MALIBU, California—Just a handful of years ago, Polestar was best known as a Swedish Touring Car Championship race team, and more recently as the performance-tuning arm of Volvo—among those who knew of it at all. But Volvo in 2015 bought Polestar, and Polestar for the past several years has been its own operation within the Geely/Volvo family of marques. It’s dedicated to building not just high-performance cars, but, specifically, high-performance electric vehicles aimed at people who like to drive. The first car to come from the company, the Polestar 1, is a hybrid, but it was envisioned as a low-volume halo car that could serve as a sort of bridge for interested buyers to make the transition to the all-electric lifestyle. But from the 2021 Polestar 2 we’ve just taken for a test drive, and all of its cars from here forward, however, Polestar is all-electric, all the time.
That puts a heavy burden on the 2021 Polestar 2: Not only does it have to face down the established electric competition in a brutally difficult segment, it also has to be the standard bearer for the whole Polestar marque, at least until the Polestar 3 arrives with its even more crowd-pleasing crossover body form. But Polestar has a few tricks up its sleeve for its second act.
2021 Polestar 2: The Basics
Before we delve into our first test drive of the new Polestar 2 and how it compares to its primary competition, the Tesla Model 3 Performance, we should refresh ourselves on the Polestar 2’s hardware. Dual permanent magnet alternating current (PMAC) synchronous motors drive the front and rear axles independently, using the brakes to distribute torque between the wheels of each axle as determined by the sport-oriented stability-control system. Total system output of the dual-motor setup is 408 horsepower and an even more substantial 487 lb-ft of torque. With a 78-kWh battery pack (75 kWh of which is accessible), the Polestar 2 claims 291 miles of range in the WLTP cycle (but we expect something closer to 275 miles range when EPA-rated), while being able to run the 0-60-mph sprint in just 4.45 seconds on its way to a top speed of 125 mph.
With all of that power and torque, you might expect the Polestar 2 to be a bit quicker than it is, but then you have to remember this is an electric car, and it’s rather heavy compared to a combustion-powered car of similar dimensions; curb weight is 4,680 pounds. Of that weight, 51 percent of it sits over the front axle, 49 percent over the rear, meaning it’s about as well-balanced as a Mazda Miata, despite weighing more than twice as much.
Those of us who’ve spent unreasonable amounts of time chasing cones in parking lots, or, for the more well-heeled, chasing trophies in regional races, will appreciate the Polestar 2’s Öhlins suspension system. Why? Because it’s adjustable, but not via a button in the center console. No, you’ll have to pop the hood to reach the knobs to adjust the front dampers, and you’ll have to slide under the rear end to fiddle with the rear dampers. Call me crazy, but this is a feature I’d love to see more of in performance electric cars, and performance cars in general—this and features like it—because it’s a way to engage the driver with the actual machine, rather than just with what the machine can do. This sort of engagement has been slowly eroding away in new performance vehicles since well before the first Tesla hit the streets.
2021 Polestar 2: The Driving
Slide behind the Polestar 2’s wheel for a test spin and you notice, eventually, that there’s no “start” button. Instead, the car simply recognizes the key is in your pocket, and the fact you’re in the car, so it knows it must be time to drive, and it just turns itself on. Nice.
Shift into gear—there’s only one—and you’re off to the races (or the grocery store). If you’re a fan of fast cars, but you’ve never driven a high-performance EV, you might be a little underwhelmed at first, as there’s no cacophony of power loping at idle. But what EVs, including the 2021 Polestar 2, lack in sound they make for up in brutal, instantaneous torque and acceleration. Take it to a drag strip, mash the brake and the accelerator, then let off the brake while keeping the fast-pedal pegged, and the Polestar 2 does a very nice controlled launch, making it feel quicker than its rated 4.45-second 0-60-mph time.
But as fun as sudden, brisk acceleration can be, this is supposed to be a driver’s car, which should mean it’s just as rewarding when the road becomes twisty and power use becomes more judicious. Happily, it succeeds.
