As we settle into a converted shipping container situated behind the headquarters of Volta Charging in San Francisco's Design District for a technical briefing, Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath has the restless look of a man with something to prove. For a company that started life as a racing team before becoming Volvo's road car performance division roughly a decade ago, making the leap to become an independent automaker is a big one. It's an endeavor fraught with peril, and the path is littered with remains of hip, young companies that made big promises only to quickly discover just how difficult it is to establish a foothold in one of the most competitive industries in the history of mankind.
"There are a lot of startups out there trying to establish new electric car companies," admits Ingenlath. "But we see Polestar in a very special position here. On one hand, we are able to totally embrace the advantages that are provided from the backing of an established OEM in terms of credibility. We have established development processes, an established production network, and of course, an established service network as well. But on the other hand, we're also able to do things much faster and easier than would be possible as a large OEM. With an OEM it's about evolution, but we can focus on revolution."
Of course this isn't the first time we've heard platitudes about disrupting the industry, but Ingenlath's assertion carries a bit more weight than usual due to the fact that the company's first standalone vehicle, the Polestar 1, is not a concept for some distant future, but rather a car you can buy and drive today. Ostensibly playing in the same space as big, fast grand touring coupes like the BMW M8 and Mercedes-AMG S63, Polestar would have been forgiven for simply stuffing a massive conventional powerplant in the Polestar 1's engine bay, but that's not how the team from Gothenburg rolls.
"We want to make the shift from traditional combustion engines to electrification a fast business," Ingenlath explains. "We are one hundred percent convinced that it is the modern drivetrain."
BREAKING THE MOLD
Based on the Volvo Concept Coupe that debuted in 2013 at the Frankfurt Auto Show, the Polestar 1 establishes an unmistakably Scandinavian design language for the Polestar brand. It's a head-turning machine, one which owes its curb appeal not to a gaudy collection of scoops, vents, and wings but a simple, well-executed form. Like many successful designs, the Polestar 1 builds on the foundation of the concept on which it's based rather than toning things down for production, sporting a purposeful, elegant silhouette that hints at performance potential without making it the focal point.
Underpinned by Volvo's Scalable Product Architecture, the Polestar 1 chassis is reinforced with a carbon fiber crossmember which is said to bolster rigidity by 60%, while the body itself is made entirely out of carbon fiber reinforced polymer to keep the heft in check and the center of gravity as low as possible.
While the aesthetic is alluring, it's the powertrain which really sets the Polestar 1 apart from contemporary grand tourers. Motivation is provided not by a boosted V8 or a big displacement V12, but rather a trio of propulsion methods that work in concert. It starts with a two-liter turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder engine mated to and 8-speed automatic gearbox, which sends 326 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque exclusively to the front wheels. At the rear axle there's a pair of 85 kilowatt electric motors that send 232 horsepower and 354 lb-ft to the rear wheels, while a 52 kilowatt integrated starter generator that functions as both a starter for the internal combustion engine and a third source of thrust when the conventional engine is in use, providing an additional 71 hp and 119 lb-ft, for a grand total of 619 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque.
That's a lot of grunt, but the Polestar 1 needs it. Outfitted with this complex powertrain as well as a pair of battery packs that provide 34kWh and 78 miles of all-electric range on the WLTP cycle, the Polestar 1 weighs in at a decidedly portly 5,170 pounds. Given that, the official performance figures of 0-60 mph of 4.2 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph are admirable given the poundage that the propulsion systems are tasked with lugging around.
To help manage the heft, Polestar tapped famed motorsport supplier hlins and outfitted the coupe with manually adjustable dampers at all four corners. Stopping power is provided by six-piston Akebono calipers and 15.7-inch rotors at the front, while four-piston units are paired with 15.4-inch discs at the rear. All Polestar 1 models roll on 21-inch alloys wrapped in Pirelli P Zero rubber.
In many ways Polestar has tossed out the traditional premium GT playbook here, opting instead for a strategy that includes a complex hybrid powertrain, rakish good looks, and a whole lot of carbon fiber. To see if the Swedes are indeed on to something, we headed south from the city into the Santa Cruz Mountains to find out if the Polestar 1 is the automotive disruptor it's touted to be.
The cabin of the Polestar 1 does little to hide its origins—the instrument panel, seats, infotainment, and switchgear are pulled directly from the Volvo parts bin, though unique elements like carbon fiber accents and the handmade crystal gear selector show an effort to set the Polestar 1 apart from the parent company's lineup. While the interior doesn't share the same distinctive character as the exterior, Volvo's fit and finish have been among the best in the industry for some time, and aside from a few low-rent plastic buttons, nothing feels especially out of place in a car which commands the Polestar 1's $156,500 price tag. (All equipment is standard on every Polestar 1 model—paint color is the only option available.)
What does feel out of place on the rough pavement of San Francisco's streets is the suspension tuning. Manual adjustability means that changing the suspension's behavior requires wrenching on the dampers themselves to make changes rather than simply pressing a button or changing the drive mode like you would in most modern luxury vehicles, which means we're stuck with a stiff, bumpy ride through the city. Set in the default Hybrid drive mode, the near-silence of all-electric operation actually emphasizes the harshness of the ride.
Once we got out to Route 35, the suspension tuning started to make more sense, though. Out on the twisting rural tarmac, the Polestar 1 hides its weight surprisingly well, changing direction and generally holding its line throughout corners without protest. With the drive mode set to Power, which brings all three propulsion systems into the mix, the coupe feels fast for its size, not unlike like Bentley Continental GT we tested earlier this year. You're always aware of the size and weight of the car, but it's rarely a distracting issue.
The four-cylinder gasoline engine under the hood, however, isn't as unobtrusive. While it provides solid thrust whether it's working in tandem with the electric systems or one its own once the battery has been depleted, the sound of that small-displacement mill just feels out of place in a car that commands this much coin. The Pure driving mode will allow the driver to turn off the conventional power plant entirely until the battery is used up, but it requires a forfeit of more than half the car's total power output to do so.
On the whole, the Polestar 1 is a handsome and undoubtedly interesting entry into the luxury performance market, but its appeal is largely grounded in curiosity rather than pragmatism. The automaker plans to build 500 examples of the Polestar 1 per year, over the next three years before replacing it with what Ingenlath describes as "a car with similar exclusively and high-tech purpose."
In that way, the Polestar 1—and likely its predecessor—serve as the brand's halo model, while the Polestar 2 crossover EV will be the company's bread and butter when it goes into production next February, and the success of the latter will likely dictate the fate of the Polestar brand. In the meantime, Polestar 1 serves as a statement of purpose that illustrates the company's commitment to burgeoning technologies that, while currently imperfect, show a lot of promise for the future of sustainable motoring.