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Polestar 1 first drive review: Grand touring with a compromise

With electrification sweeping across the industry, the battle to establish a foothold in sustainable mobility is fiercer than ever. The arena is already littered with the remains of ambitious, well-funded young companies that promised to “disrupt” the automotive landscape, and later learned the hard way that it’s an extraordinarily complex and costly endeavor to undertake.

As we sat in a converted shipping container behind Volta Charging in San Francisco waiting for Polestar’s technical briefing to begin, that distinctive brand of hip upstart pageantry was hard to ignore, the trappings of which inherently invite some level of skepticism. But while this two-year-old company is here to debut their first model, their story actually goes back much further. “There are a lot of startups out there trying to establish new electric car companies,” Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath noted. “But we see ourselves in a very special position to innovate here.”

2020 Polestar 1 side
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It might be easy to dismiss that as mere boilerplate, but Polestar is indeed an outlier within this new breed of electro-centric automakers. The company’s origins actually date back to 1996, when Volvo began funding the efforts of the Flash Engineering racing team in the Swedish Touring Car Championship.

In 2005, Flash Engineering was sold to former touring car racer Christian Dahl, who renamed the team Polestar Racing. By then it was ostensibly Volvo’s factory effort – the team had already campaigned OEM-backed racing versions of production cars like the C30 and S60 to several championship titles, and it wasn’t long before Volvo decided to further integrate Polestar into their operations. Accordingly, they established a new Polestar division within the brand to create performance-tuned versions of their road cars, much in the way that Mercedes Benz had with AMG in the 1970s.

2020 Polestar 1 rear
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Then, in 2017, word came that Polestar would set out to develop its own lineup of performance vehicles, and they weren’t exactly shy about their intention to take direct aim at companies like Tesla. And to that end, the first shot across the bow is this, the Polestar 1. But rather than a mainstream, all-electric family sedan to rival the Model 3 (that will be the Polestar 2, due next year), the Polestar 1 is a showcase of hybridized, high-speed grand touring technology, a $156,500 carbon fiber-bodied coupe which employs no less than three different methods of propulsion to generate its combined output of 619 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque.

Slated for a limited production run of 500 cars per year over the next three years, with only one choice on the options sheet – the paint color – the Polestar 1 isn’t so much a BMW M8 rival as it is a statement of purpose for Polestar. But is it any good to drive? We hopped behind the wheel and headed south from the city, toward the winding rural roads west of San Mateo, to find out.

Inside And Out

Visually inspired by the Volvo Concept Coupe, which originally debuted at the 2013 Frankfurt Auto Show, the Polestar 1 rides on Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture platform. Additional chassis reinforcement provided by a carbon fiber cross-member that’s said to enhance structural rigidity by 60%, while the body is made entirely from carbon fiber reinforced polymer to keep the weight down and the center of gravity as low as possible.

From any angle it’s a looker – perhaps even more appealing to the eye than the concept on which it’s based. There’s a purposefulness to its hunkered-down stance, but it’s the core design which really grabs your attention. Uncluttered and handsomely proportioned, the Polestar 1’s understated vibe is a refreshing change of pace from the scoops and wings that typically vie for one’s attention in high-buck performance coupes.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

That theme continues into the Polestar 1’s interior, but it’s notably much less of a departure from the parent company’s parts bin than the exterior is. The seats, dash, switchgear, steering wheel, the 9.3-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment system, and other bits and pieces will likely seem familiar to anyone who’s been in a late model Volvo, but bespoke elements like the carbon fiber accents and the handmade crystal gear selector do bring some sense of occasion to the proceedings.

If the interior’s a bit underwhelming, the mechanicals certainly make up for it. Powering the Polestar 1 is a trifecta of propulsion methods that starts with a two-liter, four cylinder gasoline engine that’s both supercharged and turbocharged, which sends 326 hp and 384 lb-ft exclusively to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

At the back of the car there’s a pair of 85 kW motors which generate 232 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque for the rear wheels, and a 52 kilowatt integrated starter generator functions as both a starter for the internal combustion engine and a third source of thrust when that two-liter mill is active, yielding an additional 71 ponies and 119 lb-ft. Outfitted with a pair of battery packs that are good for 34kWh, the Polestar 1 is capable of up to 78 miles of all-electric driving on a charge.

In terms of chassis hardware, Polestar tapped famed motorsport supplier Öhlins to outfit the coupe with manually adjustable dampers at all four corners. Stopping power is provided by six-piston Akebono calipers and 15.7-inch rotors at the front, while four-piston units are paired up with 15.4-inch discs at the rear. All Polestar 1 models roll on 21-inch alloys wrapped in Pirelli P Zero rubber.

Behind The Wheel

Heading toward San Mateo by way of San Francisco’s Design District gave us a chance to see how the Polestar 1 handles city driving. Four drive modes are available – All-Wheel Drive, Pure (EV operation only), Hybrid, and Power. Hybrid is the default mode, and since we left Volta with a full charge it meant that the car stuck to electric motivation throughout most of the city. While that was agreeable enough, the stiff suspension tuning brought attention to itself almost immediately. Ingenlath told us that the company’s decision to use manually adjustable Öhlins coilovers was due to their “commitment to a classic piece of mechanical engineering.”

2020 Polestar 1 cockpit
Image used with permission by copyright holder

That’s certainly admirable, and Öhlins has indeed supplied suspension components for countless championship-winning race cars over the years, but the fact of the matter is that road car technology has moved on. The only way to adjust the compliance of these dampers is to physically wrench on them from the shock towers, rather than just pressing a button on console or clicking over to another drive mode setting, as you would in most modern luxury vehicles, and that’s a bit irksome when you consider the price tag of the Polestar 1.

That setup started to make more sense once we got out to Route 35, though. Tipping the scales at nearly 5200 pounds, the Polestar 1 is certainly no featherweight, but those dampers kept the heft in check as we barreled down the twisting tarmac of Skyline Boulevard. Working in tandem with the planetary gear sets equipped to each electric motor, which enable true mechanical torque vectoring, the Polestar 1 hides its weight surprisingly well through the corners.

2020 Polestar 1 wheel
Image used with permission by copyright holder

But lively, sustained hustle does tend to give the brakes quite a bit of a workout, due not only to the weight they’re tasked with reigning in, but also the pace at which the Polestar 1 can pile on speed. In the Power driving mode all three methods of thrust work in concert, and while the buzz that four cylinder engine under the hood makes isn’t exactly the stuff that dreams are made of, the straight-line performance on tap is definitely enough to get your blood pumping.

Our Take

On the whole, the Polestar 1 is a interesting new spin on the grand touring formula. While some of Polestar’s methods of parting with convention aren’t wholly successful, the brilliant design and cutting-edge approach to a modern-day performance coupe shows a lot of promise for what’s in store from the brand.

Traditional enthusiasts may have a harder time warming up to the Polestar 1, though. Once the novelty of the Polestar’s powertrain wears off, the fact that cars like the aforementioned M8 aren’t as compromised – not only in terms of outright performance capability, but daily livability as well – may end up limiting this hybrid coupe’s appeal.

That said, for folks who have an interest in sustainable motoring and refuse to forfeit a thrilling driving experience to get it, the Polestar 1 is one of very few ways to have your cake and eat it too.

How DT would configure this car

Polestar plans to build 500 examples of the Polestar 1 per year over the next three years, and aside from paint color, all will be identically configured. We’ll take ours in Matte Black, please.

Should you get one?

Yes. Though not without its rough edges, the Polestar 1 is both a strong opening volley for the brand, and a glimpse into the future of sustainable high performance.

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Bradley Iger
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