“They’re kind of just like cellphones now,” is the gist I got about electric cars from multiple editors and industry professionals, more experienced in this automotive journalism thing than I. Without an engine or transmission, how do you differentiate a driving experience from one to the next? Can you stratify a luxury electric car compared to a cheap one, or are all EVs destined to be one-class monoblob of car? The Polestar 2 proves that, yes, you absolutely can craft a different-feeling electric vehicle experience without the distinctiveness of a traditional engine or transmission.
For a week, Polestar loaned me a brand-new 2021 Polestar 2 in my quest to learn about EV livability and infrastructure in the Midwest. So here’s what we learned about the car and what it’s like to live with one in between the coasts of America.
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2021 Polestar 2
- Base Price (as tested): $45,900; ($62,550 including destination)
- Powertrain: 408 HP/487 LB-FT, dual electric motors — all-wheel drive
- Battery Size: 78 kWh
- EPA Estimated Range (observed range): 233 miles, (about 170 miles)
- Vehicle Type: Compact Luxury….sedan?
- Curb Weight: about 4,700 pounds
The Polestar 2 Is Hard To Define
Polestar is Volvo’s electrified arm, sort of. I don’t know, the brand’s ethos is vague. But in short, Polestar is supposed to be the “fun and techie” brand, to Volvo’s more traditional reputation. At least, that’s the impression it’s putting out based on knowledge I’ve aggregated from my colleagues at Car Autance, The Drive, and a Polestar rep. “It’s an offshoot from Volvo, right?” said Peter Nelson.
Underneath, the Polestar uses the same CMA platform that you’ll find under the XC40, C40 Recharge, and a handful of other Chinese-market only Geely and Lynk & Co branded sedans and crossovers. It’s designed to accommodate PHEV, ICE, or fully electric vehicles from its inception; it’s just that the Polestar 2 doesn’t have an internal combustion engine variant.
The Polestar 2’s design is awkward, in a sense. I mean, I think it looks great, but what the hell is it? It’s not quite as low-slung as a traditional sedan, but it’s not an SUV, either. Its cladding and big chunky wheels remind me of the Subaru Legacy SUS or the Allroad-esque version of the old Volvo S60 sedan. It’s styled like a sedan, but it’s a secret hatchback, a la Dodge Shadow or Kia Stinger. The interior is decidedly un crossover-like, with a car-like low driving position… so I think we can officially call the Polestar 2 a car. At its core, the Polestar 2 is sort of a direct-ish competitor to entry-level luxury cars like the Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series, just with chunkier tires, and completely electric. Pricewise, equipment-wise, and prestige-wise the Polestar is about on target.
My tester rang up at a hefty $62,000, but it was a dual-motor AWD car, equipped with the “Plus” and “Pilot” package. The Plus package adds a few goodies, namely inductive phone charging, a heated steering wheel, adaptive cruise control, and a heated rear seat. If you can live without those things, including the rear motor, a base model Polestar 2 will set you back about $45,000, and it’ll deliver most of the experience. True, a base Polestar 2 is front-wheel-drive and is a lot slower than a base 330i, but you’d be surprised at the number of luxury car buyers who won’t care, or are willing to accept the trade-off if they’re impressed with the rest of the car.
The Interior Is the Best Part
There’s a trend to make electric car interiors as crazy and gimmicky as possible, just for their own damn sake. Tesla got away with slapping an ASUS gaming monitor on an IKEA Lack table for the Model 3 and Model Y, and every manufacturer with an electric car concept feels the need to copy it. Luckily Polestar decided not to, opting for a sane, but chic, and normal take on modern driving.
The center stack instrument panel combines all HVAC, car system controls, into one neat screen. The design is high quality and well-considered, the materials of the dashboard are pleasing to the touch, although they feel a lot different than the “elephant leather” super squishy dashboards you’d find in luxury cars of not that long ago. The shifter clicked from N to D with heft, nothing dainty or cheap about the experience. The dashboard’s textured reclaimed ashy grey wood set off a black interior, surfaces complete with what looked to be real stitching. The tablet-style device itself feels like an expensive tablet, a heavy metal bezel surrounds a slick-looking interface, that looks as if it’s leaning against an expensive soundbar on top of a credenza in a fancy dining room. It’s all very Crate & Barrel, not IKEA; swanky indeed.
