I used to be blown away by the Citroën 2CV Safari’s complexity. Answering a need for four-wheel drive in its African colonies, Citroën added another engine, transmission, and fuel tank to the lowly 2CV instead of just an extra drive shaft to the rear wheels. Now that I’ve driven the new 2020 Polestar 1—the plug-in hybrid sports grand tourer from Volvo‘s Tesla-fighting electric brand—that old 2CV Safari really seems quite quaint.
Given that we’re at peak internal combustion engine right now, the Polestar 1 represents peak complexity. Up front, under its carbon-fiber sheet … fiber … sits a 2.0-liter super- and turbocharged I-4 and an eight-speed automatic driving the front wheels, producing a healthy 326 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque. That superturbocharged setup alone would be incredibly complex to manage, as the Polestar’s computers must make the low-end-rich supercharger play nice with the high-rpm turbocharger while managing the engine itself and the transmission’s shift points.
But the Polestar 1 is far more complex than that.
Taking a page—albeit not intentionally—from the 2CV Safari, Polestar mounts an electric motor and a planetary gearset at each rear wheel, and it backs those up with two lithium-ion batteries, one wedged above the rear axle and behind the rear seats and the other in the central tunnel where a driveshaft would be. Total output for the two rear motors is 232 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, and the batteries pack 34 kW-hr of capacity.
Total system output for this fiendishly complex powertrain is 619 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque. Even better, the Polestar 1 will offer up an estimated 65 miles of electric range (final EPA results are still pending) and a claimed 540 miles of total range.
Complicating things further, there are four drive modes, plus battery charge and battery hold modes: Pure is all-electric; the default Hybrid mode uses electricity as much as possible; AWD turns the engine on to provide power to the front wheels; and Power turns the engine on and functions as a sport mode.
Now a stand-alone brand within the Geely-Volvo umbrella, the 1 is the Polestar brand’s first model, and a limited edition one at that. Polestar’s Chengdu factory, located in the heart of China’s auto manufacturing belt, will build just 1,500 cars over its planned three-year production run. About 130 are slated for the U.S.
The 2020 Polestar 1 is built using Volvo’s SPA architecture, which underpins Volvo’s S60/V60/XC60 and S90/V90/XC90 ranges. Breaking from Volvo, though, Polestar employed a mixed-materials strategy to increase performance and cut weight. The car’s platform is built largely of carbon-fiber-reinforced high-strength steel, while the body is built from carbon fiber. Polestar says this helped shave about 500 pounds out of the 1, resulting in a still-porky 5,100-pound curb weight. Helping manage that weight at all four corners are manually adjustable Öhlins shocks and big Akebono brakes at all four corners, plus Pirelli P Zero performance tires.
A performance car as heavy and complex as the 2020 Polestar 1 shouldn’t work, yet right in Tesla’s backyard—on the roads surrounding San Francisco and Silicon Valley—the Polestar 1 proves itself to be quite a compelling grand tourer.
A good GT should be quick, quiet, and comfortable. At least on two of those three measures, the Polestar 1 excels.
The Polestar’s complex powertrain is impressive; it’s amazing how smoothly the two motors and engine—not to mention their associated parts—work together. With a full battery in the default Hybrid mode, the Polestar’s twin motors have plenty of power between them to get the coupe moving quickly, the only sounds being a pleasing electric whine from the motors and a healthy amount of wind and tire noise. Dip the throttle all the way to the floor, and you’re greeted with a forceful shove from the rear end and the sudden guttural growl of the internal combustion engine up front.
The powertrain gets even better when you enter Power mode by reaching back by your elbow to press the inconveniently placed drive mode selector, flicking it to Power before pressing it again to confirm. (Like 99 percent of the rest of the Polestar’s interior, the drive mode controller is cribbed from Volvo.) With the engine always on and the transmission in its lowest possible gear, the whole powertrain is incredibly responsive. Every stab of the throttle is greeted by a strong surge of torque from the back end and the manic engine scrabbling at the pavement up front. Polestar says the 1 will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 155 mph.
The Polestar’s Akebono brakes remains progressive and responsive no matter the drive mode, without the awful pedal feel that’s plagued vehicles equipped with Volvo’s T8 plug-in hybrid system.
With a full battery, the Polestar 1 is efficient when driven aggressively; over 150 or so hard miles, our test car averaged an indicated 39 mpg.
Even though the Polestar 1 weighs more than a Lamborghini Urus, it’s surprisingly nimble on a good winding road. Part of the credit no doubt has to go to the 1’s rear motors—with one at either wheel, the two motors provide instant torque vectoring that some of the best conventional all-wheel-drive systems just can’t match.
The rest of the credit goes to the Öhlins suspension at all four corners. With the manually adjustable suspension in its default setting (“nine clicks up front, 10 in back,” says Polestar), ride quality and body control are remarkable. Harsh impacts are absorbed and dissipated without ever reaching the cabin’s occupants, while through bends the Polestar is sporty, poised, and confidence inspiring.
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement when it comes to the driving experience. Steering, though responsive, is both artificially heavy and vague; not much communication from the front two tires makes its way through to the steering wheel.
The Polestar 1’s Öhlins suspension is also a bit head scratching. Although yes, the default setup is wonderful, it’s designed to be manually adjustable. Up front, that’s incredibly easy: simply pop the hood and twist the knobs at either shock tower through their clicks. Want a stiffer suspension setup? Click clockwise to stiffen the shocks. Want a softer setup? Click counterclockwise. Want to adjust the rear suspension to match the front? You’d better bring along a jack. Frustratingly, the rear shock adjustment point is tucked so far up into the wheelwell that the only way to access it is to unload the rear suspension and reach up around wheel and tire and into the wheelhouse, pull the suspension’s dust cover down, and then click through the suspension’s travel. On a track car, this might seem reasonable, but I can’t imagine a single Polestar owner—let alone an owner of any GT car—going through the trouble.
And with that, we’ve stumbled on the Polestar’s biggest issue: its identity. With prices starting at $150,000 and topping out at $155,000 (the only option that Polestar charges for is matte paint, a $5,000 option), Polestar has priced the 1 to compete against some serious competition, including fellow plug-in hybrid GTs like the BMW i8, hybridized GTs like the Lexus LC 500h and Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door, and the Tesla Model S P100D. Although it certainly has exclusivity going for it, the Polestar’s lack of a distinct identity may very well play against it.
There’s no denying that the 1 is a beautifully designed coupe, but looking at its “Thor’s Hammer” headlights and its S90-inspired taillights, I suspect many will see a Volvo and not a Polestar. It’s the same story inside. As beautifully finished as the Polestar 1’s cabin is, up front it looks like little more than an S90 T8 with some extra carbon-fiber trim, a larger crystal shifter, and a glass roof. In back it differentiates itself with two child-sized rear seats, and a tiny 4.4-cubic-foot trunk, though the trunk notably features a neat Plexiglas cover for some of the battery pack’s exposed and artfully arranged wires.
Polestar has its work cut out for it in establishing a clear identity with its entry-level Polestar 2, a Tesla Model 3 rival, and the coming Polestar 3, a Model X fighter. As for the 1, most 1,500 Polestar 1 intenders will probably be able to look past the car’s identity crisis for its exclusivity. It may look like any other Volvo, but the Polestar 1 is worth considering in its own right. Few cars have the Polestar’s balance of efficiency, power, performance, and comfort, making it among the most compelling GTs on the road. More than that, the Polestar 1, like that Citroën 2CV Safari, will eventually go down as a historical oddity—both peak internal combustion engine and ground zero for the coming electric revolution, in one delightful-to-drive package.