2020 Polestar 1 first drive review: Powering the future
This is the first production model from fledgling electric sports car manufacturer Polestar, and while its Volvo DNA is evident throughout, this car is unlike anything that’s come before.
Tim StevensFormer editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
When launching a new brand, it's important to immediately define what sets you apart from the competition -- to lay out your USP, your Unique Selling Proposition, as clearly and as quickly as possible. That's especially important in the modern automotive world, where nearly every car is so good that a purchase decision may come down to whichever brand message better resonates with the buyer.
Watch this: Polestar 1: World's first drive in Sweden
That makes the
1 a somewhat curious proposition. While the Polestar brand is already reasonably known among enthusiasts, surging into the hearts and minds of many in 2010 thanks to the outrageous
Polestar Concept, it's the Polestar 1 that must similarly enlighten the rest of the world. No longer just a label signifying a higher state of tune of a
, Polestar must establish itself as something truly different.
And so it's interesting that this Polestar 1 is thoroughly a Volvo, yet also so much more.
The Polestar 1 looks familiar in all the right ways
The origin of the Polestar 1 fascinatingly dates back to the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show, where Volvo rolled out something called the Concept Coupé. Nearly every person at the show, and many watching from afar, were smitten by the stately, sophisticated thing that did a remarkably good job of integrating styling cues from Volvos of yore (most noticeably the P1800) while also pointing toward a strong future.
This car would preview many of the styling cues we've come to know and love in the modern Volvo, starting with the 2015
. Those Thor's Hammer headlights, the
infotainment system in its vertical display and even the big, chunky volume knob beneath. But while the Coupé provided an abstract, Nostradamus-style sneak peek of things to come for Volvo, for Polestar it served as a template for the company's first production model.
The Polestar 1 is basically the Concept Coupé made real. Few cars have made the transition from concept to reality more directly, and as such the Polestar 1 is something to behold when sitting among real cars on real streets.
Conversely, what's most striking about the Polestar 1 is how understated it is -- or, at least, how understated it will be once it sheds the over-abundance of decals seen on this preproduction car. You'd never know this was a 600-horsepower luxury coupe with one of the most advanced hybrid systems on the market if it didn't literally say so on the doors. There are plenty of
available for those who feel an innate need to advertise the nature of their possessions. For those who'd rather take the quieter
, content in the knowledge of the abilities of their chosen car, there's the Polestar 1.
That's not to say the Polestar 1 isn't a looker. Those Thor's Hammer headlights look more purposeful here than in any Volvo, while the sharp lines on the rear fenders look so good you'll look forward to those quiet Sunday morning bathing sessions in the driveway, just for the excuse to run your hand along the creased carbon fiber reinforced polymer that forms the basis of this car's bodywork. It's a surface that Polestar says saves 400 pounds, but don't let that make you think this is a featherweight. This is a car that weighs a whopping 5,180 pounds -- that's roughly 200 pounds more than a
Bentley Continental GT
Powering toward the future
Polestar is meant to be an electric car company, pointing toward the future of performance, and yet the majority of Polestar 1's power comes from a more traditional source. It's a 2.0-liter inline-four cylinder engine that's both turbocharged and supercharged to put down 326 horsepower, then augmented by a 68-horsepower electric motor. If that configuration sounds familiar, that's because it's again borrowed from Volvo. It's effectively the T8 lump, mildly tuned and breathing through a fancy, carbon fiber intake.
The rest of the car's power, and much of the Polestar 1's magic, lies at the rear axle. There, two more electric motors provide a combined 226 horsepower. Paired with a 34-kilowatt-hour battery pack, the Polestar 1 will offer up to 150 kilometers of all-electric driving on the NEDC cycle. (That's about 93 miles, but expect it to be rated closer to 65 under the EPA cycle in the US.) More impressive, though, is how it works with the powerplant up front.
The combined 626 horsepower helps the car
to 60 mph in 4.0 seconds, which is impressive for a car this heavy. That split between the rear motors allows torque vectoring, sending more power to one wheel or the other in the goal of making this big coupe handle like something far smaller. Goal achieved? That you can only tell from the driver's seat.
The test drive
My travels to Sweden were nearly blocked by a massive rain storm that had most of the flights into and out of New York running on modified schedules, if they were running at all. Imagine my joy to find the weather in Gothenburg equally damp and even more blustery. Not ideal conditions for filming video, but honestly quite nice for feeling out the nuances of an advanced all-wheel drive system.
I quickly felt comfortable coming up to speed in the Polestar 1 on the wet, twisty, narrow roads, including a closed, hilly circuit at Volvo's Hällered proving grounds. My first task? To see how easy it would be to induce understeer. With a car this heavy putting nearly two-thirds of its power through the front wheels, I expected it to push at the slightest inclination of my right foot on the accelerator.
