2020 Polestar 1 second drive review: Electrified exotic is awesome, not for everyone

Polestar's first plug-in boasts mind-bending performance and exotic carbon fiber construction. So why is everyone disappointed to learn it's not fully electric?

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Beauty, thy name is Polestar 1.

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"Wow, that's a gorgeous car?"

"Polestar, huh?"

"Is it fully electric?"

"Oh."

That's the initial reaction I got about a half dozen times from passersby while zipping around the San Francisco Bay Area in the 2020 Polestar 1. It was a mix of curiosity, attention and, well, disappointment. Those bold enough to ask the price added sticker shock to that list.

But the Polestar 1 doesn't deserve that disappointment. In fact, it's one of the most interesting vehicles that I've driven this year. Its performance plug-in hybrid powertrain is surprisingly robust and flexible. Meanwhile, the chassis construction and tuning are nothing short of an engineering marvel. Yes, the niche explored here is quite acute, but the limited-edition Polestar 1 is exclusive enough for that to not be too much of a problem.

Powerful plug-in hybrid

During his early drive in a prototype back in June, Editor-in-Chief Tim Stevens described the Polestar 1's powertrain as sort of like an Acura NSX's hybrid system flipped backward, which -- with the addition of a bigger battery pack and charging hardware -- about perfectly describes it.

Up front is a 2.0-liter twin-charged -- that is, supercharged and turbocharged -- inline four-cylinder engine that's mated to a small integrated starter-generator (ISG) motor and an eight-speed automatic transmission. At the front wheels alone, the powertrain produces 326 horsepower and 321 pound-feet of torque. But wait, there's more.

At the rear axle you'll find a pair of 85-kilowatt electric motors -- one for each wheel --  bringing a combined 232 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque to the party. At full chat, with all three powerplants singing in harmony, the Polestar 1 has a total system output of 619 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque, with close to a 50/50 torque split and weight distribution.

However, Polestar has tuned the 1 to rely more heavily on its rear electric motors under most circumstances, giving the coupe a slight rear bias -- at least, until the battery pack reaches a critical level (more on that in a minute) or the driver selects either the Hold or Charge driving modes, which rely on the front-end gas engine to maintain or add to the battery's state of charge. I found Hold particularly useful for long stretches of boring highway cruising where the gasoline engine and a front-wheel drive bias are more efficient, allowing me to save my precious rear-wheel, electric power for fun, twisty roads or urban driving.

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Polestar flexes the 1's electric hardware by showcasing the bright orange high-voltage power cables through a plexiglass window in the trunk.

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Speaking of electric power, the 1 is packing a trio of the large batteries that Volvo uses in its conventional T8 PHEVs, here split between a center tunnel unit and two stacked units along the rear bulkhead for an overall capacity of 32-kilowatt-hours and overall electric range of 69.5 miles on the European WLTP cycle. To charge that big ol' reservoir, the Polestar 1 can take advantage of 50-kW DC fast charging, which gets to a roughly 80% charge in under an hour. On an 11-kW AC charger, a full charge takes about 3 to 4 hours.

Of course, once the battery is drained, the hybrid system up front extends the range to 540 miles per tank of petrol, so you can actually do some proper grand touring in this two-plus-two GT coupe.

Carbon fiber construction

Now, 3.5 motors (yeah, I count the front ISG for halfsies), plus all the batteries and electronics, adds a lot of weight. To help mitigate mass, the Polestar 1 uses carbon fiber on almost all of its body, saving roughly 500 pounds versus steel construction. Even so, this is a hefty boi that tips the scales at 5,180 pounds.

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The 1's biggest weapon in the fight against its large moment of inertia is the 738 lb-ft of torque that its powertrain can supply with the twitch of a toe. However, there are a few more tools in its belt to help match its turning and stopping ability. An additional carbon fiber dragonfly brace added to the rear undercarriage further stiffens the 1 versus conventional cars and SUVs, helping the coupe's torque-vectoring motors and adjustable Ölins coilover suspension -- which Polestar engineers lovingly refer to as Swedish Gold -- to better do their thing.

The coilovers use dual-valve passive damping with manual adjustment knobs located under the hood. Clicking one way or the other allows owners to stiffen or soften the ride up to 20% from the already excellent stock tune. In a matching golden hue, Akibono six-pot aluminum front brakes and four-pot rears peek between the spokes of the 21-inch wheels wrapped in Pirelli P Zero performance rubber.

Production-ready polish

The Magnesium White Polestar 1 you see here is technically a preproduction model, but Polestar tells me this is the final production spec. Overall, the car has solid fit and finish both inside and out, with tighter panel gaps than the "verification prototype" EIC Stevens saw earlier this year. The prototype's divisive text graphics are smaller -- now boasting the carbon chassis -- but true production models will feature clean flanks.

My test drive started in downtown San Francisco, where I was able to get a taste of the fully electric urban driving. Even with just the rear motors motivating it, the Polestar 1 felt nice and peppy pulling away from lights and climbing the city's fairly steep grades. The 1 slipped silently and confidently right up to highway speeds as I made my way out of town and into the hills.

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The 1's wheel-to-body proportions hint at its performance pedigree, while the bright gold brakes behind those 21s are anything but subtle.

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Dropping the 1 into its Power mode, which unlocks the full performance potential of both ends of its powertrain, I pointed the Polestar at one of my favorite Bay Area hill climbs and mashed the throttle. The result was an odd combination of amazing electric acceleration and exciting engine sound -- the best of both worlds, really. Polestar seems to have worked out the transition between electric and hybrid power in the last few months because my example shifted modes and gears seamlessly.

