Tested: Is the Polestar 1 more than just a fancy hybrid Volvo coupe?
Has Polestar created a car that lives up to its 601bhp and 738lb ft performance figures?
Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. So if it has four wheels and an engine then there's a chance he's drifted it in front of a camera and then written about it. When he's not writing he can be found trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.
I like a Volvo coupe as much as the next person. But I tell you what, when I first saw the Polestar 1 and witnessed that it looked just like a Volvo coupe, I was rather deflated and disappointed. Making something that looks so familiar seemed like such a missed opportunity for a new car brand, which Polestar now is after graduating from its previous position as Volvo's tuning arm.
But to look any different could have been misleading. You see, despite it being a Polestar, the 1 is still very closely related to Volvo's current line-up. It's based on the SPA platform – the architecture that underpins everything in Volvo's current range. And as that structure is only designed to work with transversely mounted four-cylinder engines, that's what the Polestar 1 has too.
The Polestar gets the best petrol engine Volvo has to offer in the form of a turbocharged and supercharged 2-litre that produces 305bhp and 321lb ft of torque, with an added 67bhp from an electric motor in place of a conventional starter motor. All that drive is sent to the front wheels only through an eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Polestar hasn't used the steel Volvo platform wholesale – it's not only been shortened but it's been reinforced with bonded-on carbon fibre braces too. The increase in stiffness is to allow the SPA architecture to support two battery packs, one that sits between the front seats and the other above the rear axle. These supply two electric motors, one for each rear wheel and the sizable starter that assists the petrol engine. Overall, the petrol engine and electric motors give the 1 a colossal 601bhp and 738lb ft of torque.
The outer body has also been made from carbon fibre rather than the steel used on Volvos. As well as reducing weight, and despite having a full glass roof, the structure's centre of gravity has been lowered. But don't think a liberal use of notoriously lightweight carbon fibre has made the Polestar 1 a featherweight car – it tips the scales at 2350kg. Still, its 0-62mph time is a quick 4.2sec and it has a limited top speed of 155mph. It's also fitted with some suitably substantial brakes, a set of six-piston callipers upfront from Akebono.
If you still aren't convinced it's far enough from a Volvo, take a closer look at these pictures. Even better, find a Polestar 1 and look around it. It is an incredibly dignified and glamorous car. Yes, there are still Volvo elements, but like the nerdy girl from a teen movie, it doesn’t really need to go through the pointless ceremony of letting its hair down, removing its glasses or shedding its Volvo frumpiness for it to be patently clear it's very attractive.
Its interior also uses several Volvo components: the infotainment, steering wheel, start/stop toggle... the list is long. But it's certainly not mundane thanks to the smooth crystal gear selector, orange seat belts, off-white seats and, most importantly, the vast amount of light that pours into the interior thanks to the glass roof and almost complete lack of b-pillar. It helps that the Volvo components are of a high quality and well designed to begin with, but the Polestar elements elevate the entire car to make it feel truly luxurious.
With only the faint whirr and hum coming from the electric motors this relative silence gives the Polestar 1 an even more premium feel. And with barely any engine sound to mask outside noises, along with the abundance of glass, you feel profoundly connected to the outside world, much more so than you would expect to in a GT. Nothing is too loud or obtrusive, though; what noises are allowed to enter the car are expertly filtered and you're left more aware of your surroundings rather than dominated by them. A feeling that especially welcome while trying to navigate through a busy European city.
As it's easy to acclimatise to the Polestar 1, it's not long before the chassis setup grabs your attention. Polestar has eschewed adaptive dampers – the now typical setup for a GT or sports car – and gone with passive units. Really, very fancy passive dampers, it has to be said, made by Ohlins. They can be adjusted manually though, a feature of the damper that Polestar engineers didn't feel was totally necessary for this sort of car, but also one they didn't see a need to hide or actively remove.
What's noticeable is that the Polestar 1 doesn't feel like a GT car at slow speeds, you're too aware that there's a chassis with intent below you. You aren't bounced around and jiggled like its a race car, far from it, but rather than totally isolating you from every bump or ridge, you feel a rounded version of road defects transmitted to you. The dampers do exude quality and that you can tell the suspension has a very strong and stiff body to work from makes for a ride of real distinction, but absolute comfort isn't its gift.
At higher speeds it still doesn't feel much more like a GT car. However, its taut setup and unshakable body control are well-suited to driving at a higher pace. The dampers' biggest achievement is that I only found out the car's over-two-ton weight after driving it and I was astonished; never once did the suspension let a bump, crest, dip or corner reveal it was so portly.
The way the Polestar 1 accelerates also cons you into thinking its lighter than it is. I know 601bhp and 738lb ft are impressive numbers, but the combination of instant electric torque and progressive petrol power creates acceleration that, on the road at least, feels everlasting.
Often in hybrid cars, when a less-than-inspiring petrol engine cuts in and shatters the peace from the serenity of the electric motor, it's somewhat unpleasant. The Volvo's four-cylinder, although far from exotic, is quiet and refined enough to never seem irritating.
The Polestar 1 is undoubtedly fast and remarkably effective, but it's never obvious that there is anything particularly extraordinary about its mechanical make-up. Pay very close attention and when you accelerate hard on a wet or damp road, you might feel one wheel tug at the road a little more than the others. And occasionally, after maintaining a decent speed around a constant radius corner, the steering needs a little extra encouragement to return straight as the torque vectoring on the rear axle wants to keep rotating the car slightly.
This ability for the drivetrain to work seamlessly is a great achievement, but one of the drawbacks of this competence is that the Polestar 1 feels very tightly restricted. The way it only ever deploys its massive power and torque in a smooth and controlled manner makes it seem as if it's almost afraid of its own striking performance. Add this to cruise control that trims the set speed whenever there's a corner (even long motorway bends), a sport setting for the ESP that cuts back to regular traction control whenever a wheel spins a little too much and constant alerts for what it thinks are potential accidents (even when the driver really doesn't) and you're left with the impression its a scared car. Perhaps safety conscious is a more fair description – and one you might expect from a car closely related to Volvo.
Slotting the Polestar 1 into a convenient category to rank it against its rivals isn't easy. The super supportive suspension makes it a little too stiff to be a true GT car and it isn't wild enough to be a sports car. But there are other cars, other outsiders that can't be so easily classified that the Polestar 1 does share some similarities with: the BMW i8 and the Honda NSX.
Like the Polestar these are high-performance hybrids and both are the start of a new generation of cars implementing new ideas. The Honda is a fully-fledged supercar and has the figures to prove it, but the eery effect its all-eclectic front axle has on the way it corners and the ballistic way it covers ground separates it from many other two-seater sports cars.
The BMW might look like an outrageous sci-fi supercar, but its persona is far more delicate than its image portrays. It's light on its feet, giving the impression it's barely leaving a mark on the environment underneath it, a trait that translates into excellent GT credentials.
These cars, as well as looking distinctive and possessing complex drivetrains, drive with very strong personalities. Whereas the Polestar 1 doesn't leave a deep and lasting impression on you; it feels as though every aspect has been so thoroughly refined that any quirk has been removed.
Polestar has successfully elevated Volvo components to make a luxurious and elegant car and made one that's exceedingly fast and extremely competent. But for the car that's the genesis of the brand not to have an exuberant character – a trait that will be common in all future models – seems a much greater shame than simply looking like a Volvo coupe.