Let’s get the obvious point out of the way. Thomas Ingenlath, Polestar CEO and former head designer at Volkswagen, bears an uncanny resemblance to Hollywood star Tom Cruise.
Separated at birth seems a more accurate description as you watch the Polestar boss in a stylish off-white pea coat walk and talk his way round the new battery-electric Polestar 2 family car (he wore a yellow silk bomber jacket for the launch of the Polestar 1 performance model).
Any moment now, you think, a gang of black-clad baddies will emerge from a helicopter gunship and Cruise/Ingenlath will vault over the bonnet and engage in a bit of martial arts.
What did he say during his presentation? I don’t remember much of it, but there was a lot about the cool Swedish design of this stylish new car (in fact it was first designed as a Volvo concept car), but not so much about the Chinese money that’s backing the venture. This comes from Geely, which also owns Volvo, Lotus, Proton, taxi maker The London EV Company, commercial vehicle builder Yuan Cheng Automotive, Qianjiang Motorcycles, Joma, and tyro battery-SUV maker Lynk & Co.
Polestar is one of those made-up car marques designed to take it to Tesla and the like, in the process confusing the market at a time of great change. It’s classic economic activity to create barriers to entry to a market for newcomers. You might also observe it is China’s way of leveraging its low labour and land costs, and its technical lead in battery chemistry and production to gain a stranglehold on car-making – you might then choose to reflect on quite how Europe’s car makers and governments have allowed this situation to develop.
Suffice to say, it’s 5,083 miles as the crow flies between Polestar’s headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden and Geely’s in Hangzhou Zhejiang province, but the links between the companies are a lot closer. For the moment this car is built in Luqiao, China…
Breaking the mould?
It’s a cracking-looking thing. The blacked-out windscreen pillars emphasise the cantilever roof, a strip of rear lights curls around the back like Hercule Poirot’s moustache and the profile is terrific; more battery hot rod than executive hatchback; and besides, who doesn’t love a pulled-out wheelarch?
Bum notes include the slightly askew proportions with a 4.6-metre long body sitting on a too-short 2.7-metre wheelbase, with ungainly body overhangs. The truly awful grille looks like a cheap camping-mat left in the mud at Glastonbury.
Under the all-steel body, this isn’t quite the architecture we have become used to, where you essentially build the car on top of a slab of batteries. Volvo’s Compact Modular Architecture platform, on which this car is based, is also designed to accommodate a rear-drive combustion engine and so has a big transmission tunnel running down the centre.
Add in McPherson-strut front and multi-link independent rear suspension and, blimey, you could be sitting in a BMW 3-series. And it’s none the worse for that, because by tucking some of the battery cells into the central tunnel the driver can sit lower, which feels more familiar and sporting than the driving position in rivals.
What’s it like inside?
And while the drama of the bodywork is exciting and different, the interior is fairly conventional, including the full-width dash and 11-inch Volvo-style portrait touchscreen in the centre.
We’re all supposed to get jolly excited by the Google Android-powered software and it works as well as an up-to-the-minute smartphone with a decent 4G signal, with very good voice recognition, although I’m still not convinced that talking to your car is a substitute for having a life. While the screen and other hardware appears to be based on Volvo’s, the graphics are sharper and control software more intuitive.
Clearly it welcomes your Android device like the prodigal son, but Apple iPhones are shut out until later this year. There are also tiny USB C sockets rather than the more familiar larger ones as well as an inductive phone charging pad. There were software issues with the cars we drove which apparently have been solved for the first customer cars, but we’ll come back to this when we get a longer drive in a production car.
Accommodation is generous but cosseting. The front seats anchor you behind the wheel and the driving position is electrically adjustable and good for most body types. There’s generous storage space, too, with good door pockets and a weird but commodious centre console. The ventilator outlets are nice, but not as nice as the old Saab items they appear to be modelled on.