The industry is trending to integrate all ancillary functions onto one screen, radio, infotainment, and HVAC, all controlled by touch. I am not anti-screen, but I’m not convinced everything needs to be on a screen, either. It’s very easy to screw the software controlling the touch screen up, resulting in a frustrating (if not dangerous) experience for users. The Polestar avoids that, its user interface’s graphics are simple, no application has too many options or menus to get buried or confused in. The interface is snappy, akin to an expensive luxury cellphone, the system rarely lagged, even with my penchant for changing songs and checking the battery’s state of charge every five minutes. The system is a pleasure to look at, orange on black, paired with an easy-to-read sans-serif font, making the system easily used in the dark, or on the move. More automakers should follow Polestar’s lead.
It Definitely Drives Like a Luxury Car
“Blah, blah, blah, all these electric cars feel the same,” said some guy, probably. Come on, pay attention to the cars you’re driving, can you in earnest say that a Nissan Leaf and a Tesla Model 3 drive the same? Do you think a Focus ST and BMW 330i drive the same? I mean, they’re both 2.0-liter turbos, right? Same with the Polestar, its powertrain is definitely different than the other EVs I had driven. Whisper quiet, lacking the hum of a motor, common in some cheaper electric cars. The Polestar’s throttle calibration is natural, has no on-off switch golf-cart-like feeling, and lacks the almost resistance-feel that you get in the accelerator in some electric cars.
The power build is near immediate, thanks to the twin motors that produce more than 406 horsepower. It pulls strong to legal speeds, and falls off fairly quickly; the Polestar is a quick car, not a fast car. That’s fine, you shouldn’t be driving that damn fast on public streets anyway.
The car’s traction management is excellent, stomp on the gas full throttle, and the Polestar does its best impression of a Lancer Evolution, as the front digs in, and the car grips tight. The car feels confidently front-wheel-drive based, a turn-off for some. Not me, though, I’m built different. The handling is safe but engaging, the car can be chucked into corners with aplomb without inducing terror that you’ll accidentally spin the car around, and slide into a tree, backward.
The Polestar’s steering is par-for-the-course for most Volvo products I’ve driven. It’s hefty, especially with steering assist set on “firm”. Feedback from the road is present but slightly isolated. Someone used to an M-sport BMW may find the steering bit lacking in feel, but another buyer acclimated to say, an old Cadillac, would find the Polestar’s steering to be almost race-car like.
Generally, electric cars are heavy as hell. That’s kind of a cheat code to a “comfy ride” although, too much weight can overwhelm the suspension, resulting in a bouncy and crashy ride over bumps. And yet, last week’s pedestrian Hyundai Kona can’t hope to match the Polestar. Nor do I expect it to, it was half the price. The Polestar’s ride is sophisticated, the chassis is isolated, the experience is decidedly luxurious. It tackles bumps with grace, refusing to be unmarred by even the biggest potholes.
Really Good Heat
The Polestar 2 was delivered to me in early November, right as Fall has settled in, and the weather is consistently cold. I’m a mammal, I require heat.
“The High Voltage Coolant Heater A (HVHA) is used for heating of the passenger compartment and is supplied with voltage by the high-voltage battery. The HVHA is the primary heat source for the passenger compartment and is also used to heat the high-voltage battery if needed. The heater is a 7 kW resistive heater operating at over 95 percent efficiency. It heats coolant which can then be passed through a traditional heater core to heat the compartment. Using a switched valve, we can also direct that heated coolant into the battery as needed,” said Polestar representative Donny Nordlicht, via email correspondence.
I was completely unstoked for yet another resistive heater in an electric car. The Kona had notoriously horrible heat, but Volvo, um, er, Polestar used resistive heating in a unique way. The battery coolant is already heated to condition the batteries for the cold, Polestar routes that coolant through tubes that flow to a traditional heater core, not dissimilar to what you’d find in an ICE car. The result works, the heat is scaldingly hot, yet range was not affected as greatly as you’d think. The car already has to keep the batteries warm, so why not use the rest of that energy for something good?
