2020 Polestar 1 First Drive Review: Rebel With a Cause

Polestar's first standalone car is an electrified grand tourer—and a vision of what's to come.

polestar 1
Bradley Iger

The Polestar 1 is, above all else, an ambitious opening volley. Originally serving as Volvo’s racing team and later its road car performance division a la Mercedes-AMG, it gave birth to much-loved and very blue Scandinavian hot rods like the Polestar V60 and S60 before breaking out as a standalone brand in 2017 and taking a shot with its first wholly-developed vehicle. Fast forward two years and the directly-named Polestar 1 is here, both a mission statement and a harbinger of electrified performance.

In the horsepower-crazed times we live in, Polestar certainly would have been forgiven for shoehorning a big internal combustion powerplant in the 1’s engine bay, as BMW and Mercedes-AMG have done with the M8 and S63, respectively. But Polestar’s approach to road cars isn't about going toe-to-toe with performance luxury marques on conventional terms.

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“We want to make the shift from traditional combustion engines to electrification a fast business,” explains Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath. “We are one hundred percent convinced that is the modern drivetrain, not only because it will enable sustainable mobility, but also because of the fun it can provide—the acceleration, the regeneration of energy instead of burning it when you brake. It’s the modern way of driving a car.”

To that end, the Polestar 1 is billed as a plug-in hybrid grand touring machine rather than a wild-eyed sports coupe, and that largely frees it from the increasingly irrelevant game of spec sheet one-upmanship that has come to define modern performance. Engineers in Gothenburg instead focused on what Ingenlath describes as “a path forward,” leveraging the latest hardware in Volvo’s bag of tricks along with a healthy dose of new tech to create their own interpretation of a state-of-the-art grand tourer.

The 2020 Polestar 1, By The Numbers

  • Base Price: $156,600
  • Powertrain: Supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder plus two rear-axle electric motors and integrated starter generator | eight-speed automatic transmission (front) and one-speed direct drive (rear) | all-wheel drive
  • Max Output: 619 horsepower | 738 pound-feet of torque
  • Range: 78 miles pure electric (WLTP cycle), 540 miles combined
  • 0-60 mph: 4.2 seconds
  • Top Speed: 155 mph
  • Curb Weight: 5,170 pounds
    Quick Take: The Polestar 1 combines head-turning design with sophisticated technology and great performance, but some rough edges remain.

The Scandinavian Dropkick

Underpinned by Volvo’s SPA platform and reinforced with a carbon fiber crossmember said to increase rigidity by 60%, the Polestar 1 sports a carbon fiber-reinforced polymer body to keep the center of gravity low and the curb weight under three tons. In terms of sheer aesthetic, the Polestar 1 is more pleasing to the eye than the much-lauded 2013 Volvo Concept Coupe on which it’s based. With its hunkered down stance and lack of embellishment, its well-sorted and muscular proportions do their thing largely unencumbered by pretense. There's undeniable curb appeal here.

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The real story is underneath the skin. Thrust in the plug-in Polestar 1 is provided by a decidedly unconventional trifecta of propulsion, starting with a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four cylinder gas engine sending 326 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels through a conventional 8-speed automatic gearbox. In the back lies a pair of 85-kilowatt electric motors providing 232 horsepower and 354 lb-ft to the rear wheels. Finally, there’s a 52-kilowatt integrated generator that functions as both a starter for the internal combustion engine and a third source of thrust when the conventional engine is in use, whipping up 71 hp and 119 lb-ft.

If you're counting along at home, that's a combined 619 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque when the Polestar 1 is maxed out. Each rear wheel is also outfitted with a planetary gear set that provides mechanical torque vectoring to apply that power with precision. Compared to the brake-based torque vectoring used in many cars, the mechanical system can overspeed the outer wheel in a curve to improve turn-in, rather than braking the inner wheel and eventually cooking your pads.

