The 2020 Polestar 1 is so fast, so agile, and so satisfying to drive with its hybrid-electric 619 horsepower powertrain you would almost never believe it weighs as much as a Bentley Bentayga, or a Tesla Model S, or a Porsche Taycan. Almost.
(Full Disclosure: Polestar kindly flew me out to San Francisco for two nights with wining and dining to prove to me its a real car company, which makes real cars, like this, the new Polestar 1, the company’s first car, which is now real.)
It’s been just two short years since Polestar announced that it would break away from being an in-house performance tuner for Volvo to become its own line and legacy of hybrid and electric vehicles—a pioneer of new technology for its parent company, Geely, to trickle back into Volvo’s lineup and help support the family’s other startup, Lynk & Co.
Today, Polestar now has its own operational manufacturing facility in China, where its first model, the Polestar 1, is assembled. It’s already introduced its second car, the compact electric Polestar 2 sedan.
It’s not fucking around, but even if it’s rapidly becoming its own car company on paper, can Polestar do enough to stand out from Volvo and Lynk & Co.?
The 2020 Polestar 1 is the automaker’s first car, technically. It looks damn near exactly like the 2013 Volvo Coupe concept, which was inspired by stunning lines of the original Volvo P1800 coupe. And guess what? Polestar’s current CEO, Thomas Ingenlath, was in charge of the 2013 concept project.
When Polestar spun off from Volvo, it took one of the cleanest designs in years with it and committed to turning it into a luxury GT hybrid, pairing a turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder with a Nissan Leaf’s worth of batteries and electric motors.
It has carbon fiber body panels and a “dragonfly” carbon core centered in the platform, saving over 500 pounds of weight.
Polestar’s biggest differentiation among Volvo and Lynk & Co. is not the car it stole from Volvo, though. It’s how it plans to sell it. Polestar wants to be an exclusive brand—or so it claims for now, when it’s just getting started and has to get people to notice—whereas the others are driven almost purely by growth and volume.
Because of that, only 500 copies of the Polestar 1 will be built a year, with a plan to top out at 1,500 cars after three years. You can either buy the 1 outright, or you can pay for a two or three year subscription from Polestar, which is basically a lease that also lumps in insurance and maintenance into one payment.
I will just say that in testing this early batch of cars, it was very clear this was an early production model straight out of a brand new factory in China. Some of the fit and finish was off, at one point an entire vanity mirror was off, and there are certain areas of the car that didn’t look great under some scrutiny. But this is early days for Polestar, and we’ll get into all those issues later.
The turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the front of the 2020 Polestar 1 makes only 326 horsepower and 384 lb-ft of torque. But it’s also coupled to an integrated starter generator, and it’s joined by a pair of electric motors at the rear which add 232 HP and 354 lb-ft for a well-rounded package total of 619 HP and a whopping 738 lb-ft combined.
The electric motors are connected to two battery packs totaling 34 kWh—almost as much juice as an electric car like the Nissan Leaf—which should offer over 70 miles of electric-only range (based on Europe’s WLTP standards), though the EPA estimated range will be announced sometime next year.
The car’s CCS charging port can charge the batteries up to 80 percent in about an hour on a 50 kilowatt fast-charge DC connection, and it can also be trickle-charged using an 11-kilowatt AC connection.
To manage all of this power, three of the four drive modes on the car use all-wheel drive—the gas engine powering the front wheels, the two electric motors in the back twisting the rears. There’s also likely a ton of computers, but you only have to deal with the 8-speed automatic transmission on the driver end of things.
Polestar is convinced this sort of hybrid powertrain makes for the ultimate grand tourer two-plus-two. You have the performance benefit of the instant torque of the electric stuff, coupled with the range-extending abilities of having a combustion engine also in the mix.
There’s almost no penalty in doing things this way. That is except for the big penalty no one can escape: weight.
The Polestar 1 weighs in at 5,170 pounds, where it joins heavy cars like the Tesla Model S and Porsche Taycan in the over-5,000 pounds club despite having only a fraction of the super heavy batteries to benefit from. If you desire performance figures closer to that of those fully-electric cars, the Polestar 1 may seem like somewhat of a compromise for burning the dinosaur sauce.
But Polestar doesn’t need to be worried about that. The 1 isn’t trying to be an electric car. It’s busy doing a damn good job at being an exciting GT car.
The Polestar 1 is fast, and really good at being fast.
You’re cruising, you relax, and maybe come up to a stop sign. The moment your foot touches that right pedal again, the Polestar 1 is gone.
And it’s not a violent launch, like those videos of people in Teslas torturing their family members to go viral in the Elon Musk Twitter replies, but instead a very rapid progression. It feels like a plane taking off—a strangely bewildering sensation of force, the vehicle around you moving before your body in the seat does.
And that’s all before the combustion engine kicks in.
All four of the drive modes are good. All-electric lets you utilize that around-70 mile EV range on just the battery power and electric motors, but as a consequence of this, you’re suddenly piloting a rear-wheel-drive Volvo, I mean Polestar, coupe.
It’s pretty sick, and a great incentive to get people to actually plug in the damn car so they have the option to do strangely silent tire-melting donuts, even in Europe’s city centers that only allow EVs, or whatever.
