2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Review: the PHEV Path to High Performance

The new Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered is how other future performance cars should be propelled, as long as we have combustion engines: with help from electric booster motors in addition to turbochargers and superchargers. That is the case with the 2020 Volvo T8 XC60 eAWD Polestar-Engineered, a compact SUV with a big name, meant to compete with the Audi SQ5, BMW X3 M, Mercedes-AMG GLC 43, and even the Porsche Macan S.

For $70,000, you get a car that’s fast, safe, roomy for four, and tastefully appointed inside. This plug-in hybrid EV is good for about 17 miles on battery alone, with the battery caching enough electricity to take you from zero to 60 mph in as little five seconds. The XC60 PE runs $30,000 more than the entry XC60, much of the extra cost from equipment made standard and the rest from PHEV technology and go-fast parts.

XC60 PE on the Road

The XC60 Polestar Engineered retains much of the ride smoothness, cabin amenities, and driver assists of the second-generation XC60 that debuted a year ago. It is a lot faster, the PE’s 11.6-kWh battery lets you drive electrically in HOV lanes without the burden of carpool passengers, and the optional 22-inch wheels and 35-series tires will be pothole magnets outside Florida and Arizona. This test drive, however, was scenic Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Canada, apparently, has built a border wall that keeps out American-style potholes.

When you tromp the throttle to pass, the XC60 responds very quickly. Volvo cites the 5-second 0-60 time; I was able to get down to 6 seconds on a private airfield made available to Volvo, but had to abort the last and seemingly best run because a private plane was landing at the other end. (The cars, the plane, and the makeshift tower were in radio contact.) On slalom and emergency braking courses, there was very little body roll in testing, and the Akebono brakes hauled the car down from near-double-digit speeds while maintaining a straight line. Under the hood are user-adjustable Swedish Ohlins shock absorbers you can dial in to 20-some settings by opening the hood and turning the gold-colored knob at the top of the shock tower. In doing this Volvo stepped back from adaptive suspensions that adjust the ride and handling multiple times a second. I’m not sure this is an improvement for most drivers.

There are six drive modes accessed by a shiny console roller wheel (that is a bit slippery) and that controls engine, transmission, steering, brakes, stability control, and auto start/stop functions, including Hybrid, Pure (prioritizes battery operation), Power, AWD, Off-Road, and Individual. A Hold-and-Charge button maintains the current battery level for later use (Hold) or brings the battery up to a fixed level (Charge). The PE model also has the crystal starter knob but not the Orrefors crystal shifter that, to some, brings ostentation into the cockpit (and then got copycatted by BMW).

Volvo put a lot of work into smoothing the transition from electric to gas-only driving and back, as well as to the braking transition from power regeneration to friction.

Back-seat passengers have reasonable room and supportive seats. They only thing they might wish for is their own USB jacks, an oversight on any 2020 car, let alone one at this price point.

Unlike a lot of sporty cars and SUVs, the XC60 Polestar Engineered never rides harshly.

Tech and Safety Features

It’s a Volvo. It’s safe. End of discussion. If you must know, safety includes the following:

Volvo On Call (telematics), roll stability control, electronic stability control, lane keeping aid, drowsy/distracted driver alert control, oncoming lane mitigation, road sign information, automatic braking after collision, run-off road mitigation, run-off road protection, collapsible steering column, safety belt pre-tensioners, safety belt load limiters, automatic unlocking after collision, collapsible brake pedal, city safety (includes accident avoidance or mitigation with 37 mph speed difference), intersection auto brake, pedestrian, cyclist and large animal detection with auto brake & brake support, energy absorbing seat cushions, front, side & knee airbags, inflatable curtain airbags, anti-submarining protection in seat design, forward collision warning (including short brake pulse. audible warning signal, warning in driver display or head-up display).

Volvo’s semi-autonomous Pilot Assist system is very good, keeping the car centered while maintaining a set speed or pacing the car in front. A Level 2 autonomous car by definition must have adaptive cruise control and lane centering assist.

Other driver assists include lane centering assist and blind-spot detection (blind-spot information system) with steer assist that provides counter-steering when trying to merge into a nearby vehicle’s path and oncoming lane mitigation that tries to avoid a collision if you drift in the path of an oncoming vehicle, at anywhere from 37 to 87 mph. Basically: It reacts before you might, you can always overcome the force, and you don’t have to arm-wrestle the wheel the way you do with BMW’s over-active steering corrections.

