WHEN MOST people look at the 2021 Polestar 1, they see only the gorgeous: a low-slung, wide-bodied 2+2 coupe, with immaculate lines and wheels for days, like a Shelby Mustang with a doctorate from the University of Gothenburg. I drove our snow-white tester to the local Cars and Coffee auto meet and dudes were practically throwing their underwear at it.
I see rank having its privileges.
In 2017 Volvo Cars put Thomas Ingenlath in charge of the newly minted Polestar premium-performance electric brand, a joint-venture between Volvo and corporate parent Zhejiang Geely Holding. Mr. Ingenlath, previously Volvo’s head of design, had never run a car company. But he had overseen the creation of the marvelous, masculine Volvo Concept Coupe (2013) that previewed the Polestar 1 in most respects, including its exotic carbon-composite body.
As a driving machine the Polestar 1 offers the same rarefied, gizmotronic feel as BMW’s i8 PHEV, only quicker.
The Concept also summoned the spirit of Volvo’s most beautiful car, the P1800 (1961-1972): the dramatic cab-rearward balance and intimate canopy; the peaked rear fender lines and almost vestigial tail fins; the teeth-baring grille. I was at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2013 when the Concept debuted. It was a hit.
This is where most car companies, and most CEOs, would have left the Coupe: as a show car, a brand avatar, exaggerated and unbuildable, with no shot at a business case. Imagine the GM board meeting at which Mary Barra proposes productionizing a carbon-bodied plug-in hybrid (PHEV) grand touring coupe, built by the handful in China, weighing 2.5 tons, costing twice that of an AMG E 53 Coupe. Security!
Luckily, when it came to greenlighting Polestar 1 ($155,000), Mr. Ingenlath had no one to convince but himself.
In an interview last month I asked Polestar’s CEO if he might have been guilty of self dealing in getting his baby into production. “No, it didn’t work like that,” he said, laughing at what has become a familiar question. “It was always part of the strategy” to produce Polestar 1 as a “halo car.” Uh-huh. The brand has big plans in the U.S., including taking on Tesla with its four-door Polestar 2. However, all future models will be battery-electric. The 1 will be Polestar’s first, last and only PHEV. It isn’t very halo-y in that respect.
Production will be held to 500 per year (150 allotted to the North American market) and a total run of 1,500 copies. I guess they couldn’t afford to build more.
Crammed under the carbonized hood is a 2.0-liter super/turbocharged four, spooling up to a fervid 6,000 rpm and 325 hp all on its own. Behind that, power-flow wise, is an integrated starter generator tasked with stop-start cycling, torque-fill and regenerative braking. The ISG kicks in another 71 hp and 119 lb-ft, as needed. Electrons are stored in 34 kWh worth of lithium-ion batteries, in boxy packs shoehorned into the central tunnel and between the rear shock towers.
Finally, arrayed between the rear wheels, are two traction motors (232 hp combined) that, working independently, provide full torque vectoring across the rear axle. The combined system max is given as 619 hp and a ferocious 738 lb-ft, all set on a millisecond trigger.
These mechatronics generate impressive, previously irreconcilable numbers: 0-60 mph acceleration in about four seconds and quarter-mile times in the high 11 seconds; an EPA-rated 52 miles all-electric range and 106 mpg-e average efficiency. Drivers can select, by way of roller switch in the console, five levels of enlightenment, including Pure (electric, engaging only the rear wheels, up to 99 mph), Hybrid (the fronts), AWD, Power and Individual.
As a driving machine the 1 presents the same sort of rarefied, gizmotronic feel of
i8 PHEV, only quicker and harder. Check out these A-list suppliers: brakes by Akebono, including spectacular 15.7-inch front rotors with six-piston calipers; custom-spec Pirelli P Zero Corsa tires; manually adjustable Öhlins coil-over dampers in amid the front double-wishbone and rear integral-link suspension. Type-A owners can dial in damping rates in the garage between Zoom meetings.
That brings us to the matter of curb weight—5,170 pounds—and the 1’s strange albeit satisfying roadholding in beast mode. Ironically, for as heavy as it is, the 1’s design engineers lavished money on weight-savings. The assembly process marries a rigid carbon-composite upper structure and body panels with SPA’s steely underpinnings—a bit like what Lotus used to do with fiberglass. These carbon components cut about 500 pounds compared to conventional construction, says Polestar, and significantly lower the car’s center of gravity.
So, yes, while the 1 weighs like a tugboat, much of that mass is slung deep and square in the midst of four insanely grippy tires. The Öhlins do a heroic job damping body motions over pumping asphalt. And in a high-speed, constant radius turn? Oh man, the levels of lateral grip and centrifugal force are quite ridiculous, like a gorilla swinging on playground equipment.
But I don’t want to lose sight of what’s important: The 1 could have a small-block V8 and solid rear axle. I’d be just as smitten. Maybe more.
To be sure, Mr. Ingenlath was obliged to make compromises. The 1’s interior is a direct lift from top-spec Volvos, including the Sensus infotainment beast. He probably would’ve preferred a brand-specific interior. And he surely didn’t want to crowd the trunk with batteries, cutting luggage space to a mere 4.4 cubic feet. But he wasn’t about to move that shoulder line, was he?
However the ROI adds up and in whatever coinage—Swedish krona, Instagram love—the Polestar 1’s value rests in it being a truly, historically beautiful car, in a regime where most auto makers are lucky to achieve pretty. Its outlier pulchritude tells us something important about the business of volume-production car building: Beauty costs money. On the way to market, great design has to be defended against a thousand reasonable arguments, best practices and bottom lines.
Every car is a battlefield. Usually the bean-counters win. Not this time.
2021 Polestar 1
Price, as Tested $155,000
Powertrain PHEV, 2.0-liter super- and turbocharged inline four cylinder gas engine with direct injection and cylinder deactivation (325 hp at 6,000 rpm): starter-generator (71 hp) with eight-speed automatic transmission; 34 kWh lithium-ion battery packs; dual rear independent AC motors (116 hp) with mechanical torque vectoring
Max System Power/Torque 619 hp/738 lb-ft
Length/Width/Height/Wheelbase 180.5/77.1/53.2/107.9 inches
Curb Weight 5,170 pounds
0-60 mph 4 seconds
Electric Range 58 miles
Charging Time Less than 1 hour at 50 kW
EPA Fuel Economy 106 mpg-e
Write to Dan Neil at Dan.Neil@wsj.com
The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8