Volvo using software to add fuel economy to powerful engine

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 News

NWCN.com

Posted on May 18, 2012 at 10:01 AM

Updated Friday, May 18 at 10:39 AM

It’s a dilemma for many of us- we’d like more powerful cars but don’t want to sacrifice fuel economy. It will be awhile before a 50 mpg Mustang GT becomes a reality, but there is hope. And it comes in the form of computer code.

Polestar Equipped

Volvo, and the performance company Polestar are offering up an engine control module software upgrade that extracts extra power and torque. Fork over $1294 to $1,495 (depending on model) and your steel Swede gets a healthy digital kick in the pants. It can be done during an oil change or tires rotation. Yep, that quick.

Chip tuning has been around for years, but it is aftermarket code, not always street legal, and can void the factory warranty. I know I’d think twice about loading new code into a $50,000 car.

The Polestar upgrade is completely emissions legal and covered by Volvo’s warranty program. It also doesn’t affect fuel economy. Win. Oh, and it can be loaded into various Volvo models going back as far as 2008. Retroactive win. Here’s a list of Volvos that can be modified-

  • XC60 T6 R-Design (MY2011-2012)
  • C30 T5 (MY2008-2012)
  • C70 T5 (MY2008-2012)
  • S40 T5 (MY2008-2011)
  • V50 T5 AWD with manual transmission (MY2008-2011)

Polestar has been an official partner with Volvo since 1996 and has been optimizing their cars for racing for several years. This is the first time they’ve created a product for us normal folk. 

Two Days With Polestar

I’ve been invited to a Volvo event in Phoenix, AZ to drive Polestar equipped vehicles over a couple of days. They have four models on hand- C30, C70, XC60 and XC70. Because shooting videos is a time suck, I’m concentrating on the two most popular models, XC60 and XC70.

Drinking regular grade gasoline, the standard T6 engine makes 300 horsepower @ 5,600 rpm and 325 lb-ft or torque @ 2,100-4,200 rpm. Install the Polestar software and that rises to 325 hp @ 5,400-6,500 rpm and 354 @ 3,000-3,600 rpm. So, doing the math, it adds 25 horsepower a bit sooner in the powerband and 29 lb-ft of torque a skosh later.

The result is a car that’s more alive. The throttle is more responsive, it’s easy to feel the difference when you merge with traffic or pass on a two-lane road. Whether it’s the XC60 or XC70, once you experience the Polestar mod, you won’t want to go back.

There is no way to track whether fuel economy is changed, so here I’ll just have to take Volvo’s word for it. These are heavy luxury vehicles, don’t expect magic from Polestar. The EPA rates both AWD XC60 and XC70 at 18 city, 24 highway.

A Quick Spin in C30

I have always really liked the design of the XC30 but have been underwhelmed by the performance. Driving a Polestar equipped 30 for a half hour changes my impression of the car. VW’s GTI has always been one of my favorites and the Polestar C30 reminds me a lot of that car. The upgrade for the T5 engine goes for $1,295. If you have the bucks, I say go for it. 

Buy the mod and Volvo tacks a little blue square onto the tail, unless you buy the XC60 R-Design. R-Design comes standard with Polestar but no blue square. Aw… come on guys. I’ll guess you could scare one up from a Volvo dealer if you really wanted one though.

The Cars Themselves- XC70


Volvo’s midsized crossovers are pretty appealing and spending a few days in them is a good reminder of that.  On day one of the event, the Volvo folks send us off in XC70s to drive the Apache Trail. It isn’t as rough as it might sound, AWD is not needed. But this very rugged dirt road sure shows off how comfortable the XC70 is. After a full day on the road, I return completely fresh. The ride quality is that good.

You might think XC70 is just a station wagon with poseur trim, I can tell you first hand it handles tough trails with ease. I have beaten one up on 150 miles of harsh forest service roads, they are much more capable than many believe.

The Apache Trail road is rutted and sandy, a good test for the automatic AWD system. XC70 is very stable and secure, part of the reason you can drive this car all day and never feel stressed. It’s not sporty but it’s supremely calming without being mushy.

XC70 Interior

The cabin has an especially warm and inviting quality about it. Metallic trim has a hefty, velvety look. Walnut wood is deep and rich. Nothing cheap here. Volvo’s supportive seats are considered among the best in the industry. There’s the signature storage space behind the center stack space and one of the most intuitive climate controls in the biz.

The 70 is as useful as it is comfortable. There’s an awful lot of space in here and because all seats fold flat, including the front passenger’s, it’s easy to haul very long things like ladders and surfboards without loading them on the roof rack. A flip-up cargo divider with big elastic strap is a nice touch. The back seat folds 40/20/40.

XC70 seats five (Volvo got rid of that rear jump seat years ago). Options include handy built in booster seats. The rear is comfortable for three average sized adults and has everything a passenger could want to keep them happy including heated seats.

There are a few gripes. While the interface is very thorough (you can change just about every parameter of the car to your liking) the little knob that controls it is tedious. Makes me wish for a touch screen.  A panoramic roof would make the space that much better. It could also use a few more cupholders considering it will be pressed into family duty.

Moving on to the XC60

Automotive design is subjective but XC60 is one of the more striking crossovers on the road today. It drives as well as it looks too. The XC60 rides higher than a sport sedan (ground clearance is 9.1”) but it does a good job of emulating the driving dynamics of one. It’s a great blend of comfort, control and quietness.

The R-Design XC60 I’m driving gets a sport suspension making it a little less desirable for off-roading. But really, how many of these vehicles ever even see a dirt road?

Inside XC60

A quick look at the interior finds a very handsome space. The Volvo folks must hang out with those legendary Scandinavian furniture designers. It’s clean, dramatic, and highly sculpted. And I’d say they were either cooking with those Circulon pans or they’re big fans of vinyl records since the center stack has a very unique radial design you won’t find anywhere else. XC60 gets the panoramic roof the 70 lacks.

The 60 gets the same small knob interface as the 70 but fortunately it also has the same kind of utility. This Swede certainly has a great work ethic with the 40/20/40 rear folding seats, folding front passenger seat, and cargo divider.

Where’s the Safety?

No, Volvo hasn’t turned its back on safety. I’m just not focusing on that in this piece. A reminder- the standard City Safety system detects other cars and stops automatically. Collision Warning with Full Auto Brake might be awkwardly named, but its ability to detect pedestrians automatically stop to avoid them is very cool, potentially lifesaving.

But Volvo is adding Polestar because they want to be more things to more people. Volvo may be deeply and successfully involved in touring car racing in Europe, but most Americans are clueless to that fact. Gino Effler, VP of Public Affairs for Volvo North America says this:

“Polestar will get that message out that our cars are fun to drive. They’re not just safe, they’re not just for mom, they’re really good cars, they’re competitors in every sense of the word. And I think that once the word gets out that our cars have performance and are fun to drive- obviously they’re good looking- that will bring more people to the showroom. Once people drive the cars, then it gets easy”

The Polestar software isn’t exactly Volvo’s answer to Mercedes AMG or BMWs M Series, and it’s’ not inexpensive. But it makes cars that are already very well done even more fun to drive. For those who love power, it’s nice to know there’s an app for that.

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