Review: Don’t Buy a Tesla Without Driving The Polestar 2 First
For 100 miles on a recent drive through Mulholland Highway and Old Topanga Canyon Road outside Los Angeles, the 2021 Polestar 2 held my attention in a vice. This came as quite as a surprise, and not just because I’ve driven everything on the road, or because social media has blasted my attention to birdshot levels of scatter. It’s that when I get into an electric car these days, I expect a big, plastic appliance—like the rest of them.
The Polestar 2 navigated some of California’s tightest hairpin turns with a big, bear hug grip. It remained composed at the steering wheel, no matter how jerky my input. It delivered time-warp acceleration whenever I floored it—and I floored it a lot.
To the Jeep Wrangler, Toyota Prius, BMW 3-Series, and a few others I passed heading up the hill as if you were standing still, sorry (not sorry). If you were behind the wheel of this $59,900 piece of squared-off Swedish delight, you’d have done the same.
Later that night in a backyard garden, sipping spritzes from a distance of six feet, I found myself urging a pair of heretofore carless Los Angeles transplants to definitely, definitely consider the Polestar 2.
“I want to get something electric—maybe a Tesla,” said a journalist who covers technology. The second, a journalist who covers fashion, loved the idea of something from the 1980s, or a Saab, but also wanted the reliability of modern engineering. (Godspeed.)
Promise you’ll try a Polestar 2 before you commit to anything from Tesla, I told them. With better exterior looks, better build quality, a better infotainment interface, and comparable performance for the vast majority of those who will drive it, the Polestar 2 deserves consideration from anyone interested in buying an electric vehicle.
It pains me to think that simply for lack of exploration, they could automatically get sucked into the marketing vortex Tesla has created around its groundbreaking—but far from perfect—cars. There’s no need to default. At least, see what else there is on the market—such as the Polestar, which beats the Tesla models S and 3 in interior design and quality alone.
Turns out: What else is there … is pretty good.
The New Option
I was so emphatic to my friends about trying the Polestar 2, I think, because the darned thing has been such a long time coming. Now that it’s here—and is actually good—it feels like a tiny win against the dime-a-dozen startups (Fisker, Faraday Future) that promise exorbitant driving ranges on the candy-colored shells of promised cars that roll, amid much hype, onto auto show floors, only to end up flaking, fizzling, or flaming out.
It felt like something solid (pardon my French) in a sea of merde. For much of our recent history, the promise of premium and luxury EVs and PHEVs has felt like fake news. The Polestar 2 is not.
Polestar, you may recall, was once Volvo’s racing skunkworks. Now it is a standalone company owned by Volvo and Geely; its first car, theexcellent hybrid Polestar 1, debuted last year. Polestar 2 is the sophomore album, and the first all-electric vehicle, from the Gothenburg, Sweden-based brand.
The four-seat, five-door, AWD hatchback has obvious design and craftsmanship influences from Volvo. (Squint your eyes and you may detect the evolution of a Volvo S60 sedan in there somewhere; this is not a bad thing.) There’s only the faintest whiff of sculpted lines anywhere, as well as minimalist exterior lighting in the rear that’s drawn like a single red line on a piece of origami paper. It’s all a bit ambiguous, with a rear that looks like a hot hatch, a front that looks like a sedan, and a ride height that falls somewhere between a wagon and small crossover SUV.
Polestar has executed interior fit and finish exceptionally well. Nailing such details as controlling the gaps between body panels and seam-matching along interior seats can seem minor, but it adds up to make a car seem well-made. (Or not, as in early models from McLaren and Tesla, for instance).
A refresher on the Polestar 2’s performance specifications: It has a driving range of 291 miles under perfectly gentle driving. At the end of my aggressive driving day that spanned 100 miles or so, I had nearly 40% of a full charge left—a satisfactory amount, though less than the total battery range might lead you to believe. Charging on a 3-phase AC wallbox charger takes eight hours; special “sleep modes” that can be activated for longer periods of non-driving allow the car to devote less energy to its readiness state than if you need it to be ready to drive at any moment.
It has twin motors that achieve 408 horsepower (300kW) and 487 pound-feet of torque, equal to the more-expensive Tesla Model S. It has a 4.4-second zero to 60 mph sprint time, with a top speed of 125. mph. (These are far below the specs of the bullet-speed Porsche Taycan and Model S, which also cost much more money, which I’ll address at the close.) The Tesla Model 3 beat Polestar 2 to market—and has done very well,topping global EV sales. But from behind the wheel, the Polestar 2 feels more modern.
