Saturday, July 24

Polestar 2 – better than a Tesla Model 3?

First to market…..isn’t always best!

For sure, Tesla were the first to market with a truly practical electric car. Even if eye-wateringly expensive for most of us, their Model S and Model X models had a very decent and usable range. More recently, others have tried to break into this high-end market, such as Jaguar’s I-Pace and Audi’s E-Tron, without major success. Indeed, Tesla’s sales success has continued at a somewhat lower price point with their Model 3 saloon, which, again, has had the market pretty much to itself for few years.

Until now, for an upstart new brand going by the name of Polestar have launched a car clearly aimed at addressing some of the deficiencies of the Model 3, and incredibly close in range, size, performance, price and even name – the Polestar 2.

Who are Polestar?

Who are Polestar? Good question: until recently, they were the sporting wing of Volvo, rather like AMG for Mercedes or M Sport for BMW. Moving forwards, Polestar have now morphed into an all-electric brand with the aim of being the technological leaders of the Volvo Group.

So why not call the new car a Volvo? Probably as a result of a clever piece of forward planning on the part of Volvo’s management: One of Polestar’s key markets is the USA, where grants of up to $7,500 are currently available to electric car buyers. However – and this is the key factor – the maximum grants are only available to manufacturers who have produced less than 200,000 cars. This incentivises the purchase of vehicles from new brands, but leaves existing high-selling manufacturers, like Volvo at a disadvantage. Indeed, Tesla were previously a major beneficiary of this US grant system, but their sales volumes are now high enough to minimise or eliminate the grant. Hence calling the new model Polestar and not Volvo.

Quality first

So, is the Polestar 2 a worthy competitor to the now well established Tesla Model 3? The legions of diehard Tesla fans will say no, and leap, often aggressively, to defend their favoured product, overlooking its many and varied foibles. More measured folk will however look at the two cars and compare, for example, the excellent quality of the Polestar offering in terms of fit and finish to the sometimes less than robust construction of the Tesla, and draw their own conclusions.

This issue of build quality is very real. Even after a couple of years of production, social media still reports build quality issues with Tesla products even though they should have been engineered out long ago. In contrast, the social media feeds for the Polestar 2 are unanimous in praising the build quality. The Facebook Group for UK Polestar owners has around 1,000 members, none of whom have raised a single build quality issue – not one!

Potential buyers may also read reviews of Tesla’s patchy reliability and hit & miss service support operations and reflect on the fact that the well-regarded Volvo dealer network will look after the Polestar products. Now, it’s a fact of life that new model introductions do seem to be beset by early life problems these days, and in truth the Polestar 2 has had it’s share of issues – as has every other recent new model, whether electric or internal-combustion powered. The difference is that Polestar have been dealing with those early life issues quickly and efficiently, whereas a review of the online forums suggests that Tesla continue to produce cars which have issues. Should you believe all you read in social media etc.? Well, that’s your call – but my view is that smoke and fire are usually pretty close bedfellows!

Lest you think that this praise of the Polestar support is marketing hype, let me relate my own experience: my Polestar 2, one of the first dozen into the UK, failed at home one morning. Within an hour, a Polestar Assistance technician had arrived, diagnosed the fault, arranged recovery to the Volvo dealership and provided a top-spec hire car, which then stayed with me until the Polestar was repaired. Yes, it would have been great not to have had the issue, but given that it did happen, the support was faultless. And the handful of other owners reporting the same issue have all been supported equally excellently.

Behind the wheel

If things progress to test driving both cars, some people will be uneasy at the absence of a speedometer in front of the driver in the Tesla Model 3 – it’s located along with everything else in the big touchscreen in the centre of the car, so you need to divert your eyes from the road to see it. The Polestar, in contrast, has the speedo right where you need and expect it – in front of the driver.

advacar.com polestar_2
The huge Tesla Model 3 centre display: everything is on there, including the speedo. 
Photo: Evo Magazine

This placement of everything on the Tesla’s centre screen does feel like a whim on the part of the designers which has been left unchallenged by supposedly wiser heads in their organisation. As an example, given that blind spot warnings, those very useful alerts which pop up if another vehicle is close to you are universally fitted in door mirrors and so in your peripheral vision, who on earth thought it was a good idea to put this blind spot information not in the usual place in the mirrors but on that centre touchscreen? The list goes on – audio volume and mirror settings are but two of the items which can only be accessed via the screen.

