2020 Polestar 1 review: A weird flex and a moot point
The best thing about the 2020 Polestar 1 is the way it looks. It's the 2013 Volvo Concept Coupe come to life with a plug-in hybrid powertrain. But despite being the first car to launch under the standalone Polestar brand, it in no way lays the groundwork for any of the company's future models. Really, the Polestar 1 is just a rolling billboard for a carmaker most people have never heard of -- and a gorgeous one, at that.
Design with staying power
If you're going to resurrect a 7-year-old concept car for a production model, you'd better make it a good one. So it's a testament to the 2013 Concept Coupe's design that, all these years later, it still looks every bit as stunning.
The body panels are free of frivolous sculpting, and I love the wide hips and short overhangs. Almost all of those body panels are made from carbon fiber, too, which Polestar says accounts for some 500 pounds of weight savings compared with traditional steel construction. Even so, this is no featherweight: The Polestar 1 tips the scales at nearly 5,200 pounds, which is about the same as a nicely equipped Ford F-150.
There's just enough exterior panache to let you know the Polestar 1 is something a bit more special your average Volvo. But open the door and, well, that kind of goes away. There's nothing wrong with the 1's interior, not at all. The materials are fantastic, everything fits together perfectly and there are a few gorgeous details like real metal trim and that big, crystal shift knob. It's just that none of this is different from what you get in any other new Volvo. Thankfully, Polestar's forthcoming models will put a greater emphasis on unique interior design with sustainable materials. Check out the excellent cabin of the new Polestar Precept concept, for example.
This cabin may be familiar, but again, that doesn't make it bad. The front chairs are ridiculously comfortable and supportive, the steering wheel has a great thickness and is wrapped in soft leather. Hardly any wind or road noise permeates the cabin and the electrochromic roof lets in as much or as little light as you like. There's even a little Polestar logo projected onto the glass. Neat.
One downside to note: For a car this big, there's hardly any trunk space. Two of the Polestar's three batteries -- which have a total capacity of 32 kilowatt-hours -- are stacked behind the rear seats, meaning they eat into the cargo space. Yes, it's extremely cool that there's a plexiglass window so you can see the Polestar's electric hardware, but when it's time to head to the airport, I'm amazed that my Rollaboard suitcase and backpack just barely squeeze in there.
Familiar cabin means familiar tech
The good news about the Polestar 1 using Volvo's Sensus infotainment system is that, having used it a bunch of times now, I'm pretty much a pro. The bad news, of course, is that all the things I don't like about Sensus come along, too.
You move through the various pages and menus kind of like you would on an iPad. But while this design is great for a tablet you'd use at home on the couch, it's different for an interface intended to be used while driving. Some of the icons are small, the settings menu requires a downward swipe from the very top of the screen and, despite numerous processor updates over the years, Sensus is still quite laggy when you first wake it up.
There's still a lot to praise, though -- there's no denying the 9-inch, portrait-style touchscreen is visually impressive. I like the way Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are integrated into the Sensus experience, too. Rather than taking over the whole display, the smartphone-mirroring tech is housed in one of the four main panels on the home screen, and only fully opens when you ask it to. This makes it a lot easier to toggle between the apps on your phone and the apps in your car.
This is another area where the 1 doesn't preview what'll come in Polestar's future cars, thankfully. Beginning with the Polestar 2, the brand's cars will move to new Google Android-powered software that looks to be much, much better.
Lots of power... some of the time
Arguably the most interesting thing about the 1 is its powertrain, though again, this plug-in hybrid setup won't be used in any future Polestar. Much like Volvo's T8 Twin-Engine cars, there's a 2.0-liter I4 up front, which is both supercharged and turbocharged, mated to an integrated starter-generator motor and an eight-speed automatic transmission that drives the front axle. On its own, this part of the powertrain produces 326 horsepower and 321 pound-feet of torque.
Where the Polestar differs from a standard T8 Volvo is at the rear. There's a pair of 85-kilowatt electric motors, making a total of 232 hp and 354 lb-ft. This section of the powertrain only sends thrust to the rear wheels, and it can torque-vector from side to side, too, for improved handling.
