THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: A visually stunning interpretation of a halo car for a new standalone brand.
- What’s Bad: $199,000 is eye-poppingly expensive.
San Francisco, CA – I’ve just landed in San Francisco, and I’m standing with some colleagues waiting for a shuttle to our hotel in the city. As we’re chatting amongst ourselves, up pulls a Volvo XC90.
“Oh, look,” I exclaim. “Our shuttle is a Volvo. Is it a T8 plug-in hybrid?”
I glance around, and no one is laughing.
They should be, I think. Because while it’s true that we’re not here to drive a Volvo T8, we are here to drive another plug-in hybrid: Polestar 1, the first release from the new standalone brand. Polestar was once an independent performance tuning studio for Volvo cars, and now that it’s a subsidiary of Volvo and its parent company Geely, it’s making a concerted effort to set itself apart from those brands. It’s a brand that’s become more Volvo while saying it isn’t a Volvo.
Or is it? Polestar has its own world manufacturer identifier for its VINs: LPS, with the L signifying its origins in China. But when you look closely at the Polestar 1 – and you’ll want to do that a lot because it really is very pretty – there’s still an awful lot of Volvo left in it. The official figure, we’re told, is that the car is 50 percent from the Volvo parts box and 50 percent all its own. To me, it feels like that number should lean a fair bit higher on the Volvo side.
That’s not to say that’s a bad thing. Every vehicle Volvo has produced on its current Scalable Product Architecture platform has been among the best in its segment, and in many ways it’s well-applied in the Polestar 1 as well. But if the latter brand is truly trying to distinguish itself, it could consider starting with standalone headlights. Those Thor’s Hammer lights are hard to miss.
Building on Fundamentals
Another probable reason that XC90 T8 joke didn’t stick: yes, there’s some Volvo in the Polestar 1’s powertrain, too, but the electrified portions in the latter are a significant level up from what’s currently being done in any of Volvo’s T8s.
The internal combustion engine is a familiar one. The 2.0-litre four-cylinder is both turbocharged and supercharged, drawn from the Drive-E line of modular engines used throughout the Volvo product line-up. But where the Polestar 1 diverges is through the pair of 85 kW electric motors, one driving each of the rear wheels, plus a 52 kW integrated starter generator. All together, this combination creates a peak of 619 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque.
Of course, not all of that power is available all the time. Two battery packs offer a total capacity of 34 kW, one mounted between the front seats and the other above the rear axle. Granted, draining them takes a fair while with a 112 km all-electric range, the longest for any plug-in hybrid, and they can be recharged on a fast charger to 80 percent in under an hour. (N.B., this is in WLTP cycle testing used overseas, and the EPA and Natural Resources Canada figures are likely to be lower, but they should still be the longest.) When they’re empty, what you’re left with is a mostly front-wheel-drive gas-powered car with 326 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque. But hey, it beats range anxiety.
In terms of construction, the upside is that the Polestar 1’s body is built entirely of carbon fibre, which saves just over 500 pounds versus what the car would have weighed if built in steel. The downside is that the electric motors and batteries still need to go in, resulting in a total weight of 2,350 kg, or 5,180 lb. There’s all that power to offset it, and the weight is close to the road with a 48:52 front-to-rear weight distribution, so this isn’t as dire as it could be. But while this car is absolutely peppy, it isn’t as face-meltingly fast as you might think it is from reading those numbers on paper, either. For some, this might be a good thing. Take it as you will.
A Nerdy Take on Dampers
This is a quirky and cool trait: rather than employing electronically controlled dampers as many high-performance and high-cost cars do these days, the Polestar 1 uses manually adjustable Öhlins dual flow valve dampers. The front axle can be adjusted on each side with a pair of dials in the engine bay, while accessing the rears requires jacking it up or dropping each wheel off a curb to put the controls within reach. From the default setting, there’s 20 percent of play on every corner in each direction.
