Tech Magazine

The Polestar 1 is a turbocharged, supercharged, plug-in hybrid enigma

SAN FRANCISCO—Few cars in recent times have piqued my interest quite like the Polestar 1. I like 600-horsepower grand touring cars, particularly when they’re dressed up in handmade carbon fiber bodies. I like plug-in hybrids even more, particularly if they come with a battery big enough to be useful. And this car is both of those. It features a supercharged, turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine for the front wheels and a pair of electric motors fed by a 34kWh battery at the rear. Just 1,500 will be built during the next three years, and at $155,000, they aren’t cheap.

But the Polestar isn’t supposed to sell in volume. It’s a halo car, a mission statement, a four-wheel calling card from a startup automaker that will follow it up with an affordable (and Android-based) electric car early in 2020. Well, I say startup—spin-off might be more accurate. As the name suggests, it’s the first car from Polestar, a name that used to mean souped-up Volvos and touring-car racing. Now it’s a standalone brand that’s going to explore the idea of electric performance cars.

If the Polestar 1 looks familiar, that’s understandable. We first saw something that looked like it in 2013’s Volvo Concept Coupe, and visually it shares a design language with Volvo’s current -60 and -90 series cars. That’s no bad thing—Volvo makes some lookers right now (particularly wagons). But not one has quite the visual drama of the Polestar 1, which takes that design language and passes it through a muscle-car filter.

The family resemblance makes more sense when you realize that, under the carbon fiber body, it shares a lot more with those cars. The Polestar is built using Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture toolkit and parts bin, which first debuted in the XC90 SUV. But this is the most modified we’ve seen a SPA vehicle. The track has been widened at both the front and rear axle, and a huge section has been cut out of the wheelbase (now 107.9-inch (2,740mm)). It’s been replaced by a carbon fiber “dragonfly” structure. Together, with the carbon fiber body panels, this gives the Polestar 1 much greater torsional stiffness than anything wearing a Volvo badge.

Carbon composite body panels are more time-consuming to make than stamping metal, but they also allowed Polestar 1’s design team to give the car a low, swooping roofline. An extremely stiff carbon fiber tube runs from the base of the A pillar to the side member of the C pillar at the back, allowing for far thinner pillars than would be possible with conventional construction. And that brings more benefits in turn. In addition to weighing 506lbs (230kg) less than it would were it made from metal, the Polestar’s weight is lower down in the car, which improves handling.

Underneath the clamshell hood, you’ll find another example of Volvo’s dependable four-cylinder gasoline engine. It’s both turbocharged and supercharged, like the Lancia Delta S4 rally car and like the current SPA-based Volvos. The engine provides 326hp (243kW) and 384lb-ft (520Nm) to the front wheels via an eight-speed Aisin automatic transmission. A crank-integrated starter generator can also drive the front wheels, alone or together with the internal combustion engine, and it adds another 71hp (52kW) and 119lb-ft (161Nm) to the party.

At the rear, each wheel gets its own 113hp (85kW), 177lb-ft (240Nm) electric motor matched to a 1:6 planetary gear set. Add all of that together and you get a total power output of 619hp (461kW) and 738lb-ft (1,000Nm) of torque—although as we’ll see on the road, it’s unlikely you’ll get all of that altogether at once.

There are two lithium-ion battery packs, one in a spine running down the middle of the car as per other SPA-based plug-in hybrids, and a second mounted transverse above the rear axle. The car uses LG Chem battery chemistry, and there’s a total of 34kWh to give the Polestar 1 a WLTP electric-only range of 112km (70 miles). Together with the 15.9 gallon (60L) fuel tank, that should give the Polestar 1 all the range it needs, although as ever, we should point out that Europe’s WLTP test is usually far more optimistic than the EPA’s rating, which is still in the works.

Charging takes “under an hour” to go from 0-80% state of charge when using a 50kW DC fast charger, and the car will also charge over AC at 11kW although we can’t tell you quite how long an empty-to-full AC charge will take. During our day behind the wheel, we averaged 37mpg.

