraging the sporty shifts.
Gas mileage from the onboard computer on both cars was unaffected, as predicted. And like the manual-equipped car, driving the C30 auto showed the Polestar software was undetectable unless under heavy throttle, when it really came alive.
The Polestar software takes the buying process one step further with a care package given with every purchase. In the blue box you'll find the registration paperwork required after uploading the software, a nifty pen and possibly the coolest part of the package: the small blue Polestar badge that comes with a car-specific template to align it properly. It's things like this that differentiate Polestar from the rest.
For anybody looking for the ultimate performance, Polestar does leave a little on the table. A comparable aftermarket tune will raise boost another few pounds, resulting in another 30 lb-ft between 2500-4000rpm but at the expense of less linear delivery and an invalid warranty. The peak numbers near redline aren't much different between Polestar and the leading aftermarket tuners simply because the small turbo can't deliver much more at this level.
Polestar Software Test