The instrument panel is a 12.3-inch LCD (“Digital Driver Display,” now standard at Volvo), and the 9-inch center stack, portrait-orientation center touchscreen (“Sensus Connect”) continues. Some owners and reviewers ding Sensus Connect for complexity. The main trick to Sensus karma is remembering if you don’t see what you want, swipe left or right for two additional screens.

Seventy large gets you gold seatbelts with the XC60 Polestar Engineered.

Polestar: How You Beat Volvo’s 112 mph Cap

The XC60 Polestar adjuster knob on the Ohlins shocks is also gold.

Polestar is Volvo’s performance sub-brand, a joint venture of Volvo and Volvo parent Geely. Polestar will be an electrified performance brand. Its first two vehicles are Polestar 1, a “low-volume electric performance [plug-in] hybrid GT,” with 600 hp and a battery range of 93 miles (150 km), and Polestar 2, an EV-only vehicle competing with Tesla Model 3. Polestar Engineered will apply performance techniques to new Volvos such as the XC60 PE here, but also as performance and software tweaks for existing Volvos. And there is a related Polestar Racing team.

When Volvo announced would cap top speeds at 112 mph (180 km/h) in 2021, in the interests of higher safety and lower energy consumption, Polestar was not subjected to the mandate. Otherwise, Volvo would be competing with one hand tied behind its back against the performance models from Acura, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. The SQ5 and MB-AMG GLC top out at 155 mph, the Macan S at 157, and the X3 M at 174, for instance. The XC60 Polestar Engineered will reach 140 mph. Close enough.

Volvo XC60 Models and Trims

The XC60 Polestar Engineered sits atop the XC60 food chain. Except for the XC60 PE, there are three four-cylinder engine choices: T5 turbocharged with 250 hp, T6 turbocharged and supercharged with 316 hp, and T8 turbocharged, supercharged plus an electric motor, with 400 hp, or 415 hp for the Polestar Engineered.

The trim lines and variants are:

XC60 Momentum, $41,790-$55,590 base prices (plus packages and options). On all trim lines, front-drive is for the T5 only and AWD adds $2,300, T6 AWD adds another $3,500, and T8 eAWD adds $8,000.

XC60 R-Design, $48,490-$62,290 base prices for the four engine/drivetrain variants. This is the sporty model. The T8 R-Design comes pretty close to the Polestar Engineered model.

XC60 Inscription, $48,490-$62,290 base prices. This is the luxury model.

XC60 eAWD Polestar Engineered, $70,495. The is the high-performance sport model (reviewed here) and comes standard with all-wheel-drive, the T8 engine, and the features optional on other XC60s. The only options are 21- or 22-inch wheels instead of the stock 20s, and $645 for most paint colors.

Should You Buy?

While the Volvo XC60 T8 Polestar Engineered runs $30,000 more than the cheapest XC60, it runs a more reasonable $8,205 over the R-Design T8 PHEV and is in line with what the competition charges for its highest-performance compact SUVs. Recharge time at a Level 2 charger is a decent 2.5 hours. The same supplied cable also does 120 volts at home.

Among premium compact SUVs, if you want the efficiency of a plug-in hybrid, or you want the ability to get in HOV lanes with only you in the car, the XC60 Polestar Engineered does the trick, as do the mainstream Momentum, R-Design, and Inscription with the T8 PHEV powerplant.

If you want all-out performance, then look also at the BMW X3 or X3 M, arguably the best premium compact SUV on the road today, along with the Audi Q5 / SQ 5, and the Porsche Macan / Macan S. Most of them will be getting plug-in hybrid variants over the next year or two, both because it’s one way to wring more power from four-cylinder engines, and because it helps the automaker’s corporate average fuel economy numbers. Also, buyers in this demographic want efficient cars. The Lexus NX is interesting because it offers a hybrid version, though critics say it’s not as refined as other Lexus hybrids.

Shop and test drive the new XC60s as well. The famous names have trackable SUVs and now Volvo does. If you want performance, definitely look to the Polestar Engineered version, as well as the T8 version of the XC60 R-Design, which is effectively Polestar Lite and $8K cheaper, but you don’t get gold seatbelts or brake calipers.

Do not buy the 21- or 22-inch wheel option unless you also spring $1,000 for tire/wheel damage insurance, or you live in a state that doesn’t see snow. The twenties are good enough.

In addition to the usual buy-or-lease choices, check out Care by Volvo, a subscription service (yes, CBV sounds like an extended maintenance and warranty program, but it isn’t) that lets you get a new Volvo for a year, swap for a second Volvo for a year, then end the program, or continue with another car. Care by Volvo covers all costs outside of gas and tolls, including insurance. If the carrier (Liberty Mutual) approves you, you pay the same as everyone else does for the car, for instance, $750 a month for an XC60 Momentum. You can do most of your shopping online and only see the dealer for paperwork and delivery.

