Volvo’s electric performance start-up brand is finally up and running. Will it impress?

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The bold, alternative and alluring Polestar 1 is a car that feels like it has had a very protracted journey from drawing board to showroom.

It was, in some ways, the genesis of a new car company as much as a car. It has taken huge guts for the Volvo Car Group to deliver at all, reaching as it is up into exotic sports car territory for the very first time; doing that with a hybrid-powered grand tourer as challenging and unconventional as any in the world; and just trusting it will find buyers ready to embrace its commitment and vision readily.

If it were mine, I’d want to get as much use out of this car as I could, because it’s so nice to just punt around in. The trouble is, if the car had a bigger boot or you could fold the back seats down, you could get so much more use out of it

This is nothing less than Polestar’s attempt to redefine the potential of the electrified performance car on behalf of the whole motor industry. For any brand that would have been a bold target, but particularly so since this is the emergent Polestar’s first ever production model.

Perhaps it was bad luck to have aimed at that target at precisely the same time that the mighty Porsche was also doing so, and to have introduced the resulting model at almost exactly the same time that Zuffenhausen was unveiling the all-electric Porsche Taycan; but that was out of the company’s control. As we already know, the 1 is a vehicle of a singular mould, as unlike the aforementioned Porsche in many ways as it is a bristling V8 hot rod.

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Produced in Chengdu, China, this car is a glimpse of a future in which battery-powered exotics will surprise you not only in how they are powered but also in how they look, how they feel to drive, where they are made and which brands are making them.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Polestar 1


Polestar 1 2020 road test review - hero side

Little is as it may seem about this handsome, left-hand-drive-only 2+2.

The story of its birth is almost the stuff of fairy tale. It was designed as a Volvo – the 2013 Volvo Concept Coupé – by the man who would go on to become boss of the company that would eventually make it: Volvo design director turned Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath. It’s almost as if Volvo’s Chinese owner, Geely, called his bluff or challenged him to double down on a bet; to put his personal reputation at stake and make not just one electrified mega-Volvo but several. Well, Ingenlath dared.

This chunky, square-set look for the car’s rear arches comes straight from the Volvo Concept Coupé. On that car, it was deployed as a reference to the P1800 of 1961, which had fin-like raised rear-wing edges.

That helps explain why this car could be mistaken for a particularly svelte take on a Volvo S90 coupé, if such a car existed. It has a deliberately understated aesthetic by the standards of £139,000 exotic grand tourers; but, make no mistake, it’s even more exotic than most of its rivals under a skin of panels of which almost all are made out of weight-saving carbonfibre-reinforced polymer.

Volvo’s all-steel SPA platform was adapted to form the basis of the 1, but that process involved chopping the chassis down between the axles; reinforcing it with a new carbonfibre section called ‘the dragonfly’; and then replacing the car’s upper structure with carbonfibre pillars, cantrails and roof. The finished 1 is resultantly some 230kg lighter than if it would have been made entirely out of steel. It has a lower centre of gravity, too, and is some 45% more torsionally rigid.

And yet it isn’t a light car; it might, in fact, be the most technically ambitious plug-in hybrid the market has yet seen, with a petrol combustion engine, no fewer than three separate electric motors, three individual transmissions and a lithium ion drive battery of three times the capacity of the one that featured in the BMW i8. We weighed our test car at slightly less than Polestar’s published kerb weight claim but still at 2327kg with fluids.

The car’s primary propulsion source is said by Polestar to be its Double ERAD, or twin-motor electric rear axle drive. Unlike Volvo’s T8-badged PHEVs, it uses a pair of 114bhp electric motors packaged around the rear axle, each driving one rear wheel through its own planetary transmission. Mechanically that should allow for proper asymmetrical torque vectoring in a way that few hybrids or EVs have actually delivered thus far.

The electric motors draw power from a pair of lithium ion drive battery packs, one carried above the rear axle and the other inside what might otherwise be the car’s transmission tunnel, with a combined total of 34kWh of energy storage. That’s enough for a WLTP-certified electric-only range of 77 miles. Moreover, the batteries can be rapid-charged midway through a journey from a 50kWh DC supply in less than an hour.

Back-up for those rear motors comes from Volvo’s familiar 2.0-litre ‘twincharged’ four-cylinder engine, which sits transversely under the bonnet, drives the front axle through an eight-speed automatic gearbox and has a 68bhp starter-generator motor coupled to it that can either act to recharge the drive batteries or to drive the front wheels.

Suspension is via double wishbones up front and a multilink axle at the rear, with passive, manually adjustable ‘dual flow valve’ dampers from Öhlins fitted as standard that are claimed to ensure a smooth ride by automatically harmonising damping rate across compression and rebound strokes.


Polestar 1 2020 road test review - cabin

The 1 has come in for criticism from car reviewers elsewhere who expected greater differentiation of its interior relative to ‘humble’ Volvos – but, most Autocar testers agreed, pretty unreasonably.