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The Polestar 1’s suspension setup consists of a double wishbone design at the front and integral link at the rear, both outfitted with manually adjustable Öhlins dampers—no dashboard settings here. Stopping power is provided by Akebono six-piston aluminum monobloc calipers and 15.7-inch rotors at the nose of the car, while four-piston calipers clamp down on 15.4-inch discs out back. All Polestar 1s ride on 21-inch alloys outfitted with staggered Pirelli P Zero rubber (275mm front, 295mm rear).

It's a mechanical combination that’s both formidable and eye-wateringly complex. To find out how it shakes out on the road, we put the Polestar 1 through its paces on the winding mountain roads west of San Francisco.

Behind The Wheel

The interior will feel familiar to anyone who has spent some time in modern Volvos, the S60 in particular. Special flourishes like the handmade crystal gear selector and carbon fiber accents do help to bring a sense of occasion to the table, but focal points like the steering wheel, digital gauge cluster, portrait-oriented infotainment system, and squishy seats are pulled from the Volvo parts bin. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—Volvo’s been punching above its weight class for years in material quality and overall refinement, but the shiny plastic used for the steering wheel buttons and many of the cabin’s touch points doesn't meet the elevated expectations here, especially when you consider the $156,000 starting price.

That dichotomy turned out to be a running theme during our time with the Polestar 1. Ingenlath told us Polestar decided to omit an electronically adaptive suspension system, as most luxury automakers use today, because it's "totally dedicated to something that is a classic piece of mechanical engineering.” Manual adjustments involve physically twisting a dial above each wheel; out of 22 available levels (think a 0 to 22 soft-to-hard scale), it comes out of the factory set at 9 in the front and 10 in the back.

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Öhlins suspension components have been played a role in literally hundreds of championship titles in motorsport since the company was founded in 1978, but it’s safe to assume none of those were delivered on pockmarked pavement of San Francisco. The default "Hybrid" driving mode, where the gas engine in only called upon when necessary, the near-silence of pure electric driving highlights the harshness and noise these dampers introduce into the cabin. By default, the suspension is just too stiff for troubled roads, and our discomfort highlighted the downside of a statement piece like manual adjustments. 

But once we made it to winding Route 35, that damper setting made a lot more sense. Switching over to Power mode, combining all three power sources for maximum output, the suspension's performance improved the harder we pushed it. Fifty-two hundred pounds is a lot of mass to content with, but Polestar did an admirable job hiding it with those motorsport-derived coilovers, copious torque, and big brakes. You never really forget the weight you're hauling, but it's less distracting in a technical corner than you'd expect given the on-paper number. Think a Bentley Continental GT with an especially stiff ride and you're on the right track.

Outside of a ten-tenths corner, though, the Polestar 1's high-level grand touring experience is somewhat blunted by the powertrain. It's a solid performer—even after the 34 kWh battery is depleted and the car is propelled solely by internal combustion—but the buzz of that four-cylinder mill is hard to ignore. It's out of place in a vehicle that commands a six-figure price tag, and if you plan to drive it with at least some haste, that two-liter will be part of the power equation most of the time. Another bummer: valuable trunk space is eaten by a fancy hybrid component display, fun for a moment before you realize two pieces of carry-on luggage will barely fit in there.

Voltaic Grand Touring

In some ways the Polestar 1 feels more like a proof of concept rather than a competitive entry into a mainstream market segment. The automaker’s plan to build just 500 examples over the next three years, and the fact that the only option available is paint color, lend credence to that notion.

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Although the approach here is a bit avant-garde, it succeeds in giving the Polestar 1 a legitimately distinct character, and coupe’s handsome design does a lot to hide any potential flaws. More importantly, as electrification spreads through luxury and performance segments, it gives us a glimpse of what to expect in the near future—not only from Polestar, but the industry at large. Given that, we can only hope that other automakers are tackling the challenge with the same level of earnestness as the designers and engineers in Gothenburg.