Road & Track | Zach Bowman | 06/08/2020

Crossovers control the headlines, but a quiet renaissance of great wagon options is happening. The V60 proves why that’s a good thing.

We’re not going to spend these pages whining about the death of the wagon or the rise of the crossover. We get it. Wagons have traditionally been the choice for families, but these are not our fathers’ days. With a few exceptions, modern long-roofs carry European luxury badges in their grilles. And today’s families don’t have the budget for leather-lined kid movers. In the United States, new parents are older than ever: 31 years old for men and 26 for women. But Americans of child-rearing and -raising age find themselves behind the economic eight ball. Americans under 35 have seen their median, inflation-adjusted net worth drop by 68 percent compared with their peers in 1984. It’s 44 percent for those between 35 and 44. Meanwhile, the costs of education, childcare, healthcare, and housing have skyrocketed.

This story originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Road & Track.

And it’s not just the money. Most parents simply want one less thing to worry about. Crossovers promise a type of sanctuary from our increasingly ominous world by demanding nothing. The real shame is that those anonymous bubbles are just another trap, deducting more from our lives than they give. It’s easy to forget that a family car should do more than disappear; it should brighten the moments between the garage and the drop-off line.

2020 volvo v60 polestar engineered

The 2020 V60 T8 Polestar Engineered wagon is proof that Volvo hasn’t forgotten. It is one of those rare machines that is more than the tally of its numbers and components. It is ready to either endure the undignified grind of the daily commute or tear off for the hills, its adaptive LED headlights scanning from one dark apex to the next.

It’s a plug-in hybrid, with around 22 miles of electric range. Enough to assuage some worry about the impending climate crisis and the rapid extermination of the Earth’s species. Technically, there is 415 horsepower and 494 lb-ft of torque at hand, cobbled together between a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder, driving the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic, and an electric motor propelling the rear wheels. Those are brow-furrowing numbers in our age, when anything with a performance badge has 600 horsepower and enough torque to extrude Goldfish crackers from your kids’ nostrils. And, at 4500 pounds, this Volvo isn’t a light car. It’s quick, not fast.

But one look under the hood tells you exactly where Polestar’s priorities lay. That miracle engine sits blanketed under a bland layer of sound-deadening foam, its supercharger and tiny turbocharger hidden away in the recesses of the engine bay. But there is jewelry there: a chalk-white strut-tower brace and two knurled, gold-anodized knobs for adjusting the Öhlins dampers. This is the kind of hardware we expect to see bolted to some furious hatch, and it makes exactly zero sense on the V60 until you bend the car into the first corner. When it obliges with a smile.

2020 volvo v60 polestar engineered ohlins dampers

It shouldn’t turn. Not with this weight. Not with this driveline. It should stumble into understeer as the road’s radius decreases. But the heavy electric components help balance the car. The V60 T8 Polestar Engineered carries 54 percent of its weight up front and 46 percent over the rear axle, and that helps the big wagon feel remarkably neutral

As the sun rose on the eastern edge of Tennessee during a test drive, it was clear that there isn’t a crossover or SUV in existence that’s as rewarding as this wagon. Turns out there is no amount of suspension trickery or tread width that can serve as a substitute for a low center of gravity and conventional, well-sorted dampers.

2020 volvo v60 t8 polestar engineered rear

Automakers have performed a stack of miracles in machines like the Porsche Cayenne and Jeep Trackhawk, wrestling mass and ride height with adaptive suspension and processing power, but this is different. Volvo tells us the Öhlins offered “the best combination of performance and comfort” for its wagon, but we know that’s not true. Magnetorheological shocks are modern miracles: soft and compliant one moment, firm and razor-sharp the next. These conventional dampers can’t offer the same range, and that means the V60 asks for something in exchange for its precise handling. The ride’s firm. Flinty. It won’t be for everyone. For us, that’s fine. We’d rather know exactly what to expect from a vehicle every time we get behind the wheel than have to thumb a dozen buttons searching for the setting that suits us. It’s a fineness we miss, and it turns the V60 into something pleasant: a momentum car. You do not make time by burying your right foot at every straight. Instead, you play our favorite game: the brakes are lava.