For 2022 model year cars, the Polestar does gain a heat pump when the Plus package is added.
The Range Is OK
The Polestar has a really big battery, 78 kWh, way bigger than the 64 kWh battery in the Kona EV. Yet, the Polestar can’t go as far. Polestar recommended not charging past 90 percent, in the interest of giving you the “real owner experience”, I did just that. The car would routinely show 220 miles of range, about on target for a full battery’s 233 EPA range.
Comfortably, I could get about 170 miles worth of range, before I felt the need to find a charging station.
Luckily, the Polestar charged fast. Even on the slowest classification of DC fast charging, it rarely backed its charging speed down, rocketing from around 20 percent to 90 percent in about 90 minutes. Level two charging took about 10 hours to go from 20 percent to 90 percent.
High-speed consumption wasn’t too great, I averaged somewhere in the 1.8 to 2.2 mile per kWh range, with over-the-road country driving. Keep in mind, this was done in the cold, with the heat on, at speeds of 70 to 75 mph. Driving slower in the summer should get better results.
Not Everything Was Perfect
The Polestar doesn’t have Apple Carplay or any native iPhone integration. I’ve been told that it’s coming soon, but for now, you’re reduced to the “BlueTooth audio” streaming app, which arguably is the worst part of the Polestar’s sleek interface. The BlueTooth audio doesn’t have iPhone album art support, rendering the whole experience reminiscent of using VLC player to listen to pirated songs you downloaded from LimeWire. I think Polestar (and Google) should eschew Apple CarPlay, and integrate Apple Music into the interface, the same way it did Spotify, but I don’t think Apple would ever let that happen.
The Polestar’s interior is kind of snug, too. The trunk liftover is high, and the cargo area itself is a bit shallow. The rear legroom nearly completely disappears when taller drivers sit in front, and the high floor makes the center seat for the rear passenger, a short-person only affair. The front trunk is dinky, too.
At the end of the day, how do you even purchase a Polestar or get one serviced? In the attempt to distance itself what clearly is a Volvo with a different badge, the Polestar is an online-only, or specialized storefront deal. The nearest Polestar storefront to me is 150 miles away in Detroit. The next nearest one, is Washington, DC. By comparison, there are two Volvo dealerships in Columbus. Polestar plans on opening more storefronts in the US soon, though.
Engine Doesn’t Matter, the Polestar Is a Luxury Car
A long time ago, I used to work at a BMW dealership as a lot porter. My day consisted of greeting customers, making sure they knew which service writer they had an appointment with, and driving the customer shuttle. It was an easy job, and I got a lot of insight into why some customers bought the BMWs they did. Over hundreds of shuttles, and dozens of customers I had talked to, I learned something, most customers don’t necessarily care what’s powering their car. They probably don’t even know what drive wheels motivate the thing they’re paying hundreds of dollars for each month, either.
The enthusiast in us all could easily lambast these folks for being stupid, only purchasing a BMW “driver’s car” because of the badge. Sure, you may very well be right for some customers. But, I’d argue that the luxury experience is far more than powertrain dynamics.
When BMW switched to 2.0-liter turbos and eight-speed automatics like most of the industry, I’d argue that most owners didn’t care. The characteristics of two fewer cylinders and a turbocharger are immaterial to the things they cared about in a luxury car. These folks wanted smoothness or an engaging drive. They wanted a comfortable, fashionable, well-made interior. They don’t really care how an automaker got to that goal. Nor is it their job to care, really.
The Polestar is luxury. It’s smooth, refined, fashionable, and well finished. Its lack of combustion engine or transmission might be an adjustment for car enthusiasts, but I’d argue that most buyers wouldn’t really care if it was powered by a 2.0-liter turbo like most other entry-level luxury cars. There are other ways to craft a luxury car in this increasingly electrified automotive market. Even without an engine or transmission, Polestar reminds me that you can make a luxury experience that’s a cut above the rest.
Too bad everyone who saw my loaner thought the car was a Volvo.