If you’ve driven recent big Volvos, you’ll find the Polestar’s 2+2 interior recognizable, if a little more elegant than usual. Instead of rough-wood textured trims, there are slivers of naked carbon fiber, and the leather that trims most everything else is of a high quality. But the steering wheel, 12.3-inch main instrument display, and 9-inch infotainment screen look identical to the ones you’ve already seen from Sweden. If anything, the interior actually dates the car slightly, for I made the mistake of sitting in a static Polestar 2 that was on hand, which features a more modern UI atop its Android innards.

Things aren’t quite so swanky in the back seats. Polestar says the design emphasis was always on the front-seat occupants, and the company isn’t kidding. It says that you can put Isofix child seats back there with no problem; for passengers who have outgrown the need for child seats, you may want to take the bus.

At 5’7″ (1.7m), I could just about squeeze back there with the front seat in use. The bigger problem is headroom—there’s a (leather-wrapped) bar that runs the width of the glass roof, and it occupies the same space that even people of my height want for their foreheads.

Cargo space is also compromised, thanks to that second bank of lithium-ion cells. I’ve seen worse—try a Ferrari Portofino with the roof down, for example—and Polestar says that you can fit a golf bag in the 4.4 cubic-feet (125L) trunk. On the other hand, a cool plexiglass window in the trunk exposes some of the car’s high voltage cabling, which gives you an illustrative view while you decide whether or not you’re just going to put all your stuff on the back seats.

Within the first few miles it was clear that the Polestar 1, despite its flaws, is an extremely special car. From the driver’s seat, it feels very stiff and very light, which is all the more remarkable because the car tips the scale at 5,170lbs (2,345kg). The Polestar rides on adjustable Öhlins DFV dampers that give it a supple feel that lets it flow down the road, soaking up road imperfections. Mid-corner bumps are not a thing you fear in the Polestar 1.

In pure EV mode, the Polestar proves that 232hp is more than sufficient to move a car, even one that weighs this much. In hybrid mode, the car prioritizes electric power over gasoline, at least until the battery is empty. Even when that does happen, you don’t lose power to the rear wheels because the starter-generator will keep the internal combustion engine charging the batteries, albeit slowly.

If you drive around in D, you’ll coast when you lift the accelerator pedal. For drivers who prefer a one-pedal driving experience—in which the car uses regenerative braking when you lift the right pedal—put it in B instead. (Above a certain deceleration threshold, the car will switch to its friction brakes—giant 400mm rotors up front with six-piston calipers, all from F1 supplier Akebono.)

In Performance mode, the Polestar is a quick car—0-62mph (0-100km/h) takes 4.2 seconds—but it doesn’t feel 619hp-fast. More like 500ish, which is still more than enough. In tight corners, you can feel the rear electric motors doing their torque-vectoring thing. A 48:52 weight distribution and the almost inertia-free way it moves when you first make a steering input mean you can cover ground rapidly on twisty roads, although the Polestar won’t make your palms sweaty the way a Mazda Miata might. If you’re in a more relaxed mood—easy to do when sitting in the airy cabin enjoying the effortless urge of electric propulsion—you’ll be glad to know that wind noise at speed is relatively minimal.

If you’ve read all this and are asking yourself “what’s the point?” don’t feel bad. The Polestar 1 is an intriguing vehicle, but it’s definitely not for everyone. That’s something it has in common with its closest potential rival: BMW’s similarly left-field i8 plug-in hybrid. But the Polestar doesn’t need to be all things to all drivers—the factory in Chengdu, China, will only make 500 a year for the next three years, and even fewer of those will come to the United States.

The few hundred cars that will come to these shores will surely find buyers easily. These will be consumers who appreciate quirk alongside leading-edge engineering. These motorists will want to combine zero-emission commuting and daily driver practicality with razor-sharp GT styling and a chassis setup that is up there with the best of them. The rest of us will have to be content with a knowing grin or nod when we spot one in a museum collection, 20 years from now.

Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin