GOTHENBURG, Sweden—A crowd is gathered at the EV charging station near a tony lakefront lunch spot, their backs turned to a row of Tesla Model Ss. Despite their conspicuous tints and matte finishes, the aging EVs pale next to the striking lines of the Polestar 1 prototype, which is getting the rock-star treatment while it sucks up electrons.
To call the Polestar 1 a point of Swedish pride would be an understatement of epic magnitude. But these are complicated times, and the average unsuspecting Swede is probably also oblivious to the reality that, unlike the 200,000 or so Volvos produced annually at the nearby factory, the Polestar 1 will be entirely built in China. It’s a reality that surprises many, perhaps because this big coupe has a seemingly Continental appearance, including its starkly handsome silhouette and inscrutably jaunty Nordic curves. Oh, and it doesn’t get any more Swedish than (Geely-owned) Volvo, does it?
Though mostly conventional at first glance, there’s a lot of subtle, intriguing styling touches to beyond the Polestar 1’s stately nose and Hofmeister kink. The skin’s crisp creases are enabled by the outer layer’s carbon-fiber construction, which is easier than metal to form sharp edges into. There’s also a significant amount of carbon beneath the skin as well, although the chassis is a shortened version of the S90’s SPA platform, which uses more high-strength steel and aluminum. More notable than its construction, however, is the 1’s powertrain, a melting pot of motivation that crams a whole bunch of technologies together to deliver total output of 626 horsepower and 738 lb-ft. (Non-U.S. cars get stiffed 26 horses due to the stifling effects of the gas particulate filter.) Up front is Volvo’s S90-sourced 2.0-liter internal-combustion engine that combines turbocharging and supercharging, aided by an electric motor at the flywheel and sending its power through an Aisin AW eight-speed automatic. Motivation at the rear axle is handled by a pair of individual electric motors, with the system switching between gas, gas/electric, and pure electric depending on drive modes and/or state of charge.
Despite the shock and awe of the future-friendly drivetrain, the cabin is remarkably understated. Matte carbon-fiber trim and Alcantara meet familiar Volvo switchgear and screens, with a central, portrait-oriented touchscreen that manages more then a few of the vehicle’s settings via Volvo’s Sensus interface. A faceted roller dial on the transmission tunnel—just like the one found in essentially all modern Volvos—switches between five drive modes: Hybrid (the default), Pure (good for an estimated 65 miles of electric-only range on the U.S. test cycle), Power (for the brawniest gas-electric combo), AWD (for snow and ice), and Individual, which enables customized settings.
Our prototype drive came with several caveats, as the test car was an early build with more than a few parameters still being fine tuned. Although the interior was essentially final production-spec, a large red kill switch sat on the center console “just in case.” Ominous error messages of largely no material consequence were on display (“Power Steering Failure” being one) and we were warned that the drivetrain calibration had a few minor glitches still being worked out. Fair enough, considering the final-spec cars aren’t due to start production for another three months.
Pulling out of Polestar HQ in Hybrid mode made a positive first impression: Between the smooth tug of EV power, the imperceptible introduction of internal-combustion thrust, and torque fill from the gas engine’s double-forced induction, there was none of the unpredictable power surges that plague many hybrids. Keep an eye on the digital power gauge in the instrument panel, and it’s relatively easy to maintain decent acceleration without summoning the internal-combustion engines. Switch to EV-only Pure mode and the twin motors deliver smooth power accompanied by an audible whir that my copilot, chassis engineer Roger Wallgren, says will be markedly quieter in final form.
Tap the crystal shifter once towards you, a tidy little gem manufactured by Orrefors Sweden, and a stronger engine braking/regen mode is engaged. It’s not quite as strong as some might prefer and certainly not aggressive enough for true one-pedal driving, however. In addition, the brake pedal can get grabby below 10 mph, at least in its current configuration. Brake feel from the six-piston Akebono stoppers is otherwise good at higher speeds. Though pedal feedback is considerably better than most hybrid systems currently on the market, you won’t be confusing this with a racecar’s lively brake behavior, and that’s a good thing, because it remains consistent with the grand tourer’s mission as an interstate-devouring executive express.
