A Swede growing in Tesla’s back yard: Polestar goes EV

‘Tesla killer’ has become a lazy industry expression, but Volvo’s performance offspring, Polestar, looks to be one of a few brands realistically competing in the premium performance EV space. By Freddie Holmes

In July 2015, Volvo Cars acquired Polestar, a tuning company that has long been the Swedish automaker’s partner of choice for high-performance engineering. Originally tasked with transforming existing Volvo models into track-ready road cars, the Polestar brand has been revived—and this time with a charging cable. It is no longer only about boost and bite, but also driving range, plugging in and saving the planet. Volvo’s underpinnings remain distinct, but the new-look Polestar now sits as a standalone hybrid and electric performance brand.

It is a segment that has attracted significant attention, both from household names and new entrants into the space such as Byton, Faraday Future, Fisker, Rivian and Nio. An aura of scepticism has surrounded many of these start-ups, often armed with little more than a proof-of-concept and in some cases, without a factory in place. Questions remain as to whether these fresh faces will make it, or crash out. Will the flow of funds eventually stymy as investors lose heart, and if these vehicles do make it to production, will it be an attractive ownership experience? A national servicing network, mechanical reliability and strong residual values are part and parcel for any new brand to succeed.

A strong foundation

In many ways, Polestar launches with a strong reputation already in hand, and with Volvo Cars as a parent company, there is arguably little need to approach with caution. As of 2019 Volvo will electrify its entire product line up, seeing the portfolio flush with mild-hybrids, battery electric models and everything in between. It is a wealth of resources of which Polestar can leverage to great effect.

“Having Volvo as one of our parent companies has many benefits for Polestar. It gives us immediate scale with expertise in vehicle design, research and development and manufacturing to be able to bring our cars to market successfully from the very beginning,” Christian Samson, Head of Product at Polestar, told M:bility. “Volvo’s excellent reputation with customers, media and the industry as a whole also gives us advantages and credibility from the outset—we are proud to have Volvo as one of our parent companies.”

Polestar 2
The Polestar 2 was revealed prior to the 2019 Geneva Motor Show

Samson has nearly 15 years’ experience with Volvo Car Group, serving in various design roles and more recently as project lead for the Volvo XC40. A former Saab and BMW engineer, he is now tasked with overseeing the continued development of Polestar’s current batch of models, namely the 1, 2 and 3.

Polestar has been known for its performance credentials since the 1990s, and the brand will not only have to carry that mantra on, but also win over electrification sceptics. The ‘new’ Polestar, says Samson, is now an electric performance brand. “Our knowledge and experience from the past has enabled us to bring tried-and-trusted performance elements to our electric performance cars,” he explained. “For Polestar, electric performance is about more than just a 0-100 km/h sprint time, because any high-powered EV is going to be quick in a straight line. We also want to deliver the most engaging levels of driving dynamics, with excellent suspension, braking and chassis characteristics.” Polestar’s chief test driver, Joakim Rydholm, also happens to be a chassis-tuning expert, having developed all Polestar-related Volvo models in the past as well as all new Polestar cars.

Its first model, the Polestar 1, is a high-performance plug-in hybrid (PHEV). In January, Geely announced that more than 500 pre-orders had been registered. Its second model, the Polestar 2, is a ‘fastback’ EV with more than 400hp. It was revealed in February. Following will be the Polestar 3, a fully electric SUV with a low roofline and wide stance designed to emphasise the brand’s performance positioning. It will sit between the Polestar 1 and 2 in terms of price and volume, and will be revealed around 2021. Looking further down the pipeline, he advised that the model line-up will continue to expand. “The future is very bright for Polestar and we will be a portfolio brand within the next six years or so,” said Samson. “We have very clear and ambitious goals that will position our brand as a forerunner in the industry’s shift to electric cars.”

‘Tesla killer’ has become a lazy industry expression for any new entrant into the EV space, regardless of vehicle segment or price bracket. Prior to its reveal in February, the Polestar 2 had also attracted comparisons with the Tesla Model 3, which has been presented as a mass market electric vehicle (EV). It would seem that in this case, the comparisons are fair. “The Tesla Model 3 is the only other EV on the market with similar characteristics to Polestar 2, in terms of body style, market segment and price,” Samson confirmed. “Polestar 2 brings a sharper, more focussed approach to the segment, with very clear performance credentials. We also believe that bringing additional models into the premium electric segment drives competition and in turn, awareness amongst customers that a premium electric car is a product they should consider.”