These dampers haven’t perfected Polestar’s balance between ultimate handling performance and relative comfort, but they’ve brought it a lot closer. The feel they transmit isn’t as teeth-rattling as some Polestar-tuned Volvos have been in the past, but that characteristic stiffness that feeds back into the cabin, while smoother, is still present. On a great road, these are magic. On a less-than-perfect one, they bounce you around some. Being that our roads fall solidly into the latter category, Canadians will want to be willing to become intimately familiar with those dials should they choose to take one of these cars home.
In some ways, Polestar’s designers might have fooled a few people here, but those who follow the Volvo brand won’t need much time to puzzle out where this car came from. There’s no tiny Swedish flag stitched into the seats, and the performance nature of the car is reflected in the places where its carbon fibre construction has been allowed to shine through in place of material inlays. While there are similarities in the seat designs, the intricate cut-out detailing in the leather set this upholstery apart, especially when set against the golden highlights like the front seat belts and brake calipers.
However, there are certain elements that are unmistakeable such as the typeface, which is ubiquitous and identical to that used by Volvo, and all of the digital systems, which are lifted directly from the Volvo parts catalog. The truly tragic part of this is that the infotainment and gauge cluster system that’s going into the much more affordable Polestar 2 is Android-driven and infinitely cooler, seamlessly incorporating elements like Google Maps, Google Assistant, and an eventual Google Play Store without the need to plug a phone in to interface with it. It would have been a much more worthy system for launching the Polestar 1, but it wasn’t ready in time to meet the brand’s rollout timelines.
A Compromise for Families
Most of the areas that require compromise in this car are around the attempts made to suit it to family life. This is billed as a 2+2 grand tourer, which is a noble goal, and the designers very thoughtfully laid out LATCH connectors for child seats in the back row that are tastefully integrated into the seat backs and the rear speaker design.
But it would be difficult to use this car as a daily driver with kids for a few reasons. For one, tall front seat passengers will need to sit far enough back that there will be little to no leg room left. Plus, it’s not recommended to expect comfort in these seats if you’re taller than 145 cm, which I discovered quickly when I tried to cram my 168 cm frame in back there and promptly cracked my head on the overhead window seam. Another problem is the slow action on the button used to move the seat forward for second-row access. And with storage taken out of the centre console to make room for the battery and the trunk only holding 125 litres of cargo – with the window into the electronics notwithstanding, as cool as it is – it’s difficult to imagine taking little ones very far. Since that’s how it will be most often used anyway, it’s a lost opportunity that the designers didn’t just throw in the towel and give themselves more to work with by making it a two-seater from the start.
Given my druthers, I’d also ask for a transmission that doesn’t require a double-tap to shift through neutral while switching between reverse and drive gears, and that’s quicker to shift, especially using the paddle shifters; significantly tighter steering; ventilated front seats; just a little more weight sacrifice to add some sound deadening; and a B mode with adjustable settings for more or less aggressive regenerative braking. While the car seems to do well at maintaining charge in typical driving on its own, my tolerance for a stronger braking feel in one-pedal driving is higher than what’s offered here, and the option to do more never hurts.
Perhaps the quirkiest thing of all about the Polestar 1 is that it will be the brand’s only plug-in hybrid, while the rest of its line-up will be comprised of electrics. This is a grand tourer, they say, which means it’s intended to go longer distances. But while there were launch timelines to meet, waiting just a little while longer for a fully electric powertrain and the new Android infotainment system in combination with all the goodness already in place here might have resulted in a flagship car that’s more in line with the direction where the brand is headed – and with the $200,000 price tag.
That said, there are only 30 Polestar 1 units per year allocated to Canada over the next three years, and as a rarity and enthusiast piece, they won’t be around for long. The people who buy them will help to establish a brand that’s poised to make big strides in the EV space in the very near future. They’re not so much buying into a car as an ethos. And there will be enough people willing to invest in that to make it a success.