Upper-end Volvos themselves aren’t so humbly fitted out these days, after all, with perceived cabin quality and luxury ambience to rival any of the German brands. So while this interior doesn’t have fixtures and fittings as materially lavish as, say, a Bentley, it conjures a rich and convincing luxury ambience all the same; one to line up against what you will find in a rival from Porsche or Mercedes-AMG and still stand out.

Simplified instrument layout doesn’t display a rev counter for the petrol engine even when it’s running unless you switch to Power mode.

That all 1500 examples of the 1 will be left-hand drive will be something of a snag as regards ease of use for drivers in the UK. Likewise, there’s a surprise limitation on practicality to be found when you open the boot, which is wide but short, its length restricted by the positioning of the car’s second battery pack above the rear axle. In terms of outright space, then, this is a 2+2 with back seats suitable for children and smaller adults only, and one that has a boot that’s probably just big enough for one set of golf clubs or a couple of small flight cases and can’t be expanded for through-loading.

The driving position juggles a cocooning sense of lowness with ease of access very cleverly and is ergonomically sound but lacks just a little outright steering column reach adjustment. The driver’s seat is very comfortable and adjustable, ready for long journeys when you are. Visibility is good to the front and the side (thanks to pillarless construction), with a slightly shallow rear screen making rear-view-mirror visibility just a little mean.

The instrumentation is digital and clear, if a bit over-simplified for our tastes. Although it’s adaptable enough and can be carried in parallel both inside the binnacle and on a head-up display, it lacks crispness and detail in some ways (you don’t get a rev counter for the engine in the standard mode, for example).

Polestar 1 Infotainment and Sat-nav

The Polestar 1 inherits the 9.0in portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment system that Volvo calls Sensus Connect. Being wholly touchscreen-operated, it’s unlike the generation of multimedia set-ups that worked through separate input devices. Interestingly, the Polestar 2 uses a new Android-based infotainment system, so the 1 may well be the only Polestar model with this set-up.

Once you’re familiar with the swipe-and-scroll navigation, the system works simply and well; most processes only take a couple of inputs. You simply swipe the menu one way from ‘home’ for the car’s driver assistance and safety system controls, the other way for entertainment and apps.

The Bowers & Wilkins stereo is good but fairly typical of premium systems on rival cars at this price point. Smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android handsets is standard, although only via USB; wireless charging isn’t included.


Polestar 1 2020 road test review - charging port

The 1 is really as fast as you’re likely to want a 601bhp grand tourer to be in outright terms, but its performance isn’t at all typical of the fast continent-crossing GT breed.

Moreover, neither the car’s outright pace nor its richness turns out to be what is most appealing about the way it covers ground; that’s actually how adaptable and wide-ranging its character is and how different it can feel from one minute, and one journey, to the next.

The Polestar attacks fast bends in an imperturbable manner that may be too restrained for some tastes, but its 70-mile electric range should find favour with the majority.

Departing with fully charged batteries, you can choose from Pure, Hybrid, AWD, Power and Individual driving modes. Pure is for electric- only running, while Hybrid blends in the combustion engine when you get into the accelerator deeply enough; and both Power and AWD burn hydrocarbons almost continually but with different objectives.

Select Power, simply bury the accelerator pedal from rest and the car will hit 60mph in 4.3sec. It’s just a little bit shy of the outright potential of the latest two-door Bentleys, Ferraris and Aston Martins on that score, and also from 30-70mph through the gears. Accelerating from low speeds, at least, it still feels really muscular and responsive, although the seamlessness of that muscularity is conditional on managing the combustion engine a little – rousing the engine and selecting a low gear using the car’s shift paddles before flexing your toe, basically.

Oddly enough, your rate of acceleration from low speeds doesn’t really depend on selected gear much at all. The influence of the car’s electric rear axle can clearly be seen in our in-gear acceleration figures. Getting from 40-60mph takes the 1 around two seconds in third gear – and about the same time in fourth, fifth and sixth.

As for the drawbacks of using single-speed electric motors for this car and only a 306bhp combustion engine driving through the front wheels, there are a few, but we might label the first one ‘autobahn clout’. To get from 70-120mph, after those rear motors have long since passed peak torque, the 1 needs 9.0sec; that’s nearer Toyota GR Toyota Supra than Aston Martin DB11 V12 pace.

The second one is refinement, because while this car is very pleasing indeed to drive in electric mode, it gets much thrashier and less couth when that engine starts and knuckles down. The four-cylinder unit never sounds smooth or at all soulful in full flight. It has more appealing moments under load at lower revs, when you can just make out the whine of a supercharger from the barely audible high-pitched whizz of electric motors. Even so, and even today, a £139,000 car probably ought to sound richer and better.


Polestar 1 2020 road test review - cornering front

You might not be quite sure what to expect here: the handling of a cutting-edge electrified sports car with instant vectored-torque-per-corner dynamism or of a 2.3-tonne lump with a Volvo chassis that still needs to look to its front axle for the lion’s share of traction at speed. Both characterisations describe this car accurately, up to a point; and yet, in practice, neither does.

The 1 certainly doesn’t handle like such a heavy car – or, at least, like cars this heavy used to handle. We tested it with those adjustable Öhlins dampers in their factory settings, and while there is just a hint of softness and laziness about the way it turns into corners and rotates through them, it’s nothing that doesn’t suit a modern GT car.

