Payne: Volvo's Polestar 2 is the conservative Tesla Model 3

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Coming to a dealership near you: “Spawn of Tesla.”

America’s best-selling luxury electric automaker has inspired a wave of competitors from legacy rivals. The Ford Mustang Mach-E has its sights set on the Tesla Model Y. The Jaguar iPace targets the Model S. The Audi eTron takes on the Model X.

And now, the best-selling Model 3 finally has its first direct competitor, the Polestar 2.

But where Tesla tore up the rulebook on how to make an all-electric car, Polestar parent Volvo hopes to attract customers with more familiar features.

Hatchback utility. The 2021 Polestar 2 has the same platform as the Volvo XC40 — and its hatchback cargo space.

Flogging the Models 2 and 3 across the twisties of Hell, Michigan, I marveled at how Tesla has transformed green-car expectations over early market entries like the Nissan Leaf. Tree huggers? These athletes are road huggers. Like the Model 3, the Polestar 2 has nearly 80 kWh of battery in its belly and loves to attack apexes. Hustling along two-lane North Territorial Road in the Polestar, I encountered a sleepy Audi A7.

Mash throttle. Zot! I was by him on a wave of electric torque.

Polestar may be an electric startup, but it sprung from the bosom of a 93-year-old Swedish car company — not a mad genius entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Legacy breeds conservatism.

The interior of the 2021 Polestar 2 is roomy, spare — but with a familiar layout of instrument display, center console screen and shifter.

The Model 3 shocked us with a spare cockpit anchored by a single 15-inch screen. All controls are in the screen, save two multi-purpose buttons on the steering wheel. Open the glovebox? It’s in the screen. Windshield wipers? In the screen.

Polestar 2, by contrast, modernizes Volvo’s familiar cockpit with a vertical, 12-inch screen. Adaptive cruise-control is controlled via traditional buttons on the steering wheel. An instrument display is behind it. The glove box is opened with a button. The wipers are operated by a stalk.

Given its more conservative nature, I doubt Polestar will sway the Tesla cult. Compared to hyper-growth Tesla, Polestar is suitably modest with its early sales projections. But it foretells a future of Tesla-like luxury vehicles.

Tesla is to cars what Apple was to smartphones. Its big screen revolutionized interiors. Its operating system set a new bar for electronics.  

The 2021 Polestar 2 can be charged on common CCS charging systems.

Think of Polestar as Android OS to Tesla’s Apple. Indeed, Android is at the heart of the Polestar experience.

Tesla follows Apple’s vertically integrated business model from battery production to its own operating system. Polestar is horizontal, contracting batteries to LG Chem and operating system to Android.

Polestar is the first to use Android OS in a car. Forget screen-mirroring your phone with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Polestar’s Android system is the real deal — a smartphone on wheels like Tesla.

“Hey, Google,” I barked at the car, just as I would my Android phone. The big screen awoke; familiar, multi-color Google bubbles awaited my command.

“Navigate to Hell, Michigan.”

The screen immediately plotted a course for Hell’s playground (from my Ypsilanti starting point). Android voice-recognition and ease-of-use put parent Volvo’s in-house OS (I recently used in a Volvo S60) to shame.

The Polestar 2 will naturally attract Volvo customers with its familiar Thor’s-hammer headlights, crisp styling and safety systems. They will also appreciate its hatchback – opening more useful cargo space than the Model 3’s standard trunk (the Polestar shares a platform with the Volvo VC40 SUV). And they will be impressed by the Android system – a big leap over Volvo’s fussy system.

The 2021 Polestar 2 uses its big screen for a nifty overhead camera view.

The revelation extends to the digital, configurable instrument display which takes a page from Audi’s playbook by duplicating your map route in the instrument display as well as console screen. Some Tesla buyers will prefer it to glancing sideways at a center screen.

But, to my surprise, the Android system otherwise mimics Tesla. Take AM radio, for example.

Tesla doesn’t have it. Why? I’ve never received a straight answer. “Because AM is so 15 minutes ago. No one uses it in California,” a Teslaphile once told me. Really?

Leave it to Polestar engineers to explain. Electric motors interfere with the AM signal, one told to me, because they have similar frequencies. So Polestar doesn’t offer AM either. Over time (like my Model 3) digital options should become available.

As will Sirius XM, another feature Polestar — and Tesla — don’t offer. Both EVs, however, do offer Spotify, and it’s slick.

“Play U2,” I said to my friendly Google Assistant.

A list of U2 songs populated the screen.

Not as friendly is Polestar 2’s range, where it runs head-on into Tesla’s secret sauce: charging infrastructure.

My Polestar returned 73% of expected battery range (73 miles on the road took 100 miles off the battery) in my spirited outing to Hell and back. My Model 3 has returned similar numbers. But the Tesla’s mighty 80-kWh battery boasts 325 miles of range versus Volvo’s expected 270 (when EPA finalizes numbers next month).

That matters when traveling to, say, Traverse City, 250 miles from Ypsi.

“Navigate to Traverse City,” I barked.

“Out of battery range,” replied Google, noting I had just 100 miles of battery range left. “Add a charging stop.”

The first available stop was, um, a slow, 240-volt ChargePoint station. The map even put the word “Slow” next to it. I’m not making this up.

As with other key components, Polestar relies on third parties for charging. Companies like ChargePoint, EVGo and Electrify America. Which means you’ll need to research on your own whether you can get to Traverse City. Ask Tesla how to navigate there and it’ll map your course, including at which 150-kW fast-chargers to stop.

Polestar depends on Electrify America for fast-charging (like every other EV-maker not named Tesla) — and they haven’t a single supercharger north of Lansing. Tesla has eight.

Translation: Polestar owners will take their Volvo XC90 SUV up north. The Polestar 2 is a city vehicle.

The steering wheel of the 2021 Polestar 2 will be familiar to Volvo drivers — despite that new Polestar logo.

Polestar is also conservative when it comes to self-driving. For an extra $8,000, Tesla offers you the world’s best autonomous capability. Automatic lane changes. Hands-free driving. Stoplight recognition (really, it just arrived in the latest over-the-air update). Polestar is content to give you Volvo’s adaptive cruise-control.

For many drivers that is enough. They don’t want to be a part of Elon Musk’s beta experiments.  

Unlike Tesla’s mad rush to world domination (it was America’s best-selling luxury car last year), Polestar is starting as conservative as its styling. The 2 is offered as a top-trim, all-wheel drive model at $61,200 — add $5,000 for the Performance option like my $66,200 tester.

That’s about $5,000 more expensive than an equivalent Model 3 Performance model. The good news: New spawn Polestar still qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Old meets new. A century after the gas-engine Ford Model T, left, defeated battery-powered cars, the 2021 Polestar 2 hopes to turn the tables and usher in a new EV revolution.

2021 Polestar 2

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, five-passenger electric hatchback

Price: $61,200, including $1,300 destination fee ($66,200 Performance model as tested)

Powerplant: 78-kWh lithium-ion battery pack mated to dual electric motors

Power: 408 horsepower, 487 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Single-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.5 seconds (Performance model as tested); top speed, 125 mph

Weight: 4,680 pounds

Range: EPA number pending. Estimated: 270 miles (as tested: 73 miles traveled took 100 miles off the battery) 

Report card

Highs: Familiar Android OS; hatchback

Lows: Conservative styling; lacks Tesla charger network

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.