Within a few corners, the 5,180 pound curb weight was a distant memory. The chassis felt smaller and nimbler than the specs led me to believe, with a direct, point-and-shoot feel to the steering that had me grinning and giggling through bend after bend. Conditions were dry allowing for more grip than Stevens' previous, soaking-wet drive in Sweden, so I can't say if the traction control has been refined much, but there's plenty of grab at the tires' wide contact patches and the Polestar 1 made excellent use it throughout the day, rotating nicely and predictably with the application of throttle.

Beyond the battery

Polestar set up the day's drive up to include a quick recharge at lunchtime, which I had to miss for filming purposes. Not a huge deal, since the Polestar 1 is a plug-in hybrid able to roll on for hundreds of miles on gasoline power once the battery is drained. However, the 1 becomes much more conservative with its rear-wheel electric assist when its massive reservoir of electric potential is depleted, relying more on front-biased hybrid gasoline operation. 

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The approximately 70 miles of battery range should cover the average commute, a morning blast through the hills or even a short track or autocross session, while the gasoline engine makes sure you can keep on going if need be.

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With 321 twincharged lb-ft of torque on tap, it's still a damn fast coupe with the ICE taking center stage, but relative to the 700-plus lb-ft of athleticism I had experienced just a few minutes prior, the reduction in performance is noticeable. Highway cruising feels perfectly fine under hybrid power -- the Polestar still passes confidently with smooth gear changes -- but the weight all of the electronic components begins to reassert itself up hills, off the line and around corners. I can see why Polestar wanted to squeeze in that midday plug-in; the whole car just feels a tad more sluggish without that electric shove.

Popping the hybrid system into its Charge mode uses the gasoline motor to actively juice the battery pack, restoring a few miles of electric range or full-tilt performance, but it's not particularly efficient. You're better off just finding somewhere to plug-in for a bit. Still, I like the flexibility of the plug-in hybrid system, since you can carry on indefinitely after a quick gasoline fill-up.

An expensive, exclusive proposition

There is, however, another huge "but" to consider when evaluating the Polestar 1: price. The 1 comes in at a haggle-free $155,000 before a $1,500 destination fee. There are, blessedly, almost no options to pump up that price tag. Buyers only have to choose between six paint colors, two interior schemes, two exterior trim options and three wheel finishes. The only extra cost option is a $5,000 matte clearcoat, which you may as well get at this point. In for a penny…

The sticker shock is real, but I think the price is justified when you consider exactly what you're getting. There's over $10,000 worth of hardware beneath the wheel arches alone, between the Ölins suspension, Akibono brakes, wheels and tires. The rest of the powertrain and platform are architecturally similar to the one in the Volvo V60 T8 Polestar Engineered, but with three times the battery -- the most expensive part of any electrified car -- a second rear-axle electric motor and nearly 250 more lb-ft of torque on tap. We're already looking at about $100 grand based just on the running gear, and that's before we even get to the a low-volume, hand-assembled, carbon-fiber chassis, which has got to be stupid expensive.

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I wish Polestar showed off the 1's carbon fiber construction better. As is, the graphics and door sill trim just don't do enough to give this admittedly still very beautiful coupe enough exotic curb appeal.

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The hand-assembled nature of the Polestar 1 means the automaker can only build about 1.5 vehicles per day, limiting it to very low volume sales. There will only be 1,500 example built and sold globally, so the Polestar 1 owner's club will be a fairly exclusive one. However, I'm not sure that's as much a draw for buyers as Polestar thinks it'll be.

The hardware and technology hidden beneath the Polestar 1's sharp creases and dramatically retro proportions definitely justifies the high cost of entry. However, the question still remains whether this -- a plug-in hybrid in an increasingly EV world -- is the hardware that buyers actually want?

Looking forward

It is a marvel of engineering and an impressive ride full of thrills and tech. When I wasn't grinning ear-to-ear as I thrashed the Polestar 1 around corner after corner, I was enjoying just nerding out over how it worked and the sheer attention to engineering details present almost everywhere I looked. However, for all but super-rich collectors or well-off automotive Suecophiles, this ain't it, chief.

There is a niche for high performance hybrids -- I certainly appreciate 'em -- but I think the Polestar 1 not being a pure battery electric vehicle is a pretty big con for buyers in this $100,000 electric car space. After all, these are folks who are probably cross-shopping the Porsche Taycan, Tesla Model S and eventually Audi's E-Tron GT, among others. Polestar's target market at this price range are likely looking for an electric car, not an electrified car. Carbon fiber or otherwise, hybrid cars are a half-step for these forward-looking folks and I don't think they're interested in a gasoline-powered ride.

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The Polestar 1 is a tough sell, both EV buyers and traditional performance enthusiasts. Sound familiar? We heard similar protests when Honda launched the new-generation NSX performance hybrid.

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On the other side of the coin, traditional sports car buyers comparing the 1 to the plethora of traditional performance cars in this price range -- your AMG GTs, Bentley Continentals and Audi R8s, almost none of which look like hotted-up S60s -- are likely to be put off by the hybrid's perceived complexity versus their tried, true and less-expensive V8s and V10s. It's a shame, because the Polestar 1 is so damn good, but it's sort of stuck between an eco rock and a performance hard place.

That said, I'm much more excited about the upcoming Polestar 2, which will be less expensive, more accessible and perhaps a better choice for most people interested in the Polestar brand's promise of electrified performance with Volvo DNA. With its more unique Android-powered cockpit, commuter-friendly crossover/sedan form factor and full battery-electric powertrain, it should make a lot more sense for a broader range of buyers.