The road coiled and fell into the folds of eastern North Carolina, blue clouds draping rain on distant hillsides. Spring spilled up from the valley below, splashing the ridges with green and blossom. The streams ran wide and full, water trickling out of the earth in impromptu falls. We were a lifetime away from the confines of the office, a galaxy away from the knotted worries of our world. The erosion of our education system and infrastructure were a distant concern, and we were happy to be in a place no crossover could take us. People movers may solve for A to B, but they’ll never coax you into playing hooky. They will not urge you towards unknown horizons, clearing your mind and relaxing your shoulders with each apex. They’ll simply take you where you’re going, and now more than ever, that’s not enough.

2020 volvo v60 polestar engineered

The pavement was soaked, and the V60 did not care. The rear motor jumped in to provide an extra bit of grip, performing a series of stunts to help the big wagon pivot and dart out of each corner. The Continental PremiumContact 6 tires did an admirable job of clawing at the asphalt.

Volvo has a long history of building unlikely heroes, stoic family barges capable of embarrassing more svelte machines in a straight line. But this? This is something new. An attractive, safe, responsible vehicle built to devour an air-cooled 911 on a bent mountain pass.

2020 volvo v60 t8 polestar engineered brakes

Quit playing the momentum game and get to hustling, and the V60 doesn’t fall apart. It digs in, the massive six-piston Brembo/Polestar Engineered calipers crushing two-piece 14.6-inch rotors up front. The system basks in abuse, sucking up an hour’s worth of railing without fade. The four-cylinder is pleasantly mature, skipping exhaust pops for a deep and present tone. Likewise, the eight-speed automatic is glad to fall into the background during normal driving, or step up and sling through the gears at a good pace, the logic bright enough for us to leave the wheel-mounted paddles alone. With our hands around the thing’s throat, there was so little to complain about.

That’s not to say the car is perfect. Drop out of Polestar Engineered mode, the most aggressive drive setting, and the V60 can become confused about its place in life. The transition from pure electric drive to hybrid mode isn’t seamless, the system fumbling between the two with an occasional lurch. More than once, it was clear that the internal combustion engine and the electric motor weren’t on the same page, especially over broken pavement or aggressive speed bumps, when the surface produced a speed differential between the front and rear wheels. Expect occasional driveline chatter. That’s hard to forgive these days, when nearly every hybrid on sale is silky and well-sorted, from the lowly Prius to the mighty Panamera.

There are benefits to the system, though. The V60 offers an impressive amount of control over where your propulsion comes from. Flicking through the menus on the center stack, you can dial up pure electric, pure internal combustion, or hybrid propulsion. You can ask the engine to charge the batteries, or command the system to reserve electric drive until you want or need it. So little of the V60 Polestar Engineered’s driveline seems done for the sake of doing. Refinement quibbles aside, the hybrid bits actively make the car better to drive. To live with. All of this makes the drivetrain less of a gimmick and more of a useful tool, especially if municipalities in the U.S. follow London’s lead and institute internal combustion exclusion zones.

2020 volvo v60 t8 polestar engineered roof

There are no such places in the border wilderness between Tennessee and North Carolina. No cause to do anything but leave the car in Polestar Engineered mode and enjoy the fruits of twin propulsion. It’s not until you have a plug-in hybrid by the scruff that you realize how that corner of the country is dominated by hydroelectric dams. The mountains and valleys are pocked with broad lakes, the water flat and still, the spillways roaring this time of year, the great legacy of the Tennessee Valley Authority. We hopped from one dam to the next, marveling at the Fontana’s towering wall of concrete and steel. Basking in the stillness of Calderwood, its turbines spinning to generate the power that could feed this car. There are worse things. They produce a kind of weird hope. Physical proof that we were once capable of finding solutions to the seemingly unsolvable. A hint that we might still be up to the task of contending with the world and its horrors.

The V60 turned a tidy loop, retracing its steps and pointing west by late afternoon. Back toward the world we left behind when we closed the driver’s door and set off in the dark of the morning. It’s refreshing to meet a family car that does more than exist. That satiates more than a need to get everyone from place to place. We tend to look at leather and power as luxury’s trimmings, but the real mark of success is space. Room to think. To breathe. To not worry about what tomorrow brings. For decades, that’s exactly what the family wagon promised: room for everyone and everything, inside your head and out. Performance wagons like the V60 T8 Polestar Engineered double down, throwing open your gates and urging you to find the physical space adult life so seldom affords. It’s another cruelty of our age that those promises are so far beyond the reach of most young families. Another dream from another time.

Photos credit: Clint Davis