2020 Polestar 1 Plug-in Hybrid First Drive Review: Guiding Star

Production ready at last.

SAN FRANCISCO, California—Fall is all around us in Northern California, with its changing colors, hazy sunrise, and crisp morning air. Ensconced behind the wheel of the Polestar 1, a strikingly sculpted plug-in-hybrid grand touring coupe, we're happy campers. The 1 is charging effortlessly along Skyline Drive, one of the Golden State's very best driving roads, that twists and turns through the oaks, redwoods, and maples just south of San Francisco, en route to the coastal cities of Atascadero and Half Moon Bay.

It was just four months ago when Polestar (the one-time racing team turned Volvo performance branch, turned electric-focused automaker) gave us our first chance to drive of a prototype version of its initial offering, the 1.  Now, the car is production ready; just 500 per year will be largely hand-built in a dedicated Polestar factory—that's just over one car per day—at an MSRP of $156,500 each. That's not exactly cheap, but the car is more or less fully loaded at that price (including an excellent 15-speaker, Bowers & Wilkins audio system), the only option being a $5,000 matte paint finish. Anyway, Polestar says orders are rushing in from well-to-do male and female buyers who are looking forward to a good-looking, unique hybrid offering that will have total production capped at just 1,500 for the entire world.

Make no mistake, the Polestar 1 is really an introductory halo car for a forward-looking automaker who's real profits will (hopefully) be made with the coming fully electric Polestar 2, a Tesla Model 3 alternative, and the Polestar 3, a future vehicle currently shrouded in secrecy. Now that Tesla has become nearly mainstream, Polestar hopes that its first offering will whet the appetites of enthusiasts looking for a more driver-focused hybrid vehicle with the exclusivity of a more boutique automaker. To that end, Polestar "spaces" will be constructed where prospective purchasers can test drive a vehicle and peruse available options, colors, and interior trims—basically anything but actually buy a car. The actual purchasing process is all done online. Current plans have 15 of these spaces, each partnered with an existing nearby Volvo dealership, slotted for the U.S. market, with the first locations located mainly in the downtown areas of techy, trendy, charging-station-stocked West Coast locales such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The Polestar 1 itself is best described as a premium grand touring coupe, and is based on Volvo's modular SPA platform. Internal-combustion power comes from Volvo's own turbocharged and supercharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which at 326 horsepower and 321 lb-ft of torque is slightly optimized over the version found in Volvo's S90 sedan. That engine is paired to a 71-hp electric starter motor/generator at the crank and an eight-speed Aisin automatic transmission. At the rear of the car sits a 348-volt, 34-kWh battery pack that powers one electric motor at each rear wheel, producing a combined 232 horsespower and 354 lb-ft of torque between them both. All told, with both rear motors and the internal-combustion engine operating in unison, a total of 619 horsepower (down slightly from the prototype's 626 horses) and 738 lb-ft of torque are available to shuttle this 5,170-pound coupe. That weight comes despite carbon-fiber bodywork that Polestar says saves some 500 pounds on its own.

Regulating all this power are four different driving modes, toggled by a wheel on the center console that's lifted from Volvo's parts bin. Pure mode is electric-drive only with a range of about 70 miles; the default Hybrid mode uses either gas or electric or both, as needed; AWD mode is developed for wet or icy roads and keeps power flowing to all four wheels; and Power mode optimizes grunt and the Polestar's torque-vectoring behavior, made particularly impressive by the separate rear motors. Driven conservatively in Hybrid mode, Polestar estimates some 540 miles of total range.

It's dubious that we'll see anything like that the way we're wheeling the Polestar 1 through the hills above California's iconic Pacific Coast Highway. Windy as this road is, every time a longer straight appears, its difficult not to flat-foot the throttle in Power mode to get another dose of silky-smooth torque delivery that never seems to end. Polestar's stated 4.2-second zero-to-60-mph time seems entirely accurate, but we're just as impressed with the way the car continues on, time-warp style, to triple-digit velocities. With the engine working in conjunction with the electric motors, there's a fairly meaty four-cylinder growl that sounds mostly like piped in induction noise. It's a more aggressive noise that we've heard in any Volvo, though it's far from exotic or very special. (We can't help but pine a little for the rally-esque sounds of Volvo's old five-cylinder engines.) Because of the torque available, we rarely felt the need to swap our own cogs with the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but when we did response was on the lazier side of adequate.