And the Polestar? That too has a big centre touchscreen, albeit slightly smaller and far less in-your-face than the Tesla. Importantly, it also has a more conventional instrument and information display directly in front of the driver. Not only that, it also has physical controls for key items such as windscreen wiper and audio volume. In a major first for any car brand, this central screen, its infotainment system, and indeed most of the systems of the car are handled by Google’s Android Automotive operating system. Polestar and Volvo have concluded that rather than trying to create their own technology to run infotainment systems and the like, it makes more sense to use the skills and experience of Google to do so. Interestingly, Polestar / Volvo’s lead in this is now being followed by others, with General Motors and the Renault / Nissan alliance shortly to announce Google-controlled systems.

What does Polestar’s use of Android Automotive mean in practice? In short, the centre screen totally banishes the often slow and cumbersome responses of some similar offerings: it is lightning fast, beautifully sharp and operates exactly as you would expect a bang-up-to-the-minute tablet at home. Impressively, the sat nav runs Google Maps, probably the best mapping system currently available, and is overlaid with details of charging stations, should you need them.

Another benefit is the presence of Google Assistant. Now, many cars feature voice control, often of limited usefulness and reliability, but Google Assistant takes things to a whole new level. If you are a fan of Amazon Alexa, Google Home, or Siri, then imagine that functionality and effectiveness transferred to your car. A quick “Hey Google” command can be used for anything from selecting a radio station to turning on the heated seats to providing a local weather forecast. Interestingly, Google Assistant is alert enough to not only accept your spoken input of navigation destination, but also to then advise you of any relevant information on that destination. For example, after inputting a shop as a planned destination, Google instantly alerted me that the shop closed in less than an hour. Thanks, Google!

Importantly for our UK market, where hatchbacks are far more popular than saloons, the Polestar 2 has a full-size tailgate, electrically-powered in the case of the launch model. True, the Tesla’s boot may be of very slightly greater capacity, but by comparison access to it is akin to posting things through a letterbox.

What about the driving experience? Both the Tesla Model 3 and Polestar 2 are fast – very fast – with acceleration figures good enough to trouble a supercar, should you and your driving licence really want to do so. The Polestar however delivers up its performance in a more refined way than the Tesla, making it easy to accelerate from standstill gently where necessary. In contrast, the Tesla’s response to a throttle prod is more brutal, the car surging forward even with a light pedal touch, which can be wearing in stop/start traffic. But don’t think that the Polestar is lacking in outright performance: its 4.7 second 0-60mph time is almost identical to the Tesla Model 3 Long Range version.

Other than that, much comes down to personal choice. Unless you were to drive both cars back to back over the same roads, there is not a lot to choose between them in terms of ride and handling. Although very similar in terms of size, both inside and outside, the lower window and bonnet line – relative to the seat – of the Tesla Model 3 give a feeling of openness, which some will like although as a result you do feel more vulnerable when surrounded by heavy trucks. The Polestar 2 in contrast feels much more snug and perhaps safer, thanks to the higher window line.

Self-driving hype

Polestar 2 and Tesla Model 3 both feature a similar level of semi-autonomous driving capability, with either car equally able to maintain a set speed and distance from other road users on motorways and other high-standard roads, accelerating, steering and braking as necessary so long as the driver keeps at least one hand on the steering wheel most of the time. Tesla do offer “Full Self Driving” as an expensive option, although frankly this offers little benefit over the standard system and is unlikely to do so unless and until legislation changes significantly, which is unlikely to happen in the near future.

Adding the electrons

And as a final consideration, how easy are they to charge? Tesla’s Supercharging network, it has to be said, is excellent – reliable, plentiful and conveniently located. Yet it’s not perfect: charging speeds can slow down if the supercharger stations are busy, and charging is no longer free. The Polestar needs to use the various public charging networks, some of which are less than perfect: Ecotricity chargers at motorway service areas are notoriously unreliable. Yet the situation is improving quickly. Several networks are now opening multiple rapid chargers at convenient locations. Instavolt, for example, has a Tesla-equalling 8-stall charging station just off the M40 at Banbury.

And the winner is…..

So, does the Polestar 2 knock the Tesla Model 3 off the top space on the electric car podium? For some, the sheer image and mystique of the Tesla brand and its iconic leader will hold sway regardless of logic.

For others who will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the rival offerings logically, it will be hard not to conclude that the combination of engineering integrity, outstanding quality, great driveability, an excellent Service network, all backed up with the stunning if understated Scandinavian style of the Polestar 2 win the day!