In the rear, the bench will seat a couple of adults with head and leg room to spare along with a child straddling the transmission tunnel, although the big glass sunroof restricts headroom if you put your skull back on to the headrest.
First impressions are that it lacks the sheer theatre of the Tesla Model 3 with its single centre touchscreen, but it’s a darn sight easier to use and safer, too, as with an instrument binnacle for speed, range and directions the driver isn’t spending so much time with his eyes diverted from the road.
Unless you delve into the surprisingly small options list, it’s also unremittingly black and slate grey; as mournful as the Swedish national character.
The bonnet hides a 35-litre circular compartment for cables and other grubby bits, with Ingenlath a stickler for keeping the 405-litre rear boot clear; the tailgate is large with a low lip for ease of dragging in a weekly shop. The Tesla Model 3 has a boot volume of 425 litres.
And the drivetrain?
Two AC synchronous electric motors drive each pair of wheels and provide a combined 408bhp at 4,350rpm and 487lb ft of torque which peaks at the same revs. The 500kg, 78kWh LG Chem-supplied, lithium-ion battery is located under the car and in the transmission tunnel and in the interests of longevity the system uses only 75kWh of it.
At 2,123kg, it’s more than a quarter of a tonne heavier than the equivalent Tesla Model 3, which Polestar puts down to the increased crash safety and stiffness in the bodyshell.
Most of the test cars came with the £5,000 Performance Pack, which consists of 20-inch diameter alloy wheels and 245/40 Continental tyres, four-piston Brembo front disc brakes in anodised yellow (along with the valve caps and seatbelts), lowered steel springs and Öhlins Dual Flow Valve manually adjustable dampers.
Range and recharging
The quoted WLTP tested range is 292 miles although our drive indicated that it wouldn’t be too difficult to get that below 200 miles.
The Polestar 2 comes with a 11kW capacity AC onboard charger and a DC charge capability of up to 150kW. Charging times are quoted as 40 minutes for an 80 per cent fill on a DC charger, though it will take much longer than that on a home wall box, where most folk will plug in.
On the road: Performance Pack
While there is a conventional key, there’s also a facility to use your phone as a key, so you just walk up to the car, open it with a conventional handle and climb in. There’s no on button, the car is prepared from the off, so you select drive with your foot on the brake and go.
You can set up the chassis a little through the centre screen, with selectable creep in the driveline, a three-position steering weight and a selectable one-pedal operation in which easing or lifting the throttle activates the regenerative braking function to send current to the batteries.
For those not used to it, the heady rush when you floor the throttle of one of these super electric saloons is intoxicating, not to mention nauseous for passengers. You won’t be doing it too often as it drains the battery quickly and can overheat some systems, but it makes overtaking a cinch and there’s a big requirement for responsibility behind the wheel. The Polestar 2’s throttle software is well wrought however and you really have to mash the pedal to get the full 402bhp.
Dynamically the Performance Pack cars are set firm, which is OK and suits the car, but the Öhlins dampers in their middle settings have a fiercely rising damping rate, which leaves your innards jiggling, and a discombobulated feeling over broken road surfaces. It ‘heaves’ over long bumps and gets annoying on long motorway journeys.
Past experience with Öhlins units on four and two wheels suggests this is a common and desired trait, but you fervently want to slacken off the damping. That requires you to jack up the car and grovel underneath to make manual adjustments – dashboard-mounted adjustable damping was available 50 years ago, so when will Öhlins catch up?
Driven hard the units work well, restricting initial roll into corners and complimenting the tyres. The steering is direct and progressive off the centre position, but there’s no feedback to speak of.
In all the Polestar 2 feels more positive and intuitive than a Tesla Model 3, although both cars corner with a numb grippiness that leaves you driving on trust rather than knowledge of what’s going on and forcing the tyres to work really hard.
On the road: standard car
A colleague’s generosity allowed me a quick whizz up the road in the standard-damped car, which is altogether more compliant and comfortable, but the additional body movement inhibits cornering speed and also gives the tyres even more to do, which you hear and feel.