The 2021 Polestar 2’s balanced weight distribution gives it a fundamentally balanced disposition, leaving understeer and oversteer to the driver’s inputs. In fact, it exhibits neither unless provoked significantly, even with the Sport-mode traction control switched on. The lack of one-end traction loss isn’t a function of massive grip, either; the Continental SportContact 6 tires on Performance Pack-equipped models (in 245-mm section width, wrapped around 20-inch forged aluminum alloy wheels) are good, and highly talkative when approaching their grip limits, but their overall grip level is a high medium at best. But that’s fine, because while more grip would yield more speed, the lower traction limits let you explore the car’s balance more.
That balance is enhanced by the stability-control system, an area into which Polestar clearly put a lot of work. The combination of high, instant torque and street tires—even grippy ones—typically means performance electric cars are ready and willing to break traction under power at more or less any given moment. But even with more than 4,600 pounds of curb weight on high-medium grip tires, the 2021 Polestar 2 exhibits no perceptible wheelspin, and yaw is controlled just as tightly.
Steering feel is the weakest armament in the Polestar 2’s performance arsenal: It’s not non-existent, but it’s not especially communicative, either. It’s also not especially surprising, given the car’s hefty curb weight; it’s very difficult to deliver good steering feel in a heavy car. Polestar does offer three steering modes that equate to light, medium, and heavy steering force, but none noticeably improves the detail of information conveyed to the driver through the wheel.
2021 Polestar 2: The Context
That’s not to say the 2021 Polestar 2’s steering is bad; in fact, it’s rather decent, though I’d prefer a slightly quicker ratio for especially twisty roads. But whether it’s great or only OK is perhaps less important than whether it’s better than the testable competition, which, at the moment, is essentially just one car: The Tesla Model 3 Performance AWD.
By the numbers, the hottest Model 3 should stomp the Polestar 2. The Tesla’s 162-mph top speed dwarfs the Polestar’s 125-mph figure. Likewise, the Model 3 claims a 3.2-second 0-60-mph time to the Polestar’s 4.45 seconds. And the Tesla Model 3 Performance, even with its dual-motor, all-wheel-drive powertrain, is more than 600 pounds lighter than the 2021 Polestar 2.
Combine all of those factors and it’s easy to see which car would likely win the battle at any given road course (or drag strip, for that matter). You might even mistake those numbers for proof the Model 3 is “better” than the Polestar 2. But a driver’s car isn’t always about outright pace; it’s about the nuance and the feel of the experience, whatever the pace—just ask a Miata owner. This is where the 2021 Polestar 2 I tested pulls ahead of the Model 3 Performance.
The Model 3’s crazy power and torque are thrilling, but its chassis barely contains them. Mash the gas in the hot Tesla with a bit of steering input still dialed in as you exit a slow corner, and you’ll be rewarded with a tire-melting, tail-out slide. Impressive, and fun, but not exactly what was intended. The 2021 Polestar 2, on the other hand, simply digs in and goes, the chassis communicating the car’s grip at either end even when the steering can’t. And speaking of steering, the feel and communicativeness of the Model 3’s steering isn’t any better than the Polestar’s, and, considering the 600 fewer pounds the Tesla carries, may actually be worse, relatively.
Braking, too, falls in the Polestar’s favor. It doesn’t manage the transition from regen braking to real braking perfectly smoothly in every circumstance, but it’s mostly transparent, and noticeably smoother than the transition in the Model 3 Performance. With Polestar’s OTA update ability, don’t be surprised to see further improvements to the braking system, much as Tesla has done.
So, when it comes to actual performance-driving chops, the 2021 Polestar 2’s attention to nuance and balance gives it a leg up on the more muscle-car-like Model 3, but that’s not the only ace in the hole for the Polestar.
