Volvo unveils re-branded Polestar

Written by Lee Bailie on .

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SHANGHAI – Polestar as you knew it – the plucky upstart of a performance sub-brand derived from racing that struggled to make a dent in a segment dominated by the Germans – is dead.

In its place is a new at-arms-length brand that is all about electric performance, with big helpings of luxury and a bit of range-extending thrown in for good measure.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to acquaint you with the all-new Polestar, and its first offering (arriving mid-2019), the aptly-named Polestar 1 which made its global debut earlier this week in Shanghai.

The first car to be launched following an investment of approximately $945 million CAD (RMB 5 billion) from Volvo Cars and its parent company, Chinese automaker Geely Holding, the Polestar 1 is a two-door grand tourer that is based on 50 percent existing Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) and 50 percent bespoke content developed by Polestar engineers and Volvo’s R&D group.

The SPA portion will look familiar to anyone aware of Volvo's recent products: Drive-E 2.0-litre turbocharged and supercharged four-cylinder gas engine mated to an 8-speed Geartronic automatic transmission. AWD wasn’t confirmed, but it seems likely given most SPA cars have AWD, particularly in Canada.

The bespoke content starts with the PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) component which, in the case of the Polestar 1, means twin electric motors, a ‘double electric rear axle’ as the press release states, which will deliver torque vectoring (a fancy term for changing the speed of the wheels independently, via acceleration, to help improve handling through cornering). A large battery pack mounted in the centre of the car, will work in concert with the electric motors and the gas engine to produce a combined 600 horsepower and 737 lb-ft. (1,000 Nm) of torque. Electric-only range has been pegged at 150 km.

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The powertrain isn’t the only area where Polestar engineers have sharpened their pencils.

With the added weight of the battery pack (approximately 230 kg), mass had to be taken out of the structure of the car, and that has been accomplished with a lot of carbon fibre – in the roof rails, reinforcing the pillars and in the body panels themselves. The car does retain a steel floor, however.

Not only does the use of carbon fibre improve torsional rigidity (45 percent in the Polestar 1, according to Volvo), but it’s also significantly lighter than steel. During the presentation, Thomas Engenlath, president and CEO of Polestar, claimed the weight savings from the use of carbon fibre is equal to the added weight of the car’s battery pack.

For the suspension, Volvo tapped long-time supplier and fellow Swedish company Öhlins to come up with something new for the Polestar 1. What Öhlins devised is the first application for its all-new Continuously Controlled Electronic Suspension (CESi) chassis technology. The brakes will be supplied by Japanese firm Akebono, a multinational that has a long list of OEM clients, Audi, Ford, General Motors, Honda and Nissan among them.

In terms of the styling, the Polestar 1 gets its own grille, a new badge, and some other unique details, but it looks a lot like contemporary S90 and V90 Volvos to these eyes, albeit with two fewer doors.

Thor’s hammer DRLs? Check.

Sensus touchscreen infotainment display? It’s there.

Rear tail light and bumper treatment like the S90? Ditto.

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I’m not being critical here – I think connecting the Polestar 1 to Volvo to ensure some brand resemblance, and therefore market credibility, is a wise move. Being associated with a brand on the move – and Volvo certainly is these days, with its litany of new and compelling products – can only help Polestar.

Here are a few other things worth noting:

1. All Polestars beginning with the Polestar 1 will be built in a state-of-the-art, gold LEED-certified plant in Chengdu, China. The plant is expected to be completed sometime next year.

2. The Polestar 1 is the first of three cars the brand will be launching between now and 2021. The second (Polestar 2, due in late 2019 or early 2020) will be a mid-sized, fully-electric designed to compete with the forthcoming Tesla 3. Finally, in 2021 a larger SUV (Polestar 3), also fully electric, will join the family. All models after the Polestar 1 will be fully electric.

3. Polestar is going to shake up the traditional ownership model. All cars are designed to be subscription-only, which means they will be owned by the company. After the two or three-year term is up, Polestar will, presumably roll existing customers into new cars.

The cars will be ordered online, and everything will be included in a monthly subscription fee, including all regular maintenance, with pick-up and delivery servicing and renting of other Polestar and Volvo vehicles.

A concierge-type service is being designed to give Polestar customers peace of mind and a hassle-free experience. The company is planning to introduce Phone-As-Key technology (where the owner’s smartphone assumes the car key function, essentially) that would allow the owner to share the virtual key with a third party, which will also enable other yet-to-be-revealed on-demand services.

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4. Volvo intends to build stand-alone ‘Polestar Spaces’ in key metropolitan markets around the world (London, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo, Toronto, etc.), which will serve as sales centres.

I hesitate to call them dealerships because Volvo aims to move Polestar beyond the traditional customer-dealership experience. However, the company recognizes a need for physical ‘brick and mortar’ stores to facilitate test drives, among other things.

Volvo intends for most of the Polestar ownership experience, if I can call it that, to be done online (ordering, configuring, etc.), but it does recognize the need for the brand to still have some physical presence.

Some knotty issues on the distribution side remain to be resolved including how the retailing aspect will work given, at least in North America, a manufacturer cannot sell cars directly to the public, a reality Hyundai ran headlong into when it attempted to launch its Genesis luxury brand in Canada without a dealer network. A dealer network (of sorts) is now being built out.

It also isn’t clear how insurance will work for Polestar either, given that most jurisdictions in North America use private insurance that customers arrange themselves.

Figuring these things out are top priorities for Polestar executives, however, as company COO Jonathan Goodman revealed to a small group of U.S. and Canadian journalists in a post-presentation Q&A. He and his team will literally be travelling around the world in the coming weeks and months to begin the process of getting these questions resolved.

Nevertheless, it’s an exciting time for Volvo, Geely and Polestar. Re-launching a brand, regardless of the market segments it will serve, is an enormous undertaking. It will be interesting to follow the brand as the launch of the Polestar 1 gets closer.

As someone who is fond of what Polestar has been, it’ll be a shame to see the rip-snorting, motorsports-infused, track-ready S60 and V60 bow out. Both have proven to be worthy on road and track and they will be missed.

An all-electric performance brand seems a bit foreign, but credit Volvo for seeing where the wind is blowing and for pointing Polestar in that direction.

The Polestar 1 is now open for ordering. Interested parties should contact their local Volvo retailer.

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Photography by Lee Bailie

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