At a holiday pop-up market in the middle of New York City’s soaring Oculus in early December, one display grabbed all the attention. While booths selling chocolate, jewelry, and Christmas-themed pet accessories stood idle, a deep circle of admirers surrounded a gleaming new Polestar 2, vying for a closer look. The fastback’s sleek, powerful stance and piercing, Pixel LED headlights projected a sense of otherworldly design amidst the winter-wonderland surroundings.
“I’ve never been in a car like this before,” said one onlooker, marveling at the carefully curated textures and details of its interior. Sitting in the driver’s seat, another likened the futuristic dashboard display to a “minimalist spaceship that’s very user friendly.” It was as though Santa had made a checklist of every traditional automotive shortcoming and crossed them off, one by one. “I can’t wait to start driving!” blurted one wide-eyed teen.
The crowd’s excitement might even be described as electric—fitting, given that the Polestar 2 is the first battery-electric vehicle produced by Volvo’s new standalone performance brand. It will be released in the U.S. later this year and is destined to rival the Tesla Model 3 in the premium compact electric segment. But that’s where the comparisons end, as the Polestar 2 is unlike any other vehicle—or brand experience, for that matter. Polestar has achieved this through a design approach and business model that has been radically reorganized from the ground up.
Part of that unorthodoxy originated prior to the brand’s 2017 launch as Volvo recognized the impending sea change in automobile propulsion. “The company was beginning to see the heavy impact electrification would have, as well as the opportunities the big shift would offer,” explains Thomas Ingenlath, CEO of the Polestar Group (and formerly SVP of design at Volvo Cars). “As a car designer, I was always confronted by the consumer perspective that change never progressed at the speed people wanted. With a completely different type of propulsion coming in, it gave us the opportunity to shake up other things as well. So, we forgot about tiny, evolutionary steps and took a big leap to leave the old world behind.”
Ingenlath and his teams started by systematically assessing areas of the typical automobile experience that, as Ingenlath diplomatically puts it, “the spirit of normal actually wasn’t that good” and “frustration has accumulated.” The first target: traditional distribution and the dealer showroom model. Polestar will instead be a direct-to-consumer business—customers will be able to interact with the vehicles at Polestar Spaces with non-commissioned product specialists before ordering one online. As for payment, Polestar views drivers more as “users” than owners: The company will offer a subscription option, in which a flat, monthly fee alleviates the worry of depreciation, insurance, and maintenance.
Next came the Achilles’ heel for most automobile manufacturers: the intimidating and often impenetrable infotainment software. Polestar tackled the issue head-on by partnering with Google. The Polestar 2 will be the first car to use Android Automotive OS, enabling state-of-the-art voice recognition and full access to all automotive-optimized apps from Google Play, including Google Assistant and Google Maps. The vehicle will stay permanently connected to the internet, providing the ability to update the software easily and with the same frequency as a smartphone.
“We embrace the fact you can’t do everything perfectly yourself as a car company,” Ingenlath says. “So, we partnered with the most competent company, with the most up-to-date information base behind it, which we think is great for the customer.” Ingenlath points out how outsourcing something as integral as software can be challenging structurally for existing automakers, a problem not shared by Polestar. “We set up a new company that is going on a different path,” he says. “That enables us to really address certain pain points.” Hence the slogan of Polestar’s U.S. launch campaign: “Goodbye Normal.”
DRIVEN BY DESIGN
It’s no coincidence that Polestar named a chief designer as its CEO. Another radical departure from automaking norms is manifested in the Polestar 2’s athletic styling and performance, which starts with bottom-up architecture. A flattened configuration of battery packs along the vehicle base lowers its overall height and roofline, enhancing its sporty silhouette. In the process, the size and rigidity of that battery configuration adds torsional stiffness to improve handling and responsiveness while reducing noise and vibration, rendering a ride that reviewers cite as approaching that of luxury performance vehicles costing twice as much. (The U.S. launch edition of the Polestar 2 will cost $63,000 before federal incentives, with a follow-up edition priced at $46,000.)
And while the Polestar 2 specs are impressive—408 horsepower complemented by 487 pound-feet of torque; zero to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds; an estimated 275 miles of range on a 35-minute charge from a 150 kW charging station—Ingenlath is loath to define performance by numbers alone. “If you just look at a sheet with facts and figures, then you get a very one-dimensional point of view on performance,” he explains. “[We view] performance as a much broader sense of how you experience the car. We would like to deliver a much more sophisticated experience.”
The Polestar 2 delivers this through a highly focused user experience. A taut cocoon of bespoke vegan textiles ensure that passengers ride comfortably, and the user interface seeks to make each journey as easy as possible. Just one example: Customizable touch controls within the simple and elegant center stack display are designed for quick visibility as well as safety. “Modern cars take so much time to learn and operate,” Ingenlath says. “We would love our cars to adapt to the person and not force you to find your way around the obstacles of technology. We want as little pain and frustration as possible, allowing people to discover the greatness of the car.”
And that is Polestar’s ultimate goal. “It’s one thing to build an instrument,” Ingenlath says. “But then to have the art and sophistication and profession to tune it to where it comes alive and the whole thing is used—that all the goodies in it are brought to a great working order—then it becomes a masterpiece. Just reading the specs, you would never guess there is so much joy and fun to experience driving it.”