Automorbit, Cars – We’ve been promised an electric future, and slowly but surely, it’s starting to appear over the horizon. Manufacturers have been able to develop technologies to quell range anxiety, and work with power providers to create robust charging infrastructure. Government support, most visibly in the form of tax credits to consumers, has helped to lower the effective retail price gap between electric and gas vehicles. Demand is building.
As with all trends in the automotive industry, economics drive the direction of change. Developing and selling EVs has not yet turned into a profitable activity, even if Tesla stock prices give a different impression. Established car makers have been forced to get creative to try to leverage their existing assets to build a new electrified future, and find themselves in competition with startups (like Tesla), who can sometimes be decidedly nimble and focused on the task.
Volvo recognized the need to move to electrification early, and has committed to hybrid, plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. At the same time, they wanted to get the startup advantage – a clean slate, fresh identity, and certain tax benefits, and the Polestar brand was born.
Polestar was founded in 1996 as a race engineering company, and became the official Volvo tuning partner in 2009. Volvo bought Polestar in 2015, and there have been “Polestar Engineered” trim levels and packages since then. Polestar became a separate company again in October 2017, now owned jointly by Geely (Volvo’s parent company) and Volvo, with the mission of becoming a “pure performance electrified brand.” Polestar’s home office is in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the Polestar production center is in Chengdu, China. Polestar 1 was the company’s first vehicle, a halo car with a total run of 1,500 units over three years beginning in 2019. The 2021 Polestar 2 is now arriving in the United States with the target of selling 2,000 units this year and tens of thousands next year.
By splitting off from Volvo (on paper, at least), Polestar is able to reset the counter on the US Government’s Federal Electric Vehicle Tax Credit. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s FuelEconomy.gov, “All-electric and plug-in hybrid cars purchased new in or after 2010 may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500. The credit amount will vary based on the capacity of the battery used to power the vehicle. State and/or local incentives may also apply.” This tax credit lasts until a manufacturer has sold 200,000 qualifying vehicles, and then quickly sunsets and expires in the subsequent four quarters. Volvo has been eating into its 200,000 credits with its plug-in hybrids. With a fresh start and its own VIN run, Polestar will get a running start at Federal and state credits, where available, giving it an advantage over the obvious target, Tesla.
None of this matters unless the Polestar 2 is any good.
Like almost all of the current crop of EVs on the market, Polestar 2 is still a legacy vehicle. However modern and advanced its technology may be, it still looks, feels and operates like a car, and fits into the traditional mold. On those terms, the exterior is nicely designed, with an aerodynamic look that still manages to retain a tall roofline. Six exterior finishes are available for the exterior – I hesitate to call them colors, because to my eye, they’re almost greyscale with the exception of one slightly blue choice. It’s a Scandinavian winter palette, for sure. Inside, the look is clean, crisp and uncluttered. The center stack is occupied by a free-floating 11.5-inch touchscreen display in portrait orientation, and the center console houses just a brief row of buttons ahead of a helmet-shaped gear selector. The instrument panel is digital, too, with a 12.3-inch driver display with three display modes (Calm, Car-Centric, and Navigation).
Materials within the cabin are designed to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, and have a high-quality look and feel. A vegan interior is standard. The WeaveTech upholstery feels more like a high-tech winter garment than vinyl or traditional cloth, and looks great. Chrome-free ventilated Nappa leather upholstery is available, too.
Polestar has included some innovations into the cabin. Most interesting, there’s a sensor built into the driver’s seat to detect when an operator is in position and ready to drive. If the key’s in the cabin, and a driver is in the seat, the car’s ready to go. Just depress the brake, select a gear, release the brake and press the throttle pedal. No “start/stop” button, no ignition key to turn. When you’re done driving, select “P,” get out of the car and walk away, and the car shuts down. Later in the model year, Polestar promises to offer a digital key, in essence an app on your smartphone, to replace the physical key fob, so you won’t have to carry a key at all.