EV range

A common criticism levelled at EVs is the discrepancy between a vehicle’s stated driving range and that which can be achieved in the real-world. EVs are inherently efficient at low speeds; gentle town driving with high regenerative braking can even ‘add’ miles to the range. By comparison, highway driving can see the estimated range plummet. “Highway driving just requires more energy than slow driving, and this is a fact that is disregarded by many EV drivers, simply because combustion engines are far more efficient on the highway,” says Wenzel Prochazka, Product Manager of Battery Systems at engineering service provider AVL.

The issue has even led to the rejuvenation of the term ‘hypermiling’, originally coined by drivers looking to ramp up miles per gallon. Extreme examples have seen some EVs add hundreds of miles onto the manufacturer’s stated driving range. In July 2018, a Tesla Model 3 drove more than 600 miles on a single charge, albeit at an average speed of 36kph (22mph). “As engineers of electric vehicles we have seen high levels of efficiency even in highway driving, on top of the obvious performance advantages of electric drivetrains,” said Samson.

Polestar 1 aerodynamics
Polestar has paid particular attention to aerodynamics in order to reduce drag and extend driving range

Early leaders in the EV space such as Renault and Nissan have seen success with models that arguably place performance fairly low on the list of priorities, and instead focus on day-to-day usability. The Renault Zoe, for example, accelerates from 0 to 60 miles per hour in around 12 seconds. However, for a manufacturer promising the best of both worlds, balancing the performance expected from a Polestar model with the long-range efficiency of a high-end vehicle is a tall order.

“For Polestar, performance is about more than just straight-line acceleration and speed. We engineer our cars to deliver great driving dynamics during cornering and braking too, delivering an all-round performance product,” said Samson. “As for highway motoring, drivers still need to remain within the speed limits—highways aren’t necessarily performance environments. Much attention has been focussed on aerodynamic efficiency to ensure that we minimise drag and maximise range. All of Polestar’s electric cars will deliver real-world usable range sufficient for every type of journey, and when the driver is ready to stop and take a rest, we will ensure they have access to the charging infrastructure that supports them on their journey.”

The Polestar 2 should have a 500km (310 mile) range based on the WLTP cycle in Europe, and an EPA-rated 275 miles in the US.

Looking to China

Construction of the Polestar Production Centre in Chengdu, China—a state-of-the-art factory that will produce the Polestar 1—began in January.

China has long been seen as the world’s largest market for plug-in vehicles, not only in terms of annual sales but also due to regulations. The government has taken a strict stance on vehicle emissions, with automakers tasked to meet a minimum quota of new energy vehicles (NEVs) each year. By 2025, around 20% of all new cars sold in the country will come with a charging cable.

“It is an undeniable fact that we have seen rapid development of NEVs since 2011,” said Zhong Zaimin, Vice Dean at Tongji University’s School of Automotive Studies during a press event in Shanghai. “The electrification of transportation is an inevitable choice.” He noted that while some within the industry see the PHEV as a “makeshift solution”, the Chinese government views it as a critical part to the policy. “With longer mileage, ICEs will eventually be phased out. Plug-in hybrids are not the ideal solution, but China does not see it as a short-term solution,” added Zaimin. For example, the BYD Qin, a PHEV with around 40 miles of electric driving range, is “the perfect solution” in China today, as most owners simply rely on the battery for short trips around the city, and recharge whenever the opportunity arises. “According to our analysis, Qin owners use 90% of their time in electric power, and use the ICE only 10% of the time. They have a habit of charging as often as possible to use electric energy.”

For Polestar, which is owned by Chinese giant Geely, these trends bode well as the company ramps up to launch in its home market. “China is of course the world’s fastest-growing EV market and we expect high demand for our cars in the country,” said Samson. “It makes sense, then, to produce the cars closest to the highest demand.” There are other benefits to setting up in Chengdu, he continued, “the most obvious of which is that one of our parent companies, Geely, is Chinese, which presents advantages from a regulatory and legislative point of view.”

Rooted in the burgeoning Chinese market and unhampered by the constraints associated with most start-ups in the EV space, the brand appears to be in an enviable position. Financially sturdy and with an arsenal of electric powertrain components at its disposal, it will be interesting to see how Polestar fares following product launches over the next few years and beyond. Comparisons to Tesla are often tenuous, but in the case of the Polestar 2 there is clear competition.

This article appeared in the Q2 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.

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