While Polestar boasts about its online sales operation, you really do need to drive this car to see whether it suits you before signing on the dotted line.
The safety software appears to be exemplary, although not as intrusive as Volvo’s. At one point I took off over a bump and while the reaction of the car’s systems was akin to a strip-o-gram at an Edwardian ladies’ tea party, we did maintain progress, whereas a Volvo would have stopped and given you a schoolma’am lecture, complete with admonishing wagging finger.
What will it cost you?
The basic price of £49,900 is without the current Government £3,000 Plug-In Car Grant (PICG), so the standard car costs £46,900. Options include the £5,000 performance pack with adjustable Öhlins dampers, or £900 for 20-inch wheels on their own, plus some paint and trim options.
The car’s efficiency rating is 3.89 miles per kWh, which isn’t particularly fantastic, and using the latest electricity power generation figures for the UK, its well-to-wheels CO2 contribution without transmission losses is 37.2g/km.
As we keep saying (though few appear to be listening), battery-electric motoring is no environmental free lunch.
Tesla always wanted to produce the Model 3 even before Elon Musk elbowed his way in and, so far, the traditional motor industry has given that best-selling car a free run. Now it has a competitor; more conventional but better looking and backed with Chinese cash rather than a Californian squillionaire’s.
I rather liked the Polestar 2, though many of the obstacles of electric motoring remain including a decent and affordable network of fast chargers.
“I’m impatient and annoyed that we are still struggling with basics like this,” said Ingenlath at the launch, “access to electricity should be open to all, there needs to be a universal system.”
Mission impossible? Perhaps, but maybe this mercurial boss could call on the services of his alter ego…
TESTED five-door executive car, with twin 150kW AC synchronous permanent-magnet electric motors with 400-volt, 78kWh gross (75kWh net) lithium-ion LG Chem battery comprising 324 pouch cells in 27 modules mounted under the floor and in transmission tunnel. Four-wheel drive.
PRICE/ON SALE £49,900 (before PiCG), £54,900 as tested with £5,000 Performance Pack/now. Lease deals from £564 a month for 3 years and 10,000 miles a year with a £3,384 deposit
POWER/TORQUE 408hp (2 x 150kW) @ 4,350rpm and 487lb ft (2 x 330Nm) from 0-4350rpm
TOP SPEED 127mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 4.7sec
RANGE 292 miles WLTP (high)
EFFICIENCY 3.89 miles per kWh
CO2 EMISSIONS zero at tailpipe, well-to-wheels 37.2g/km
VERDICT When the history of the battery-electric performance car is written, Polestar will be seen as coming in second place to Tesla – but that’s often a good place to be in automotive terms. The market is small but growing fast and this likeable car could catch the wave thanks to a more familiar layout for those who have struggled with Tesla’s unashamed disruptive design (and so-so reliability). Roadside charging, however, is still an issue in a disorderly market and there are few signs that will be changing soon.
TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five
Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus, £46,990
The dual-motor, all-wheel-drive version of the Model 3 has a quoted WLTP range of 348 miles, a top speed of 145mph with 0-60mph in 4.4sec. Excuse the pun but Tesla polarises opinion like no other. The design is either clean or featureless depending on your standpoint. We have found test models to have ill-fitting panels, although the high-current Supercharger network (you have to pay per use with a Model 3) is a pretty big bonus given the state of roadside charging in the UK.
Audi eTron Sportback, about £79,900
Based on Audi’s curiously bloodless eTron and built in Belgium, the Sportback was intended to introduce a bit of vim to the eTron range as well as reducing the SUV bulk, at least to the eye. The technology is faultless including the virtual door mirrors and the performance from its 402bhp/490lb ft, 95kWh battery, two-motor drivetrain is terrific on paper. Unfortunately, however, Audi, while keeping its German press garage open all lockdown, has not sought to bring any examples to the UK. So you’ll have to wait for our impressions.
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