When you look around the cabin, the Harmon Kardon speakers are not visible at all. They’re integrated into the door panels and elsewhere behind cloth coverings that are acoustically transparent, so you can hear them but not see them.
Polestar 2 is the first production vehicle to feature Android Automotive OS, an infotainment platform that integrates the functionality of Google Assistant into the automotive environment. In addition to the interactivity that has become the norm for infotainment, the new OS allows new actions. Activate the Assistant with a steering wheel button, or by saying “Hey, Google,” and you can change vehicle HVAC settings, access Google Maps Navigation, play music, read messages from your smartphone, or even operate your Google Home appliances and devices – and it all works wirelessly, without the need for a USB connection to your Android or iOS device.
Like any vehicle, it’s really all about the drive, isn’t it?
Polestar brought a handful of late pre-production examples to the Detroit area for test drives by a group of journalists. Following an appropriately socially distanced product and marketing presentation, we were set loose, each in our individually sanitized Polestar 2, on the public roads near Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. I drove a 95-mile loop from Ypsilanti to Hell, Michigan and back, taking a variety of 70-mph highway, 50-mph country roads to 25-mph lanes, and putting the fastback through its paces.
Polestar 2 has two electric motors (408 hp and 487 lb-ft of torque for the system), one front and one rear, delivering all-wheel drive with a rear-wheel drive bias and electronic torque vectoring. That means the system directs torque to the outside wheel during a cornering maneuver, which improves turn-in and control. Takeoff from a stand-still is brisk – Polestar reports a 0-60 mph time of 4.5 seconds. And the torque just keeps coming on, which makes passing a breeze. I did notice a little bit of lightness in the steering and handling during heavy acceleration, almost a go-kart feel that was a little unsettling. But for the most part, the Polestar 2 was smooth and comfortable on highway runs, tight enough to be fun on the curvy roads, and predictable in all situations. My test car was set up for one-pedal driving, which is a neat way to drive an EV in traffic. Basically, regenerative braking is set to the maximum, which means that when you ease off the throttle pedal, the car automatically decelerates, all the way down to a full stop if you let it. You can modulate the car’s speed with one pedal in most situations, going to the brake only when necessary for a quicker stop. This can be a less taxing way to drive in moderate to heavy traffic, and Polestar 2 does it well.
Befitting a new, fully modern car, Polestar 2 is loaded with the latest technology, like inductive charging, USB-C charging ports, OTA (over-the-air) software updates, personalized lighting, and more. Charging the Polestar 2’s 78-kWh battery pack is achieved with the included 11-kW onboard charger via a standard 120- or 240-volt outlet (up to 22 hours for Level 1; up to 8 hours for Level 2). Commercial charging stations of up to 150 kW DC are compatible for DC Fast Charging. Range (WLTP) is estimated at 291 miles. EPA estimates are pending.
Volvo has built a vaunted reputation for safety, and Polestar will piggyback on that, offering the same PilotAssist system and driver assistance technologies.
Pricing for the Launch Edition of the 2021 Polestar 2 will be $59,900 plus $1,300 Destination Fee. The Performance Pack of options will run $5,000, including Ohlins dampers, optimized Brembo front brakes, 20-inch wheels, gold valve caps, gold seat belts and a high gloss black roof. Nappa Leather interior is $4,000. Twenty-inch wheels are $1,200. Paint (other than Void/Black) is $1,200. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in September 2020.
The competition that matters is Tesla. Polestar 2 is priced at the heart of the Tesla lineup, between the Model Y’s starting price of $45,690 and Model S’s $69,490.
As a new brand, Polestar has a steep hill to climb. The connection with Volvo is a good one in many ways, but undermines the image of Polestar as a scrappy startup. Will the affluent young buyers and early adopters who have flocked to Tesla have their heads turned by the 2021 Polestar 2? It’s possible a second wave of more cautious and discerning buyers will find their North Star in Sweden’s newest electric vehicle.