There’s plenty to like about several of the drive modes. The default Hybrid mode works well; it blends power sources on part-throttle much more smoothly than the sportier settings.

Lateral and vertical body control are generally very good, and so if you do feel minded to manually adjust the suspension (it’s a wheels-off job at the rear axle made much easier with a vehicle lift or pit), it’s more likely to be with a view to improving the low-speed ride.

When driven through a fast bend, the 1 commits to a cornering line very securely and smartly enough, but it only seems to use its torque-vectoring capacities to remain steady and true, and to stick to the path you’ve chosen for it. Pour on as much power as you like; the car neither oversteers nor understeers and keeps tabs on body roll even as lateral forces build. It’s easy to drive quickly, then, but not quite as poised-feeling or as much fun as you might have hoped.

The steering has that lightness and slightly woolly, compliant feel that quicker Volvos also share and could therefore communicate both lateral load or contact patch feel slightly better – although it’s far from a turn-off.

The 1 may not feel quite as alert and agile as some big, fast GT cars, but it will probably leave you quite taken with its on-limit handling capabilities, in any case. Polestar talks in terms of ‘purity’ about its handling; you could likewise use words like ‘honesty’, ‘simplicity’ and ‘naturalness’ to describe how the car responds to being hurried along. The 1 doesn’t seem to use driveline or suspension trickery to manipulate its mass but still can be driven surprisingly hard and enjoyed at pace.

The car handles in very straightforward terms on the margin of grip; it’s predictable to the last and quite well balanced but resolutely non-adjustable with power. You can imagine that asymmetrical torque vectoring may be used to more striking effect by other brands, but if Polestar’s ambition for it here was just to make this car seem fast, assured, controlled and composed, it has succeeded.

Comfort and Isolation

The 1 is a very comfortable, calming and pleasant car to drive, in spite of some quite particular shortcomings.

So slick, quiet and drivable is it under electric power and so settled is its ride at a high-speed, ground-covering gait that you might barely notice its cabin sealing could have been more attentive; or that its low-speed ride is a little fussy and more recalcitrant than it would have been if Polestar had followed class norms and fitted more versatile air springs.

Sitting on the gutter side of the car as it negotiates UK roads puts you right in the firing line as twice as many lumps and bumps pass under your backside than might have otherwise, of course. But since the 1’s ride composure improves markedly out of town and its dampers can be adjusted, we won’t penalise it too hard for its low-speed jitters. They’re present but not too bothersome.

Disappointing window sealing seems an equally minor quibble, but it’s less easy to forgive. Having laminated the car’s side windows, it’s odd that Polestar didn’t manage to tune out the wind noise that clearly flutters in around the edge of the side window just behind your head.

Hopefully that’s something that can be cured as production rolls on, because the car’s enveloping, inviting cabin is definitely worthy of the effort.


Polestar 1 2020 road test review - hero front

Polestar’s desire to challenge the accepted way of doing things has an influence even on the buying process of this car.

It says that it wants each 1 customer to feel like they’re having a curated ownership experience; one made special because it’s mainly defined on their behalf, rather than by them first-hand. It’s a refreshing approach, and the thinking is that there’s no such thing as a base-model 1.

Residuals aren't expected to be as strong as all-electric Porsche Taycan, but giving its owner more than 50% back after four years isn’t shabby.

For £139,000, you well might hope that would have been the case anyway. Even so, every car gets those expensive Öhlins dampers as standard, for example, as well as a full suite of driver assistance systems and a 15-speaker Bowers & Wilkins stereo. There’s a palette of five paint colours, each of which comes in either a gloss or matt finish (matt paint is the 1’s only cost option, at £4500) and three no-cost-option choices of wheel design, all 21in in diameter.

Those drawn to the car for its extended zero-emissions range will find that it’s good for most of it in day-to-day use; we averaged 70 miles before running out of battery charge on a couple of tests, also discovering that the car will then proceed in Hybrid mode at just over 40mpg – very impressive for a car of this performance.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Polestar


Polestar 1 2020 road test review - static

The Polestar 1 is a fascinating departure point for its maker. So much about it is refreshing, not least the socially responsible, understated positioning, which seems exactly what the luxury car market needs right now.

For an owner, the car’s chief asset is likely to be its rounded, adaptable character. It’s also the very car for those who have ever said they would have a plug-in hybrid but for the breed-typical 30-mile electric range. Here you can have twice that and more, if only you can pay for it – which, if you hadn’t noticed, is a pretty big if.

More interesting than great, but a promising start for Polestar

Some will expect more conventional driver appeal. The 1’s driving experience certainly leaves room to ponder if it could have been lighter still. Didn’t it need a more exotic engine? And isn’t it the kind of car whose driver appeal should intensify the faster you go?

The truth is, the 1 is never better than when simply being used in entirely everyday terms. Some would say that’s exactly how a modern grand tourer should be, especially such an elegant, restrained one with Scandinavian connections. Others – us included – will be left with a feeling of ‘if only’.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Polestar

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Polestar 1 First drives