All of this adds up to a total system output of 619 hp and 738 lb-ft, but you're only getting that amount if you have enough juice in the battery and you're driving the Polestar 1 in its Power mode. Which is something you should do as often as you can, because this is where the car really shines. Acceleration is lively, with this heavy coupe hitting 60 mph in just under 4 seconds. And since most of the torque is coming from an electric motor, it's available at a moment's notice.
In Power mode, the Polestar 1 has through-the-road all-wheel drive -- all four wheels are being driven at the same time by two separate propulsion systems. There's a lot happening all at once, but I like how seamlessly it all works together. You never feel any one part of the powertrain carrying the brunt of the load. There's just a ton of power, all the time, and plenty of grip as it's shuffled between the four contact patches.
You can also put the Polestar into an electric-only rear-wheel-drive setting, but this sounds more exciting on paper than it does in reality. I love the idea of a rear-drive EV, but remember, you're only getting 232 hp and 354 lb-ft here, and that deficit is really noticeable in a car this heavy. This isn't the drive mode you'll want to use while caning it in the canyons. Instead, I find this EV setting works best for running errands or driving in the city -- the times when I appreciate the smoothness (and quietness) of an electric powertrain. Don't bury your right foot all the time and you'll see about 60 miles of EV range. The Polestar 1 is equipped to handle 50-kilowatt DC fast-charging, too, where you can replenish the battery in under an hour. (On a more common Level 2 setup, this will take a couple of hours.)
The two secret weapons in the Polestar 1's drive modes are its Hold and Charge settings, which are activated by buttons on the settings panel when you right-swipe the Sensus touchscreen. They work as advertised: Hold will keep the battery at its current state of charge and rely solely on the 2.0-liter engine for power, which is perfectly fine for long stretches of highway driving where this front-wheel-drive setup is more efficient. Charge mode is great here, too, but it also uses the engine's power to put some electrons back into the battery.
Said another way, I can leave my house with a full battery in Hold mode and have the full EV power available when I get up to my canyon test roads. Or, more realistically, I can select Charge mode on the fly when I don't remember to activate Hold, and try to gain back some of the electrons I lost because of my forgetfulness.
When it is time to hustle, the Polestar 1 is a decent performer. Compared with other Volvo T8 models, the Polestar has an extra carbon-fiber brace at the back of its chassis for increased rigidity, and the adjustable Ohlins coilover suspension is nicely set up from the get-go. All of this keeps the Polestar taut and surprisingly nimble through corners, doing a lot to mask the sheer size of this coupe. The geeky gearhead in me likes that the coilovers are manually adjustable via knobs under the hood -- you can increase or decrease the stiffness by as much as 20% -- but I think most owners would rather change this sort of thing via a button somewhere on the center console.
The Akebono aluminum brakes are strong, but like other hybrid Volvos, stopping is often jerky, especially at low speeds. I'd also really like more steering feedback. The Polestar changes direction quickly, and there's no understeer to speak of, but it's all just so numb and lifeless in my hands. This also makes it harder to get a sense of how much grip the tires have, though this isn't exactly a car that begs to be pushed harder.
Instead, the Polestar 1 is at its best going long distances on the highway or breaking necks as it causes double-takes in the city. Plus, it's got all the same modern driver-assistance tech as Volvo's other high-end models, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring -- the works. All told, the Polestar 1 is a fantastic grand tourer.
But who's it for?
I like the Polestar 1. It's quick, it's comfy and it looks damn good in my driveway. But I don't know why you'd buy one, especially considering its $155,000 price tag.
My colleague Antuan Goodwin says it best: The Polestar 1 is "sort of stuck between an eco rock and a performance hard place." EV-minded shoppers will likely be bummed this car isn't fully electric -- especially when $155,000 buys any Tesla you want, or even a Porsche Taycan . On the other hand, as a sports car, the Audi R8 , BMW M8 , Mercedes-AMG GT and Porsche 911 will all run circles around the Polestar. Heck, even though the 1 is a lovely GT, judged on that sole criterion alone, the Mercedes-Benz S560 Coupe, BMW M850i Coupe or Lexus LC 500 are lovelier to pilot over the long haul. All three are cheaper, too.
But here's the thing: None of this matters. Polestar will only build 1,500 of these coupes for the entire world, and the company isn't using the 1 as a foundation for its future products. The fully electric Polestar 2 is a far more important product for this up-and-coming carmaker, and frankly, that's the one I'm really excited about -- even if it isn't as good-looking.