One final buying tip: Before seeing the 2020 Volvo lineup, I was not a fan of light-colored interiors because they’re a bear to keep clean if you have kids or pets, if you eat in the car, or if you do Subaru-like things (kayak, camp, mountain-climb) that track in dirt. But Volvo SUVs with blonde interiors – light-colored seats and interior trim – are dazzling, worth a look (especially the XC90 with second-row captain’s chairs), and worth the extra cleaning.

Who knows blonde better than the Swedes? The light upholstery (here in the six-passenger XC90) makes the cabin light and airy.

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2019 Fiat 500X Review: City-Size SUV, Mighty Engine, Decent Driver Assists

More people depart the ‘burbs and move to cities every year. As a result, they need smaller cars. Add the renewed Fiat 500X to the mix: The 2019 edition gets a light design makeover, a new engine geared toward performance departing stoplights, standard all-wheel-drive, and a nine-speed automatic transmission. (Sorry, no stick shift.)

The 500X is an enjoyable car in a competitive market – think Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona, Mazda CX-3. The 14-foot length of the 500X allows for a decent cargo bay but not a spacious rear seat. Fiat offers useful driver assists, but adaptive cruise control is not stop-and-go. Did we mention the dashboard is to-die-for-red on our test car? Fiat also means style.

A Hint of Sex Appeal

You may recall a TV commercial circa 2016 of an older gentleman tossing a Viagra-looking pill toward his mouth. He misses, the blue pill bounces out the bathroom window, down steeply pitched urban roofs and gutters, and into the fuel tank of a car whose engine revs and roars as passersby, male and female, smile with appreciation. That’s the Fiat 500X: cheeky, fun, a little hint of romance.

For the 2019 500X, Fiat tweaked the outside with new designs for the headlamps, fog lights, and tail lamps. The faux front skid plate is gone. There are new wheel designs, and inside, the upholstery styles have been revamped. But the big change is the engine.

At 168 inches, the 500X works well in cities where graffiti is bigger than many parking spaces. (Okay, there’s parking outside this NYC diner because it’s a no-parking zone.)

New MultiAir III Engine

For 2016 to 2018, the Fiat 500X offered a 160-hp 1.4-liter MultiAir (Fiat-Chrysler term) turbo engine of 160 hp (or a non-turbo 175-hp four-cylinder). The new MultiAir III in the 2019 model (the same engine as on the Jeep Renegade) drops to 1.3 liters, still four cylinders, plus a low-inertia turbocharger with an electronically triggered wastegate, which keeps too much pressurized air from being fed into the engine. Add variable timing of the intake valves and you’ve got what would have been a race-car engine a generation ago (meaning more than 100 hp per 1.0 liters of engine displacement).

This one puts out 177 hp, which is good (136 hp/liter), and 210 pound-feet of torque, which is just amazing for an engine that isn’t diesel or electric. Also, the torque is all there by 2,200 rpm. What that translates to is stellar performance at low speeds. The car feels like a Ferrari the first two or three seconds you’re hard on the throttle.

The 500X handles well. It’s a Fiat. The latest MultiAir engine (it needs gasoline, too, despite the name) has impressive low-rpm power. The technology is so good, others are licensing it. 

Fiat 500X on the Road

In a day test-driving the car on a trip out of and back into midtown Manhattan, plus some twisty suburban/rural roads, and along the New Jersey/New York palisade above the Hudson River, this was an enjoyable cruiser. The air conditioning worked well, the premium Beats Audio system with eight speakers sounded good, and driver and co-pilot had decent legroom and headroom. But we sat close together, as you’d expect in a smaller SUV.

The engine responded instantly to close gaps in heavy traffic, and the car was a blast to drive. As the torque curve with its early peak suggested, 0-30 mph comes up quickly; then 30-60 is a bit more leisurely. But it also means if you’re in a higher gear – the fifth gear ratio is 1.00 to 1 and 6-7-8-9 range from 0.81 to 0.48 – at low rpm, you’re right in the sweet spot of the torque band.

As a long-distance cruiser, the noise level is mostly acceptable but not class-leading. The luggage space is quite good, for two. Back seat space is okay if the driver is normal height or shorter. A console selector lets the driver choose three traction modes: automatic, sport, or traction-plus. The rear axle automatically disconnects for cruising efficiency. It is rated at 24 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, 26 mpg combined, or about 2 mpg better than the older 500X. It wants mid-grade premium fuel but runs on regular.

