2020 Polestar 1 Prototype First Drive: Swedish Speed
Simple name, complex premise. Underneath the Polestar 1’s elegantly understated sheetmetal is a plug-in hybrid powertrain consisting of a 2.0-liter internal combustion engine that is both supercharged and turbocharged, plus three motors—one at the crankshaft and one at each of the rear wheels—delivering a total system output of about 600 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque.
With DNA mined from Volvo, the Polestar 1 is designed to be a fast, continent-crushing gran turismo that can also waft up to 65 miles through congested city centers on smooth, silent, pure electric power.
The Polestar 1 is also designed to be the halo car for a whole new electric vehicle brand: This expensive limited edition plug-in hybrid will be followed by a range of mass-market pure-electric Polestar models, including a roomy hatch, a seven-seat SUV, and a sports car.
A smart strategy? Or wishful thinking? We’re about to find out, as MotorTrend becomes one of the first media organizations in the world to get behind the wheel of this intriguing new car.
Polestar started out a Volvo tuner brand, and the Polestar 1’s Volvo roots are obvious, from the proportions, lines, and surfacing of the exterior styling to the Volvo hardware in the interior—steering wheel, vents, switchgear, and infotainment interface. That’s no surprise, given much of the Polestar 1’s design and development team is headquartered in a small building on Volvo’s sprawling campus in Gothenburg, Sweden.
The real driving force behind Polestar, however, is Volvo’s parent company, Chinese automaker Geely. The Polestar 1 is being hand-built in a brand-new facility in Chengdu, China, that will eventually mass-produce thousands of Polestar electric vehicles. Just 1,500 Polestar 1s will be built over the next three years, with 130 coming to the U.S.—the first cars arriving in the first half of 2020. Price is $155,000, and no-cost options include a choice of three different wheel designs and chrome or black trim. There are also five standard colors—silver, black, white, gray, and dark blue—and each will be available in a matte finish at extra cost.
The Polestar 1 rolls on a shortened version of the Chinese-market Volvo S90L platform—12.6 inches have been chopped from the wheelbase, with another 7.9 inches lopped off the rear—and borrows the internal combustion piece of its powertrain from the T8 version of that car. Packaged into the platform are three battery packs with a total capacity of 34 kW-hr. Carbon-fiber bodywork helps trim more than 500 pounds from the body-in-white structure compared with a regular S90, but the battery packs put 754 pounds back into the completed car. The good news is the batteries are all located low and to the rear of the chassis, dropping the center of gravity and delivering a sporty 48/52 front/rear weight distribution.
The Polestar 1 waiting for us at Gothenburg’s Landvetter Airport is a validation prototype. It’s a hand-built car that’s pretty much visually correct, though not all the electronic systems are in a final state of tune, as evidenced by a couple of error messages on the digital instrument panel. A large red button in the center console will shut everything down if there’s a problem. “Don’t touch that,” says co-driver Roger Wallgren, who will ride with us from the airport to Volvo’s Hällered Proving Ground. Wallgren calls himself a “chassis specialist” when asked his role at Polestar. He then laughs. “We’re such a small team, you can choose your own job title for the day.”
Slide in behind the wheel—manual tilt and reach adjustment on this car—buckle up, and twist the knurled, oblong knob on the center console, just like in a regular Volvo. Look on the dash, and the Polestar 1 tells you it’s ready to roll. Squeeze the accelerator, and it oozes silently away.
There are five drive modes, accessed by the same roller (also knurled) and touchscreen setup used in Volvos. The default mode is Hybrid, which mixes and matches the power and torque delivery from the internal combustion engine and the motors to deliver the optimum balance between fuel efficiency and performance on demand. The transitions are virtually seamless, the motors handling most of the light throttle work, the internal combustion engine firing up promptly when you need rapid acceleration.
Brake pedal feel is excellent, with none of the exaggerated tip-in that blights some hybrids. The standard regen braking mode allows the Polestar 1 to coast down like an internal combustion engine vehicle with a regular automatic transmission when you lift off the throttle. A higher regen rate—enough to almost allow one-pedal driving if you’re paying attention—can be accessed by pulling the shifter on the center console rearward. Tug the shifter again, and the car switches back to normal regen mode.
In the EV mode (called Pure), the Polestar 1 will, subject to final EPA confirmation, travel up to 65 miles using only the rear motors. With 232 hp between them and instant torque at zero revs, the 5,180-pound coupe feels pleasantly brisk under electric power, carving through urban traffic as silently as a shark through sardines.
Power mode does exactly as it says, keeping the internal combustion engine running all the time and using the motors for torque fill and power boost, ensuring maximum performance. Constant AWD mode is designed for low-friction surfaces such as snow and ice; it dials back the torque from the motors and keeps the internal combustion engine running to drive the front wheels. Individual mode allows the driver to tailor powertrain characteristics, steering force, and braking; it also enables a switch to Eco climate control to lower energy consumption.
The drivers can also change the shock rate, but to do that you have to reach under the hood and up into the rear fenders. That’s because the Polestar 1 is fitted with Ohlins Road & Track shocks that are manually adjustable via a knurled knob atop each. Each knob rotates through 22 clicks. The standard setting is nine clicks front and 10 clicks rear (turning counterclockwise from the stiffest possible setting). For sportier handling, Polestar recommends two clicks up front and three clicks at the rear; the recommended comfort setting is 15 clicks front and 16 clicks rear.
The man who developed all this is Polestar’s jocular chief test engineer, Joakim Rydholm, who says he tried 80 settings for the front shocks and 116 for the rear before deciding on the optimal setup. Although the Polestar 1 boasts a state-of-the-art driveline, its baseline chassis setup was done the old-school way—through trial and error and seat-of-the-pants feel. Rydholm says he also went through three groups of springs, narrowing the stiffness range to the point where the final group of five went from softest to hardest in 0.5-N/mm steps. The front and rear rollbars were evaluated by comparing bar sizes in 0.5mm increments.
“We wanted to make sure the chassis was right before we added the driver aids, rather than use electronics to mask a chassis problem,” says Rydholm, who spent 18 months driving a rough and ready prototype before he was happy with the ride and handling. To prove the point, he took us for a run around one of the road courses at the Hällered Proving Ground in that very mule, which has no traction control, stability control, or torque vectoring. It felt remarkably stable and composed even over the midcorner lumps and bumps and blind crests Rydholm cheerfully attacked at triple-digit velocities.
Stable and composed: That’s exactly how the validation prototype Polestar 1 felt when hustled along the rain-slicked back roads near Hällered in Power mode. The ride quality is impressive; the body motions are tightly controlled over big heaves, and there’s negligible roll, dive, or squat through the turns. But the Polestar never feels harsh, with suspension impacts dulled as if the car were rolling on a layer of molasses. Steering is precise, and the integrity of the chassis means your hands stay calm through a turn, regardless of what is going on under the front wheels.
The active torque vectoring, achieved via the motors at the rear wheels, endows the Polestar 1 with incredible front-end grip from corner entry to mid-turn, and superb traction from the apex once you get back on the throttle. The Polestar 1 turns in with alacrity and punches hard out of corners, and it achieves all of this with remarkably little fuss. That doesn’t mean it’s boring to drive. Nothing with 600 hp and 783 lb-ft of torque ever is. What make the Polestar 1 special is that, even at prototype stage, it feels like a 600-hp, 783-lb-ft car that is effortlessly fast and impressively comfortable. In other words, it feels like a proper GT.
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