That wasn't the case. The car eagerly reacted to more steering input, even when I could feel the front tires beginning to slip. It never wallowed into the sort of throttle-induced push that many AWD cars are prone to. In fact, the way it reacted to mid-corner power isn't all that dissimilar to the way the
pulls itself around using a hybrid system that is conceptually very similar to the Polestar 1's -- albeit flipped 180 degrees.
My other major concern was torque steer -- 392 horses directed exclusively through the front wheels is an awful lot, nearly 90 more than the new
Honda Civic Type R
. This can cause some unwanted steering feedback under hard acceleration, but in the Polestar 1 there was never more than a subtle hint. Impressively, this is handled exclusively through tuning of the double-wishbone front suspension. Polestar engineers didn't have to rely on the power steering system to quell any unwanted forces coming back through the steering, so the feel is always sharp and communicative.
And then there's the suspension. When the Polestar 1 was first announced, it was said to be the first car to use a new generation of adaptive suspension from golden gurus Öhlins. However, the new, Continuously Controlled Electronic Suspension system was ultimately scrapped, and so the Polestar 1 sits on a more traditional, manual-damper setup. Yes, it is adaptive, but only if you don't mind popping the hood to adjust the fronts and then crawling under the car to fiddle with the rears. I'm glad that performance-minded owners will have the ability, but I have to admit this sort of manual labor seems completely at odds with the otherwise advanced nature of the car, especially when so many lesser cars offer adaptive suspension.
Suffice to say hardly anyone will ever bother to click the suspension up or down, so thank goodness the tuning out of the box is superb. Perhaps a little on the firm side for touring, the damping is incredibly reassuring, handling compressions and crests at speed and ensuring the car is always settled and ready for your next input when driving aggressively. Conversely, when tootling through town, even over Gothenburg's many railway crossings, the car was never punishing.
The handling, then, is very good for a car of this mass, but there's room for improvement on the power delivery side. Conceptually, the electric motors provide the initial shove for acceleration off the line while the gasoline motor is getting its wind, supercharger torque coming on next and then the additional power from the turbo ensuring you're kept firmly pressed into the rear seat until you run out of road.
In reality, the experience wasn't so seamless. The initial shove of the electric motors was there for sure, particularly at low speeds, but too often the engine's automatic transmission was in the wrong gear. This meant an annoying downchange that felt a little like a referee running out onto the field and blowing their whistle in the middle of an exciting play. Even in the car's sportiest mode, the transmission always felt two steps behind what I wanted. Relying on the wheel-mounted paddles helped to some degree, though the car often wouldn't provide the gear I wanted when I wanted it.
Another disappointment was the traction control. Many modern performance-oriented cars are blessed with safety systems so subtle you'd hardly know they're there until you try to turn them off. In the Polestar 1, just a little wheelspin under acceleration meant an immediate and abrupt removal of power.
Thankfully, Polestar still has time to address both issues, and the car's development engineers assured me they're actively working on both. This is, remember, still a preproduction car. Given how immaculately well-tuned the suspension is, I'm optimistic the power delivery will be similarly slick before the car hits the road, because in those few times the traction control and transmission cooperated, the car proved to be an absolute rocket ship.
Pricing and competition
The Polestar 1 isn't exactly a unique proposition, but there aren't too many machines out there that make for an obvious cross-shop. Its combination of sharp handling and broad proportions and weight make it not quite a grand tourer, while the techno-wizardry of its drivetrain is somewhat at odds with the basic (though excellent) nature of the suspension. Finally, though a decidedly premium car at $155,000, the interior is little different than what you can get in a $65,000
As far as competition goes, to my eye the
500h is the most direct comparison. It's a car that, too, offers buyers an interesting hybrid system and likewise made the perilous journey from concept to production without losing a lick of its charm. The
, however, is a far more relaxed ride with 200 fewer horsepower and, at $98,000 to start, far more affordable one, too.
's new M8 will also provide some strong competition to the new Polestar, and while its turbocharged V8 is the more traditional powerplant, its 600-horsepower output matches the Polestar 1.
In many ways the Polestar 1 feels very much like a transitional car, a young brand beginning its shift away from its Volvo parentage and onto a path of its own devising. The upcoming Polestar 2 is a vastly different proposition, with distinctive styling language inside and out plus an all-electric powertrain, while the Polestar 3 is expected to simply push further down the same path.
Polestar 1, though, still has at least one foot in the door, and for Volvo fans that's not a bad thing. The styling is familiar in all the right ways, the handling remarkably good and, with a little more ironing, the powerplant has the potential to provide a stellar mix of range and performance. It's a very good sign of things to come.
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