If just a decade ago you had attended a meeting at Volvo and announced a plan to sell the company to Chinese firm Geely, then spin off the Polestar performance division as an electric car company that starts with a 600-horsepower, carbon-bodied, £140,000 ($155,000) hybrid, you would surely have ruffled some turtleneck jumpers. Thin-rimmed spectacles would be adjusted in horror by the board members of safe, sensible Volvo.
And yet that’s exactly what happened, and Polestar’s first car is just as described. Aptly named the Polestar 1 (the Swedish sensibilities live on in the naming department at least), it is a hybrid with a petrol engine up front, batteries in the middle, and two electric motors at the back. It’s a fiendishly complex car, as the two-litre, four-cylinder engine under that huge bonnet is both turbocharged and supercharged to produce 308 horsepower.
This is aided by an electric motor on the crankshaft delivering an extra 68 horsepower to the front wheels, helping to torque-fill between gear changes and acting as a starter motor. Then there is the battery pack, which feeds 232 horsepower to a pair of electric motors on the rear axle.
Because the Polestar 1 is based on a shortened version of the Volvo S90’s platform, the battery doesn’t sit as low as it would in a purpose-built hybrid or electric vehicle. Instead it runs along the spine of the car through the transmission tunnel, then extends widthways into a T shape, robbing some rear trunk space.
This means you might well struggle with the golf clubs, but at least a glass panel has been installed in the back of the trunk to show off a series of thick orange power cables. It may not look it on the outside, but the Polestar 1 is proud of its hybrid underpinnings.
And so it should be. Like any other plug-in hybrid, the 1 can drive in pure electric mode or a mixture of petrol and electricity either to recharge the battery, eke out extra range, or be as fast as it can. Where most plug-in hybrids struggle to get you across town before depleting their tiny batteries, the Polestar 1 can manage 60 or even 70 miles on electricity alone. So if you plug it in at night, or at the office during the day, most owners could commute all week without once using the engine.
The Polestar 1’s battery is so large, it is slightly bigger than that of some purely electric cars, like the Mini Electric.
All that complexity results in huge amounts of power being delivered to all four wheels. Some 609 horsepower and a whalloping 1,000 newton meters of torque – the latter being just 50 shy of the McLaren P1 hypercar. But the Polestar doesn’t quite launch itself off the line like those numbers suggest, because another large figure is its weight of 2,350kg, or a passenger more than a Range Rover Sport.
A 0-62mph time of 4.2 seconds is still adequate, of course, and once it’s rolling the in-gear acceleration is extraordinary, pushing you into the seat and keeping you there with a surge of torque until there’s a discreet cough from your driving licence. Reach a corner and the Polestar 1’s track-bred Öhlins dampers do an incredible job of hiding the mass. There’s some roll, but not because the car has run out of ideas mid-corner; instead it communicates clearly what’s going on, while giving the driver confidence to enjoy all of that performance.
The dampers really are extraordinary. When included with the Performance Pack option of the Polestar 2 (read my review here) they feel like overkill and are too firm for everyday driving. But in the 1, a carbon-clad, sporting GT, they make much more sense. The compliance is superb, as the car remains taught and precise over bumps.
Even plodding through London and climbing over speedbumps, the Polestar 1’s ride has an aura of unimpeachable capability about it; it feels reassuringly expensive without being uncomfortably firm. The dampers can be manually adjusted if you so wish, to one of 22 settings at each corner, but I was happy with the default setting.
The steering has a nice weight to it but is largely numb, and while the soundtrack is certainly interesting when given a boot-full – thanks largely to the carbon fiber airbox – the Polestar 1 mostly stays quiet.
This is a car of two personalities. There’s the silent, smooth, environmentally friendly hybrid running purely on electricity. Then there is the 600-horsepower performance GT, happy to cruise at whatever speed you like while being equally capable when the roads tighten. It even has a pair of small seats for children in the back and the trunk, while rather small, is enough for a week of shopping or a couple of carry-on suitcases (remember those?).
Then when you reach your destination, you can enjoy looking at it. To my eyes, this is without doubt the most handsome car of 2020. It is assertive without being aggressive, with a stance that exudes presence without being intimidating, and that razor-sharp crease along the shoulderline is pure concept-car. Carbon fiber-reinforced plastic is used for the hood, trunk lid, side panels, doors and roof, giving the Swede an air of exotica, and the beautiful frameless mirrors make you wonder why all cars don’t have them.
Inside, Volvo owners will recognize some of the switchgear and the infotainment system (which works fine, but unfortunately isn’t the Android Automotive system of the Polestar 2). But this sharing of parts doesn’t do the car a disservice. Today’s Volvos punch above their weight when it comes to interior quality, and I feel the small changes Polestar has made elevate the cabin enough to justify the £140k price tag.
I love the crystal, Polestar-branded gear selector, the stitching on the Nappa leather seats, and how the subdued, matte-effect carbon fiber details on the doors look so much better than the glossy carbon slathered over too many supercars. I also like the Bowers & Wilkins sound system, and how Polestar doesn’t present buyers with an extensive options list; it comes fully-loaded as standard, with exterior paint and wheels as the only configurable options.
It’s a calming interior in which you would be comfortable for hundreds of miles at a time – and indeed, a 200-mile round trip for Sunday breakfast at Caffeine & Machine in the English Midlands was one of my favourite drives of 2020. The 1 snuck its way out of London on electric mode, ate highway miles for breakfast, then entertained when I reached the countryside.
It’s a car I could happily use every single day, despite it only being available in left-hand-drive (admittedly only a problem for the UK market). Polestar made this decision because the 1 will be a rare thing, with just 500 examples to be built annually for the next three years. Almost half are expected to stay in China, where it is built. After that, the 1 will be no more and Polestar will focus on growing its all-electric family that began with the 2.
The 1 is a curious project for Volvo, Polestar and owner Geely to have undertaken. It’s a hugely capable car that is deeply complicated, uses expensive materials and components, targets an area of the market neither Volvo nor Polestar has approached before, and yet will disappear almost as quickly as it arrived.
It’s a shame more people won’t get the chance to enjoy the Polestar 1, or have their day made by seeing one drive past. But as a statement of intent for the future of Polestar, it is one hell of an achievement.