The Polestar 2 has arrived in the U.S., where it has two strikes against it.
First of all, it’s an electric car — a sharp-looking fastback, but undeniably a sedan in a market that shows ever-declining interest in such vehicles.
In addition, it’s made in China, so it faces a 27.5 percent tariff — a five-digit penalty that more than offsets the federal $7,500 tax credit for EVs.
So maybe this car in 2020 America is not the perfect test of Polestar as a challenger to Tesla. Fair enough: The plan is to sell only 1,000 to 10,000 in the U.S.
Polestar, as you may recall, is the joint venture between Sweden’s Volvo and China’s Geely, which are both owned by Li Shufu, the Chinese billionaire who started with a refrigerator parts company and parlayed it into a sprawling empire that now includes Volvo trucks, flying-car company Terrafugia and a large stake in Daimler.
Li has just about ended the illusion that Volvo and Geely are separate, having planned (then postponed during the pandemic) an outright merger of the two, which already share platforms, powertrains and sometimes executives.
The Polestar name itself uses a little sleight of hand. It comes from Volvo’s performance subbrand, but it presents itself as a new brand — a new type of brand, if you will, like Tesla, that prefers high-end mall space to a showroom floor and that takes orders online, with options selected as easily as toppings on a pizza.
I had the opportunity to drive a Polestar 2 last week. It’s a fine car with more than enough range for daily driving. It isn’t large, but the panoramic glass roof gives an open feel. The styling is simple and sharp — the yellow seat belts on the slate gray seats evoke a premium airline. You get the instant acceleration and noticeable quietness common to all EVs, and a Google Android OS that makes it easy to do cool stuff with streaming media. (At least mostly. Two efforts to verbally order up classic pop songs on Spotify came back with the correct artist, but the wrong tune.)
Comparisons to Tesla’s Model 3 are inevitable and intentional. If you don’t choose to speak your wishes, you control just about everything through a large vertical touch screen. The design feels legitimately Scandinavian, but its primary impression is the iPhone-like minimalism that is a hallmark of Tesla’s interiors.
This is probably the spot where I should make a joke about Tesla’s shoddy workmanship, particularly in its early years. While mismatched door panels are grotesquely unprofessional, Tesla’s customers routinely forgave the company’s errors because they had such strong positive feelings about the car, the company and its leader.
The Polestar 2 I drove seemed very well built, without gaps, rattles, squeaks or undue wind noise. It speaks to the brand’s strategy that aims to be the best of both worlds: the excitement of a new “startup” EV brand, but one that is backed by decades of engineering and manufacturing experience — and enjoys economies of scale from being part of a larger group. The Polestar 2’s platform, for instance, is also used for Volvo’s XC40.
But in a market where it seems that the only sedans that sell are to returning loyalists or wearing a Tesla badge, selling an electric car for $60,000 or so is not for the faint of heart.
While Tesla might seem to have the disadvantage of being smallish and making it up as it goes, it all feeds the Elon Musk mythology that his shareholders and customers gobble up. The Musk mystique is central to the brand’s appeal.
He laid out ambitious plans to clean personal transportation and make humans an interplanetary species. Can he really do all that? Maybe not. But something to believe in, something that inspires people makes them willing to pay more for a Tesla than they will for other cars.
Li, as fascinating as he is, is not so open as the pot-stirring, pot-smoking, pop-artist-dating Musk.
Musk is a master of social media (when he isn’t getting himself sued), and he’s no longer alone out there. Akio Toyoda is active on Instagram. Jim Farley joined Twitter.
Li is more of a man behind the curtain, at least when it comes to the U.S. and Europe.
Maybe it’s time for him to start a blog — start telling his own story and inspiring people with it. I can’t say it will get the tariffs lowered, but it might help move a few sedans.