The “launch edition” available now (a “Performance edition” will drop later this year) includes such standard features as pixel LED headlights and fog lights that actively bend around the road ahead; Harman Kardon audio; a panoramic glass sunroof; and a completely vegan interior. (I’d never have guessed that the black materials I sat on all day were vegan; they felt like some kind of jacket leather.) Recycled wood elements are standard. Perforated Napa leather is available for an additional $4,000 in only one color: barley, for the carnivores among us.
The 11-inch floating touchscreen tablet in the middle of the smooth dashboard contains the world’s first embedded Android Automotive native operating system, which is basically Google apps and services built-in to the car itself. (Apple CarPlay is also available.) It controls things such as climate and navigation as well. I accessed it simply by connecting to the Bluetooth, rather than having to plug in my phone, as you must do with Apple CarPlay in other current. cars. It comes standard with voice recognition commands and Google-assist queries, too. I asked it to tell me something funny and elicited the ultimate Dad joke. (“How do you make a hanky dance?” Answer: “You put a little boogie in it.” Cringe!) The whole system proved easy to use, taking about a minute to synch and master.
I didn’t have to work at all to master the coolest part of the Polestar 2. It started itself, rather than needing a button or key fob, before I even realized it. When I approached the car and pulled the door handle, it automatically woke up. Then, when I sat down, a sensor in the driver’s seat recognized my presence; when I pressed the brake pedal, the car “started.” There’s very little noise or vibration to mark ignition, which can make it tricky to know when it’s on. Trust me: If you’re inside, it’s on. I moved the shifter into drive, and off I went.
To turn it off, simply hit the “park” button and walk away. At night, similarly engineered “proximity” lighting will engage the car lights outside and inside as the owner approaches. (The car doesn’t roll slowly forward when you’re in drive, as other modern cars do, unless you select an interior option for it to creep; you needn’t worry that it will roll accidentally if, say, you think it’s off, but it’s on.)
The entire setup—from the moment you see the car to opening the door, sliding behind the steering wheel, moving the shifter into drive, and pressing forward—feels seamless. I predict you won’t miss turning your car “on” at all. I certainly didn’t. It simply meant I could start driving that much faster. Polestar has provided a vehicle that embodies thoughtfulness about the relationship between the driver and nature. If you believe the folks at Polestar, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
The Best Package
As you might expect, a car built by a company affiliated with Volvo offers loads of safety features: Polestar 2 has nine airbags with dual front, side, inner-side, and curtain airbags included as standard. It has Lane Departure and Lane Keeping Aid, plus driver attention monitoring and pre-collision warnings. It has a forward-facing camera that detects other vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. It shows upcoming road signs on the 12.3-inch driver display. I found this very helpful for driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, where the speed limit fluctuates by 20 mph or more, seemingly at random—which I expect is very useful to the “Chippies” (California Highway Patrol officers) that monitor its stretches like sharks).
That said, Polestar 2 affords plenty of room for improvement. The six color options for the exterior paint comprise tepid shades of gray, white, and black. The only one that comes standard is literally named “Void” (hello, unintentional irony), while the others cost an additional $1,200. The three interior color options (gray, darker gray, and beige) are as exciting as dental floss.
The brakes can feel unsettling to use because they feel stiff, like wooden blocks, when you depress them. This is due to Polestar’s “brake-by-wire” system, which works through an electronic control unit in order to retain and regain energy. When I push the brake pedal, a sensor interprets the pressure and urgency of the press; an onboard computer then switches the electric motors into regenerative braking mode, slowing the vehicle through electromagnetic resistance to help regenerate energy into the batteries. Under extreme duress, the system will use hydraulic braking, which brings the car to a faster stop and doesn’t “regen” energy. I get it. But even at the end of the day, I wasn’t used to their particularly odd feel.
Finally, it should be noted that, with as much as 750 horsepower and a zero to 60 mph sprint time of 2.4 seconds, the Porsche Taycan is in a different league altogether. It’s a great car. At $104,000 for the cheapest version, though—and nearly $200,000 for the most expensive—it also belongs to a completely different echelon of pricing. The Polestar 2 costs $59,900, about the same as a Toyota Mirai.
Closer to home: Top-of-the-line versions of the Model 3 are rated at a fraction of a second faster for zero to 60 mph than the Polestar 2, with a longer driving range as well, for those who select extended battery life packages. In real-world driving, the Model 3’s edge is negligible, even if the discrepancy arises in every conversation you will have with your buddies about these electric cars. Polestar will have an uphill battle to prove that when we consider the pricing, build quality, looks, driving performance, support network, and standard offerings, the Polestar 2 is the most complete electric car of its kind.
Just promise you’ll at least take it for a drive before you buy anything else.
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