Taking on Tesla is a tough proposition, but this isn’t just some random startup
Update: After its premiere on October 17, 2017, the Polestar 1 made its public debut at the 2018 Geneva auto show.
SHANGHAI, CHINA — Born from the nexus of Volvo Cars’ engineering prowess and Zhejian Geely Holding Group chairman Li Shufu’s tremendous vision (and bank account), the Polestar brand is the Geely-Volvo group’s attempt to break its in-house performance brand out into a standalone one that’s about more than just go-fast Swedish metal.
Taking the Tesla empire head-on might seem bold, especially since the Polestar 1, the brand’s debut car, isn’t an electric car at all, but a high-performance plug-in hybrid grand tourer with up to 93 miles of range in all-electric mode. But that’s exactly what Polestar plans to do, with two more cars in the pipeline designed explicitly to take on the Model 3 and the as-yet-unannounced Model Y.
With an unusual front combustion/rear electric split, the Polestar 1 generates a combined total of 600 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque, roughly on par with Mercedes-AMG’s stout twin-turbo V-12. But instead of a single giant lump of metal powering the Polestar 1, the performance coupe uses a Volvo Drive-E four-cylinder engine to drive the front wheels, and a pair of electric motors combined through a planetary gear set to drive the rear wheels.
In addition to the 93 miles of all-electric range in its “Pure” all-electric mode, the Polestar 1 generates 218 hp when running on electrons alone. But it’s not all about the powertrain when it comes to Polestar performance.
The Polestar 1 is the first Geely-Volvo group product to use a carbon fiber structure, with the material being used for the “major body parts.” The result? Weight savings of 506 lb versus conventional materials, a 45-percent increase in torsional rigidity, and a lower center of gravity. Thanks to the carbon fiber and the dual powertrain setup, the Polestar 1 is said to offer a decidedly performance-oriented 48/52 front/rear weight balance, though its exact weight, like its engine specs, remains under wraps.
Beneath the Polestar 1’s carbon fiber body sits Volvo’s Scalable Product Architecture, which also forms the basis for the S90 and XC90. Despite the SPA-based construction, the car’s unique requirements mean about 50 percent of components are new and unique to the Polestar brand. Compared to the S90, the Polestar 1 is also very different dimensionally: It’s 25.5 inches shorter, including 12.6 in removed from the wheelbase and another 7.9 in taken out of the rear overhang for sportier proportions.
Another first for the group is the Polestar 1’s use of its twin electric motors for true torque vectoring: separating and sending power to each rear wheel to better drive the car through the corner.
Not a first is the use of Öhlins dampers in the suspension—that’s something Polestar has been doing for years—but the Polestar 1 is the first car in the world to use Öhlins’ Continuously Controlled Electronic Suspension (CESi). This system uses an electronically controlled valve to monitor road and driver inputs, acting within 2 milliseconds to adjust damping for optimal behavior. The CESi system also allows for driver-selected modes, though Polestar hasn’t yet revealed which modes might be offered, or how they’ll modify ride and handling characteristics.
With 600 hp and gargantuan torque, the Polestar 1 will need equally potent brakes to suffer more than the occasional panic stop. Fortunately, it’s fitted with Akebono six-piston calipers and 15.7-inch discs.
If this sounds like exactly your cup of Swedish-tinged, Chinese-made tea, there are some bad news: you’ll have to wait. The Polestar 1 doesn’t start production until mid-2019, and even then, it won’t be for sale—all Polestar vehicles will be placed in consumer hands on a subscription basis. Worse, only 500 will be released per year, so you may have to wait even longer.
So what about the two Polestars to come? Polestar 2 will reach production in late 2019, and will be the group’s first battery electric car. The design brief? A mid-sized car that will “join the competition around the Tesla Model 3.” Polestar 3 will be a larger electric crossover, and will follow sometime after the Polestar 2. Polestar says the 3 will slot in between the 1 and the 2 in terms of pricing and production volume.
Hey wait, what about that subscription plan? What does that mean? It means a single, flat monthly payment, with no deposit, that covers all costs of owning the car, from depreciation to insurance to maintenance, for a period of either two or three years. The maintenance portion of the plan even includes pickup and delivery at the customer’s convenience. An undisclosed number of car rental days and a range of concierge services will also be included in the subscription plan.
Polestar also plans to offer on-demand use of vehicle accessories, such as a roof box or rack for a ski holiday. Once scheduled through an app, Polestar will bring the accessory, install it on the car, and, when the customer is finished with it, remove it and take it back. An additional charge on top of the monthly subscription is required for on-demand accessory use. Once the subscription plan has run its term, the user can simply return the car to Polestar, or have a new one delivered in its place; their previous Polestar will be refurbished and offered for subscription as a pre-owned vehicle.
In fact, Polestar plans to offer a completely store-free experience— a model that may face even more challenge in the U.S. than Tesla’s. From end to end, the entire Polestar process is digital—or at least it can be. A customer need never leave the house, let alone set foot in a Polestar dealership, to test drive, subscribe, and get exactly the car they want delivered to their door. Instead, there will be Polestar stores—called “spaces” in Polestarese—where customers can access expert staff for assistance in demonstration or explanation of any features, as well as assisting in the subscription process. Polestar Spaces will be kept separate from Volvo showrooms, with the opening of the first Space planned for the first quarter of 2019.
With Tesla already working to ramp up Model 3 production and excellent cars like the Chevrolet Bolt already on the road from mainstream, high-volume manufacturers, a mid-2019 entry with a low-volume, high-performance halo hybrid might seem a year (or five) late. In truth, it is, but at the same time, Polestar is angling to place itself out in front of the new pack: Electric-first, high-performance, and thoroughly modern, not just in product terms, but in terms of the whole brand experience. The cars and their marriage of earth-friendliness and performance are attractive, but it’s the business model that will make or break Polestar.
Is the world ready for a subscription-based, on-demand, electric-powersliding future? Maybe not, but I sure am.