2019 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus. Note the amazing glossy red dash on this car. (It’s the same color as the exterior paint.) If you like red, there’s both Amore Red and clearcoated Rosso Passione. 

Technology and Driver Assists

The car comes standard with a 7-inch center stack LCD, and the well-regarded FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobile) UConnect version 4 touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay.

Driver assists and safety features that are available, mostly in packages, include adaptive cruise control, rear and front parking sonar, lane departure warning/lane keep assist, forward collision warning, blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert, rain-sensing wipers, and LED headlamps. Adaptive cruise and front sonar are new for 2019.

Most of the driver assists worked well on my drive. The lane departure system will pull the car back if you drive onto a lane edge, but it is not designed to self-center. The adaptive cruise control maintains speed on the highway down to 20 mph. Most new ACC systems are stop-and-go, meaning they go all the way down to 0 mph and then back in, say, rush hour expressway traffic.

The 2019 Fiat 500X. Easy to park in the city especially you order the front and rear sonar.

Fiat 500X Trim Lines

There are three variants, all four-door, all all-wheel-drive  of Fiat’s largest model:

Fiat 500X Pop, $26,235 including the mandatory $1,495 freight charge. It has 17-inch alloy wheels with 60-series tires (relatively pothole resistant), LED running and taillamps, manual-adjust cloth seats, a 3.5-inch instrument panel LCD, the Uconnect audio system with 7-inch color LCD, Bluetooth, 3 USB ports, remote entry, and remote start. A $595 Popular Equipment Group package adds rear parking sonar, tinted glass, satellite radio, and auto-on headlamps. There are no safety or driver-assist packages you can add to the entry model.

Trekking, $27,740. It adds most of the Popular Equipment Group gear, as well as premium cloth seats. The Advanced Driver Assistance Group (ADAG), $1,395, is an important option: adaptive cruise, full-speed forward collision warning with active braking, lane departure warning/lane keep assist, and blind-spot detection/rear cross-traffic alert. A separate Driver Assistance Group, $895, provides LED headlamps and front/rear parking sonar. A very good onboard navigation system is $695.

Trekking Plus, $30,940. Beyond Trekking, it adds leather seats, heated front seats, front and rear parking sonar, power driver’s seat adjustments, LED headlamps, eight-speaker audio, and windshield wiper de-icing. There are the same Advanced Driver Assistance Group and Premium Group options. All in, you can pay $35,000.

The 2019 Fiat 500X. The headlamps, taillamps, and running lights are different, as is the front fascia (no more skid plate). The big changes are in the engine room.

Should You Buy?

Wheels are 17- and 18-inchers. No ultra-low profiles that attract potholes.

This is a mid-cycle refresh of a fun, subcompact car that goes after the upper level of the mainstream-brand segment, that is more Hyundai Kona or Mazda CX-3 than Nissan Kicks. It has style aplenty and the little engine that could. It also has competition aplenty. Mazda has done the best job among mainstream brands at proving “class above” is more than a buzzword, as has Hyundai with its little Kona and more recently with its largish Palisade SUV.

The rounded lines of the Fiat 500X make it stand out. Its size makes the 500X easy to park in big cities, especially if you order rear and front parking sonar. Some competitors make standard much of Fiat’s optional driver-assist features. The Premium Group, $1,395, provides a dual-panel panoramic sunroof – how many subcompact cars fit a sunroof panel for the back seat? – plus nine-speaker Beats-branded audio with subwoofer, and 18-inch alloys with 55-series tires. It’s quick off the line to about 30 mph, less so to 60 mph. A combination of a firm suspension and wheelbase just over 100 inches make this a car you’ll want to test drive with your spouse/partner on the kinds of roads you usually drive.

You may like the style of the 500X. It works well for a city resident who wants a car that parks almost anywhere. A minor plus is that Fiat didn’t go crazy-low-profile with the road wheels, so even with the optional rims, you’re less likely to suffer pothole damage.

With the new engine, the 500X is more competitive in a segment that has many good choices. You’ll want to also look at the Hyundai Kona, arguably the car to beat in the subcompact SUV segment, as well as the aging-nicely CX-3. If you’re looking for safety, be sure to add in the price of the Advanced Driver Assistance Group and Driver Assistance Group to the Fiat and the similar package on the competition. The right 500X to us is the Trekking with the two driver-assist packages, making it $30,830.

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