Though the steering effort remained constant while toggling through the customizable settings (possibly related to the indicated error message), the steering’s weight was on the heavy side but with solid feel. The overall setup felt nicely sorted, although we would have preferred slightly lower effort—which will presumably be available when the steering settings are adjustable in production spec. While driving in Hybrid mode, a long, sweeping highway on ramp revealed a remarkable trait you’ll find in the similarly configured (but more radically packaged) Acura NSX and Porsche 918 Spyder: an ability for the electric motors to vector torque in a way that makes it truly difficult to overdrive the car.
Squeeze the right pedal beyond where you typically might, and instead of understeering the car manages to hunker down into an optimal line. Keep pressing, and the bespoke Pirelli P Zero rubber on staggered 22-inch wheels hangs on persistently, despite the massive forces of momentum at play. It’s an impressive defiance of physics, one that seems highly illogical since this big-boned two-door weighs a considerable 5,180 pounds. Incidentally, 754 of those pounds consist of battery packs alone. Aiding maneuverability are weight-saving carbon-fiber upper structures and the low, rearward positioning of the battery packs.
Also anathema to the car’s heft is how well it handles bumps, which can be largely attributed to the outstanding Öhlins Road & Track suspension system, not to mention development work done by the likes of Wallgren on test tracks in Sweden and around the world. Though initially conceived as an automatically adaptive system, the 1 was eventually switched to use a manually adjustable setup that requires turning shock dials under the hood to one of 22 positions. Though Wallgren told us adjusting the rear shocks requires lifting the car on a hoist, another Polestar source revealed an easier method: pulling the car up onto a curb and simply reaching between the body and the wheel.
About halfway through our five-hour test drive, we stopped to adjust the suspension for a more technical stretch of road, which had been in its default middle setting. Per Wallgren’s suggestion, we turned the bronze dial at the top of the shock structure three clockwise clicks, which yielded a noticeably crisper ride and sharper turn-in without much detriment to ride quality. As hinted at when we traversed the on ramp, the Polestar 1’s road grip is outstanding and its handling predominantly flat, with just enough roll to communicate how the chassis relates with the road.
‘Though not a razor’s-edge canyon carver, the big coupe acquits itself remarkably well over Sweden’s rambling country roads, especially when considering its prodigious curb weight. Power is easily accessible coming out of apexes, and it’s laid down with excellent body control that only starts to show soft spots during quick switchbacks that abruptly throw around the car’s mass. Shortly after the windy stretch, Wallgren opted to switch back to the middle setting, as though to suggest I might find it too firm for bumpy city roads.
The acute awareness of suspension compliance reveals much about the Polestar 1’s mission. Though its 65 or so miles of pure electric power make it ideally suited for urban commutes, especially in regions where internal-combustion cars are increasingly faced with congestion charges, Polestar’s debut vehicle also manages to shine during high-speed highway blasts. On those open stretches of road, its union of gas and electric power conspire to lend it a sense of potent, imperturbable presence, with loads of torque and ample passing power.
It’s a funny thing, that the first car in the new marque’s premium, future-forward lineup harkens back to such an old-world niche as a grand touring coupe with commanding front seats and tiny rear perches. There is a certain luxury here, for sur—and it’s not just about the six-figure price of entry or the sports-car-worthy horsepower figure. By allocating a total of only 1,500 of these flagships, just 140 or so which will come the U.S. in the first year, Polestar is making a bigger statement about its grand plans to build special cars, even if the Tesla Model 3-challenging Polestar 2 will be a volume play. Specialness is an excellent place to start. Let’s hope it’s a feeling that extends to every Polestar.
2020 Polestar 1 Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2019|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4, 326 hp, 310 lb-ft; 3 electric motors, 300 hp combined; total system output 626 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 76.2 x 53.2 in|
|WEIGHT||5,180 lb (est)|
|0–60 MPH||3.8 sec (est)|