The Long Goodbye | Polestar 1

Polestar's first plug-in hybrid is also its last. That's an understandable decision…

By Mike Duff / Sunday, September 19, 2021 / Loading comments

The line that separates a flaw from a character enhancement is a fine and closely argued one, and the most memorable cars possess plenty of both. Travelling more than 1,200 miles in the Polestar 1 confirmed it is both hugely likeable and deeply confusing, to the extent that it can be a struggle to distinguish between those feelings.

The offer to drive out to last week’s Munich IAA rather than fly helpfully demonstrated the current limitations of the sort of vehicles the woke motorshow was established to promote. I originally misread the offer as being to make the journey in the all-electric Polestar 2, triggering visions of a days-long odyssey between charging points and drafting trucks on the Autobahn.

But the fact the Polestar 1 has a turbocharged and supercharged engine in addition to its electric powertrain – offering the chance to use those ultra-fast chargers that dispense 98 RON – made everything far easier. The Polestar was superb; draw rings around both ‘PHEV’ and ‘Grand Tourer’ on a Venn diagram and this is pretty much all that sits in the middle.

Not that the car is one of the many PHEVs where electricity plays a subsidiary role. The Polestar 1 is much more electric than it needs to be for places where the bar is set low, thanks to the substantial 34kW of battery capacity that it carries, and the trio of motors this powers. That’s enough e-juice for up to 77 miles of pure electric range under gentle WLTP-compliant use. You’ll be unsurprised to hear I didn’t get anywhere close to that when trying to cross a substantial chunk of Europe in the shortest quasi-legal amount of time, but pretty much all urban trundling was done silently as an EV.

It is impressively quick, too – as you’d expect given the potency of its powertrain. The engine doesn’t have an abundance of character, the only noises it makes are gruff and distant ones. But nor does it feel obviously, egregiously four-cylinder. The double forced induction means it makes up to 309hp from just 2.0-litres of capacity, boost building quickly and without lag. With twin 116hp electrical motors at the rear, plus another 68hp unit between engine and gearbox helping at the front, the Polestar is very nearly more electric than it is petrol. With the whole shooting match working together it pulls impressively. The electrical assistance fades with speed – the EV-only ‘pure’ mode is limited to 100mph – but there were still a couple of chances to reach the 155mph limiter on quieter bits of Autobahn. Probably the last time I’ll ever travel so fast in a Volvo Group product given the non-Polestars are now restricted to a meagre 112mph.

The Polestar 1 looks great, as well. I wasn’t convinced by the earlier pictures, seeing too much of the Volvo that lurks beneath. But spending time with it, and sometimes travelling in convoy with another pair, confirmed it has real star power. The combination of serious size, a muscular stance and a commendable lack of pointless, glitzy details give it proper presence, as you’d expect for a brand led by a high-level car designer, Thomas Ingenlath. I particularly like the way the cut-back rear window gives a U.S. muscle car vibe. The lack of badging beyond Polestar’s enigmatic shadowy emblem also gave plenty of chance for discussions with spectators about what it was. Both French and British customs teams at the Chunnel were keen to find out on the way back.

But in a cardinal sin for any grand tourer, the Polestar 1 feels much less special inside. Functionally it is brilliant – the ergonomic bucket seats were still comfortable at the end of four-hour full tank stints and the Bowers & Wilkins audio system is one of the best I’ve ever spent time with, even when subjected to the best-forgotten ’80s cheese of German radio. But the Volvo basics are both obvious and not really forgivable given both the Polestar’s price point and its mission to launch a distinct brand.

Switchgear, steering wheel and touchscreen are pretty much unchanged from those you’d find in an XC90; and the infotainment is still running Volvo’s clunky old system in place of the snazzier Google-based offering of the cheaper Polestar 2. Behind the scenes you know that a Bentley Continental shares a fair amount of tech with Audis and Volkswagens, but everything an occupant can look at or touch is clearly different. In the Polestar it feels as if the development budget ran out after the exterior was signed off but before the interior was started.

The driving experience is also confusing. The Polestar 1 does some things very well, with three-figure cruising high on that list. The steering rack is quicker and reactions sharper than in a Volvo, delivering the no-nonsense accuracy required for carving Autobahns at speed. The suspension is similarly taut, the motorsporty Ohlins dampers keeping what is a big, heavy car feeling totally lashed down under lateral loads and over expansion joints. The hugely powerful carbon brakes were also reassuringly forceful when required to deal with the combination of big closing speeds and the frequently poor mirror skills of lumbering Dutch motorhomes, although the brake pedal is lacking in resistance.

But the Polestar also does some things poorly. Having decided to break the monotony of the French Autoroute with a scenic detour near Verdun the 1’s ride proved jiggly over apparently smooth French D-roads. (A much bumpier bit of Oxfordshire the following day confirmed body control seems to get better with bigger vertical loadings.) It is possible to stop and manually adjust the dampers through their click wheels, of course. But it is also hard to imagine anyone routinely doing this. And while the torque biasing abilities of the rear electric motors give the 1 impressive resistance to understeer the steering feels lifeless and numb, offering no encouragement to go and play. Strangely the helm also suffered from noticeable torque corruption when the petrol engine is giving its all through the front axle.

Most of these compromises are down to the Polestar 1’s biggest issue: that of trying to position itself between two worlds, combining significant amounts of both electrical and combustion power. This is a carbon-bodied car with a 911-sized interior yet weighs 2,350kg and has less boot space than a Mazda MX-5. That’s not because it’s poorly engineered, but rather that it is a good answer to a bad question. Given that all future Polestars seem set to be pure EVs the obvious question is why the first one wasn’t as well.

But that would have required me to take much longer to get to Munich, at much diminished cruising speeds, so I’m not complaining too hard. The Polestar 1 is also one of the rare group of cars that sits by itself, distinct from everything else. The most similar vehicle in terms of mission and powertrain is probably the mid-engined, three-cylinder BMW i8, another technological marvel that found itself at the end of a blind alley. The BMW would be more fun to drive, but I’d choose the Polestar first for another continent-crossing road trip.


SPECIFICATION | POLESTAR 1

Engine: 2.0 -litre inline supercharged and turbocharged; 2 x 85kW motors
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 609
Torque (lb ft): 738
0-62mph: 4.2sec
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 2,350kg
MPG: 403mpg (WLTP)
CO2: 15g/km
Price: £139,000

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