There’s an all-wheel-drive mode that’s a little more reserved, which you would probably use in inclement weather situations. But the two most people will use everyday are hybrid and performance.
The hybrid setting is the soft version of how this car is meant to be driven. Combustion working with electrons to power all the wheels in a comfortable but persistently expeditious manner.
It’s enough power to not feel like a 5,000 pound car struggling to pass one of those fancy new fast Camrys, and the 8-speed does a frankly impressive job of interpreting what you want from it when it’s time for one of those ill-advised pedal-smashes to remind yourself what it feels like to be alive for a few therapeutic seconds.
But it’s the performance mode that takes that impeccable balancing act and quietly smothers any suspicion that this car is heavy from your fuzzy little head. Despite still having an exhaust and engine note, the quiet boost of electricity is enough to get you into some trouble. What seems like a nice little straight to stretch the car out reveals that, at any given moment, you are likely going 20 mph faster than you think you’re going in this car.
And then there’s the Öhlins suspension setup, which feels like it erases approximately 1,500 pounds from the driving dynamics of the Polestar 1. Öhlins is one of the fancy-name car components that nerds share with each other like rare candy. (It’s also exactly the kind of thing that Hyundai avoided with the lovely Veloster N.) It is to suspension as Recaro is to seats. No, better than that. That’d be Bilstein. Öhlins is a step closer into the world of racing parts, and fits the exclusive + obscurely Swedish air of the Polestar.
In the case of the Polestar, you can’t adjust the suspension electronically—you can pop the hood and turn two little knobs instead. A neat feature, but also a hint from Polestar that it may be better if you just stay in the car and trust what the engineers have done.
They’ve done good. The 1 isn’t just flat through corners, it feels like you’re running a field in cleats, or walking on tile with something sticky under your shoes, but in a satisfying way.
The ride is on the softer end of firm. You can barely feel the reflective indicators when you drive over them, but I also took an unseen, unmarked speed bump exiting a parking lot at “let’s get out of here” speeds and didn’t even blink. So the setup is good, then.
That’s the 1's greatest trick—convincing you it doesn’t weigh as much as a Bentley Bentayga.
Using a combination of performance and hybrid drive modes over a couple-hundred miles of driving, me and my driving buddy averaged around 32 MPG. Not bad at all for a day of making each other nauseous among California redwoods.
The Polestar people worked very hard so I would not say what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway.
The 1 is a Volvo. I remember it as a Volvo design from six years ago. It was the inspiration for the entirety of the current Volvo design language! And now we have an exclusive brand trying to sell a $155,000 car that kind of looks like a two-door version of the $36,000 Volvo S60.
It’s beautiful! I couldn’t stop staring at it from the rear quarter angles. It nailed the P1800 homage. Volvo did, that is. For it to scream Polestar, I can’t help but think it needed to do more. The company didn’t even paint it their trademark blue!
And then once you’re inside, it also has the same dashboard layout as the entire current Volvo lineup, and it doesn’t even get the very promising Android-based infotainment system in the upcoming Polestar 2! It keeps Volvo’s clunkier Sensus system. It’s not horrible, but Polestar employees on hand even gave us a demonstration of how much better the Polestar 2's system is before we even drove the 1.
In the plus-twos, the back seats, there’s no room for my head. My driver’s license lists me as 5-foot 7-inches (the DMV worker told me she gave me an inch for “room to grow” when I got this license back in 2015), and I either have to uncomfortably hold my head down out of the way of a rear cross-bar on the ceiling, or lean my head back under the rear window.
Kids should be fine.
All around the car are some strange features that feel borderline unfinished. You can’t release and move the sun shields, the passenger-side vanity mirror started sliding off its glue in our test car, there’s exposed foam under the hood, and pot-markings on the underside of the hood panel that don’t look great (I was assured this was inconsequential and normal when I asked why it didn’t feature any cool exposed carbon, like the Lexus RC F Track Edition, etc.), and if you push the button to raise the rear spoiler when parked, the space underneath in the opening is just exposed plastic or carbon framework that is begging for some sort of panel to cover it up.
And my final complaint is about noise. The 1 drives incredibly. It’s capable and even a little surprising, to both driver and those who may not expect this car to get from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds. The trouble is it won’t sound as fast as it is.
While the exhaust note is clearly intentional, it’s not very passionate. At the end of the day it’s a four-cylinder, and it sounds like it. I just wish it had a character that better reflected the fun of the car. On the other hand, Polestar is sparing us from the manufactured cracks and pops I hate, or BMW’s synthesized “generic inline-six noise.”
Money no object, the Polestar 1 is just about the perfect GT car for anyone who didn’t mentally die and process into a Porsche-driving stock-package boomer zombie reincarnated as a grey Patagonia vest and khakis back at their ivy league college.
But at $155,000, you’re getting a Volvo interior, Volvo design, hard lean-in on touring and not sporting, and you have to plug the fucker in like it’s the family iPad.
But it’s also the first Polestar, it drives incredibly, and it’s not what anyone else is driving. Maybe it makes you feel like you’ve made a marginal improvement on killing the planet slower. No one will ever want to sit in your back seat. And! It looks amazing. All good things.
You also don’t have to buy it! Just pay to borrow it for a few years and make someone else deal with the depreciation. It’s your life.
I just hope Polestar doesn’t get lost in the mix of electric Volvos and Geely startups.