Lazy isn't a word we'd use regarding the brakes, trick aluminum monobloc Akebono units with six-piston calipers up front and four-piston units at the rear. Time and time again, the steel-rotor brakes hauled our two-and-a-half-ton test car down from big speeds with nary a grumble and plenty of bite. We also found the brakes easy to modulate and not grabby around town, as we complained about on the prototype. Meanwhile, the 22-setting, manually adjustable Öhlins dampers fitted at all four corners feel near perfect in their default halfway settings on well-groomed back roads, where the Polestar 1 feels composed with little body roll. That said, on San Francisco's broken and neglected surface streets, the ride is firm enough to jolt the coffee right out of our cup's sipping hole and into our lap. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to try softer settings.

As the road through the trees narrows into about one and a half lanes and the turns became almost go-kart-track tight, we really begin to appreciate the Polestar 1's torque-vectoring ability. Diving into a small-radius hairpin, we can feel the car shifting power to help rotate the rear end. The Polestar 1 never drives like a small, lightweight car, but it feels nowhere near its actual heft when it's being pushed, which helps to inspire confidence despite the momentum and mass you know you're carrying. Also credit the massive 21-inch Pirelli P Zero tires, 275-width front and 295 rear, for their role in keeping this super coupe glued to the road despite the extra road noise their short 30-section sidewalls bring to the equation. While our prototype drive revealed heavier steering than we'd like, the production default setting felt about perfect, and offered plenty more feel than any Volvo we've driven recently. Suffice it to say, the Polestar 1 felt eager enough that we wish the launch team had scheduled us some laps at nearby Sonoma Raceway.

The Polestar 1's cabin is a nice place to be, even if it borrows heavily from Volvo's production lineup. That chunky dash and extremely comfortable, Nappa-leather-covered seats will be familiar to anyone who's spent time in a Volvo, although the bespoke crystal shift lever is an eye-catching diversion. Fit and finish looks very good with high-quality materials that include gorgeous satin-finish carbon inserts on the dashboard. Out of the hills and back on city streets, Pure mode gives good acceleration under electric power alone and is completely usable for commuter-type driving. Additionally, Polestar says 80 percent of battery capacity can be charged in just one hour, making the 1 a viable electric-only day-to-day car that only drinks fuel on longer (or sportier) weekend drives.

Drawbacks are few, but true to many vehicles with 2+2 seating, the rear buckets are really only for small children or, even more so, extra stuff, mainly due to the sloping rear roofline. While the exposed bright-orange wiring in the trunk looks cool behind its clear Plexiglas shield, you won't be able to fit much more than a small, soft duffle or some light shopping in its shallow 4.4 cubic feet of capacity. That means weekend road trips will necessitate stuffing bags into the rear seats and with a painfully slow-to-operate electric folding function, it's an irritating process to gain access. Ironically, engineers chose manual adjustment for the steering column. Also, while the clear glass roof is coated with UV shielding, there's no manual shade and we worry that the car will get awfully warm if it's left outside in Southern California summers, a key market for the car.

We think the Polestar 1 sells itself well on its chiseled good looks and limited-production exclusivity, and that its driving character and quirky manual-adjust suspension make it a colorful addition to the premium-hybrid space. If Polestar 1 is in fact a guiding star for the brand's future product, we see plenty of reason to be optimistic.

2020 Polestar 1 Specifications
ON SALE Fall 2019
PRICE $156,500
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4, 326 hp, 321 lb-ft; 2 electric motors, 232 hp combined; starter generator, 71 hp; total system output 619 hp, 738 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic (front); 1-speed direct drive (rear)
LAYOUT 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD coupe
L x W x H 180.5 x 77.1 x 53.2 in
WHEELBASE 107.9 in
WEIGHT 5,170 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 4.2 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 155 mph (est)
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