2021 Polestar 2: The Value
Our test drive demonstrated exactly where the Polestar takes the Tesla to school. Both cars are priced near $60,000, though the Model 3 Performance approaches that figure from $5,000 below, while the Polestar 2 with the Performance Pack sits $5,000 above. The nearly $10,000 price difference seems mostly unjustifiable if you only look at the performance specs, even neglecting the fact the Polestar is still eligible for federal tax credits the Tesla no longer gets. But the Polestar 2, with or without the Performance Pack, offers one feature you can’t get in a Model 3 at any price: A complete interior.
Yeah, I know, you Teslaheads are sick of hearing about how the Model 3’s cabin is bare and boring. “It’s the future! You’re just a dinosaur!” you say. Perhaps, but also: I’m a human being, not a robot (despite what my co-workers might say), and I like comfy seats, nice materials, and thoughtful design, all of which are abundant in the Polestar 2 and mostly non-existent in the Tesla.
More than a complete (and luxurious, despite being made of recycled and vegan materials) cabin sets the 2021 Polestar 2 apart from the Tesla. The controls’ layout, the distribution of functions across buttons and stalks as well as the touchscreen, and the general ease of use are all benchmark-level in the Polestar; this is the first car I’ve driven from this marque, and it took me effectively no time at all to figure out how to do anything I wanted to with the car’s systems. While most of this human-machine goodness comes from smart design and the fact the company behind Polestar has extensive experience designing cars from scratch, some of it comes from Google.
Wait, Google? Yes, Google. Google’s Android Automotive operating system, specifically. This isn’t the phone-tethered infotainment and maps experience of Android Auto you’re familiar with. This is the world’s first implementation of Google’s new built-in software platform, and it’s brilliant, especially for being the first shot at it. As you’d expect, the whole Google ecosystem integrates with the Polestar 2, but only if you want it to; the car can be used with or without a Google account. The most standout feature in a single day with the car? The nearly flawless voice commands enabled by Google Assistant, which is built into the 2021 Polestar 2 as part of the operating system. Want the climate at 72 degrees? Just say, “Hey Google, set the climate to 72”—or anything like that. It just works. Given more time with the car, the ability to install Android apps from the Google Play store might become my new favorite feature of the system.
I haven’t even touched on the driver-assistance systems, which, in addition to being quite advanced at launch (thank the corporate relation to Volvo), also have over-the-air (OTA) update capability, to allow Polestar to continue to improve and add features. I’ve mostly elided the car’s comfort, cargo, and daily-driver traits, too—all good on first impression, but which require more time to evaluate properly. I hope to spend more time with the Polestar 2 soon.
2021 Polestar 2: The Driver’s EV?
Back to that heavy burden on the 2021 Polestar 2, regardless of how it performs in test drives such as this. Can it bear the load placed on its shoulders as the standard bearer of a nascent marque, hell-bent on getting the world fired-up about electric cars that are also driver’s cars? Can it face the competition on a level playing field?
Yes, and yes. Is it the best driver’s EV on the planet? No, that’s probably the Porsche Taycan Turbo S, short of the handful of electric hypercars out there, anyway. But is it the best all-around driver’s EV on the planet for less than $70,000? Definitely—for now.
2021 Polestar 2 Pros
- The best-handling reasonably affordable EV on the market
- Manually suspension adjustable dampers are engaging and effective
- Google Automotive OS is very good, and will likely get better
- Has a luxurious, earth- and human-friendly interior
2021 Polestar 2 Cons
- Loses almost every spec-sheet battle to the Tesla Model 3 Performance
- Costs more than the Tesla, at least before rebates
2021 Polestar 2 Specifications
|PRICE||$61,200/$66,200 (Launch Edition, base/with PP, as-tested)|
|POWERTRAIN||Dual permanent magnet AC synchronous motors/408 hp, 487 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-passenger, dual-motor, AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||TBA (275-mi range, est)|
|L x W x H||181.3 x 78.1 (incl. mirrors) x 58.2 in (58.0 w/Öhlins susp.)|
|0-60 MPH||4.45 sec|
|TOP SPEED||125 mph|
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