Volvo’s de­sign boss has been tasked with trans­form­ing the Polestar sub-brand into a man­u­fac­turer of pre­mium, de­sign-driven EVS. All in a day’s work for a crayon twirler? Thomas In­gen­lath sets us straight

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

Volvo’s chief scrib­bler lays out plans for EV sub-brand

Per­haps it’s the sky-gaz­ing na­ture of the name that does it, or the re­cent com­plete re­think of its part­ner­ship with Volvo, a com­pany which it­self has man­aged to stand out­side the money-driven, horse­power-crazy, Ger­man-cen­tric melee that forms the arena for main­land Europe’s other pre­mium man­u­fac­tur­ers.

It also helps that, for the past six months, Polestar’s for­tunes have been guided by an am­bi­tious new CEO, Thomas In­gen­lath, who, as Volvo’s chief of de­sign, has spent the past five years mak­ing Gothen­burg’s lat­est mod­els beau­ti­ful and rel­e­vant. De­sign­ers don’t al­ways make good business man­agers, but In­gen­lath in­tends to be an ex­cep­tion.

What­ever the key rea­sons for Polestar’s eye-catch­ing na­ture, this for­mer pro­ducer of hot Swedish sedans and win­ning WTCC rac­ers, bought out of pri­vate own­er­ship by Volvo in mid-2015, has a fas­ci­nat­ing fu­ture ahead; a neat mix­ture of sur­prises and logic. To bet­ter un­der­stand the strat­egy, we took a trip to In­gen­lath’s de­sign lair in­side Volvo’s mighty Gothen­burg fac­tory, where the Polestar 1 has now reached pro­duc­tion readi­ness (and awaits com­ple­tion of its Chi­nese man­u­fac­tur­ing plant for a 2019 launch) and the Polestar 2 and 3 are al­most fin­ished. Prepa­ra­tions are un­der way to ad­dress the mar­ket­ing chal­lenge: Polestar wants to meet its cus­tomers mostly on­line; pro­vid­ing them with chances to see cars in three di­men­sions but avoid­ing the usual plod­ding show­room ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Polestar 1 be­gan life as Volvo’s Con­cept Coupe from late 2013, a beau­ti­ful 2+2 cre­ated to demon­strate the flex­i­bil­ity of the SPA (Scal­able Prod­uct Ar­chi­tec­ture) that un­der­pins to­day’s larger Volvo mod­els. It was well re­ceived, but it had a prob­lem. The man­age­ment knew it was never go­ing to fly as a nor­mal Volvo: too much cost ver­sus too lit­tle vol­ume. And yet…

“It has taken al­most two years to get where we are,” says In­gen­lath. “When Polestar 1 was still the Con­cept Coupe, it at­tracted lots of at­ten­tion. Ev­ery­one wanted to know if we were go­ing to build it, but it was al­ways clear it wouldn’t work in the nor­mal Volvo way, and not just be­cause of the business case. It also had de­sign fea­tures that stretched Volvo too far – yet we felt its pro­por­tions ideally fit­ted the GT cat­e­gory.”

The Con­cept Coupe be­came a spur for a whole Polestar en­ter­prise, help­ing to grow the idea for a Volvo elec­tric per­for­mance brand. The name was fresh, worked in many lan­guages and was associated only with Volvo but needed a bet­ter-de­fined mis­sion. Gothen­burg bought the com­pany, whose own­ers oblig­ingly re­branded them­selves. Then work be­gan to re-en­gi­neer the Con­cept Coupe with a much more ex­otic car­bon­fi­bre body (lighter and stiffer than steel). At the same time, the hy­brid pow­er­train was de­vel­oped to a new, higher level.

In launch guise, the Polestar 1 will have to set­tle for the de­scrip­tion ‘elec­tri­fied’ when it hits the mar­ket in 2019, whereas its suc­ces­sors will be purely bat­tery-elec­tric cars. It has a 444kw pow­er­train (a 280kw 2.0-litre tur­bocharged and su­per­charged petrol four driv­ing the front wheels, plus a pair of 82kw elec­tric mo­tors on the rear axle) and there’s an un­der-floor bat­tery big enough to give a 145km elec­tric-only range. It is the first car to make use of

Oh­lins’ con­tin­u­ously con­trolled elec­tronic sus­pen­sion in pro­duc­tion and is ad­vanced in most ar­eas – which is just as well be­cause In­gen­lath’s business plan calls for hand-man­u­fac­ture of just 500 units a year, priced at more than €150,000 a car (which would trans­late to around $370,000 in Oz).

“Polestar 1 is very much a halo prod­uct,” says In­gen­lath. “We’re go­ing to need those for the fu­ture, just as we’ll need low­er­priced mod­els to bring flair and feel­ing to a much broader au­di­ence.”

Which is why the Polestar 2 and 3 will be con­sid­er­ably lower priced and less ex­otic than the Polestar 1, defin­ing the other ex­trem­ity of the mar­que’s tar­get area by mak­ing use of ex­ist­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing and util­is­ing ex­ist­ing Volvo run­ning gear. The Polestar 2 is tipped to be a mid-sized pure EV hatch, in­tended for pro­duc­tion in 2019 to chal­lenge Tesla’s ea­gerly awaited Model 3. The Polestar 3 is a larger SUV. In­gen­lath won’t yet spell out ex­actly what the sec­ond and third mod­els will be like, ex­cept to say that they won’t share the pro­file of ex­ist­ing Volvo mod­els but will use Volvo in­te­rior de­signs. They’ll have “spe­cial Polestar shapes”, he says, and he agrees read­ily that a mod­ern it­er­a­tion of the old 1800ES ‘bread­van’ coupe would make a great con­tem­po­rary Polestar model.

In­gen­lath says he has “noth­ing to hide” when it comes to us­ing suit­able Volvo com­po­nents for his new de­signs, cit­ing this as the only eco­nomic way of help­ing Polestar achieve its aims. “This is a fam­ily,” he says, “so we have some com­mon val­ues. Our prod­ucts will share a cer­tain qual­ity of build and a cer­tain de­gree of us­abil­ity. And there’s the safety. We’ll never com­pro­mise on safety in a Polestar car.”

As time goes on, the real skill, says In­gen­lath, will be in mak­ing wise de­ci­sions about where to in­vest Polestar’s lim­ited de­vel­op­ment funds.

In­gen­lath wants the Polestar op­er­a­tion to achieve a global vol­ume of “around 50,000plus units” in five years’ time, based on a three-model line-up that by then should be on the point of fur­ther expansion. Although no Polestar model will share its body-in-white with a Volvo, he re­serves the right to keep do­ing Polestar-mod­i­fied Volvos. “We like those,” he says, “but they’re still Volvos.”

Other sim­i­lar­i­ties? Both mar­ques will con­tinue to use the suc­cess­ful prin­ci­ples of the cur­rent ‘Thor’s ham­mer’ head­light de­sign. The way that shape develops will be quite dif­fer­ent from one to the next, but we will al­ways be able to see a re­la­tion­ship, In­gen­lath prom­ises.

Our in­ter­view time is up. In­gen­lath nowa­days has two de­mand­ing jobs‚ and clearly he needs to get on with one or the other. Even so, he com­fort­ably bats away my con­cerns for his abil­ity to sleep at night. “In a place like this, you never do your job on your own,” he says, eas­ily. “We have many good peo­ple here, and they are the rea­son it works.”

Polestar 1 will be hand­built in car­bon­fi­bre; lim­ited to 500 units

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