Shooting for Pole

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

WORDS STEVE CROPLEY PHOTOS STAN PAPIOR

wheels interview

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.

For a business that has spent 20 years doing things with Volvos that it will probably never do again, Polestar, Gothenburg’s new ‘electric performance brand’, carries a remarkable aura of freshness and new endeavour about it.

THE RIGHT STUFF FROM LEFT FIELD STUFF FIELD

CEO Thomas Ingenlath says Polestar will build desirable models that don’t fit the conventional grid, mentioning “fastbacks, hatchbacks and whateverbacks”. Here are some hits and misses that Volvo has built along those lines in the past.

P1800

1961-1973

Tough, comfortable and fondly remembered coupe used saloon engines and running gear in a remarkably stylish two-door format that lasted 12 years. Roger Moore made the car famous as transport for his sleuthing character in The Saint.

1800ES

1972-1973

Responding to the success of ‘ readvan’ coupes like the Reliant Scimitar GTE, Volvo modified its P1800, giving it an eye-catching glass hatch. Tougher US safety laws meant a short life as Volvo couldn’t afford to invest in required improvements.

262C

1978-1980

Following a Swedish visit by high-powered Ford-Lincoln execs, Volvo commissioned Bertone to produce this odd-looking 260-saloon-based coupe targeting US sales, using unaltered saloon mechanicals. Around 6600 were sold, including one to the late David Bowie.

480

1986-1995

Neat coupe-estate lasted nine years in production, mostly because it had more room inside than it appeared, it worked in the US and people approved of its pop-up lights. Typically Volvo tough, it was made in Volvo’s Dutch, ex-Daf Nedcar plant.

C30

2006-2013

Belgian-built, Focus-based coupe-estate bobbed up while Ford owned Volvo. It looked petite and was nice to drive but never really sold well, probably because it wasn’t cheap and had tough rivals. It nevertheless underscored Volvo’s 50-year interest in the coupe-estate.

POLESTAR’S HISTORY

1996

Flash Engineering established by Swedish ace Jan ‘Flash’ Nilsson as a touring car team. Nilsson wins the Swedish Touring Car Championship in a Volvo 850. The team progresses into the noughties with S40 and S60 S200 Super Touring cars.

2004

Flash Engineering is bought by Swede Christian Dahl and is rebranded as Polestar in 2005, which represents the star closest to the celestial North Pole, as well as alluding to pole position.

2009

The Volvo C30 S200 is the first fruit of Polestar Racing. Polestar Performance becomes Volvo’s official tuning partner.

2010

The first Polestar Performance concept is the C30 Polestar. Its second, the S60 Polestar concept, arrives in 2012. The Swedish flag, also applied as the nation’s early century racing colours, provides the cyan shade.

2014

With Polestar input, Garry Rogers Motorsport campaigns a Volvo S60 V8 Supercar in the 2014-16 Championships.

2013

Polestar Performance makes its production debut with the S60 and V60 Polestar, complete with Ohlins dampers.

2015

Polestar Performance and the Polestar brand are purchased by Volvo, while Christian Dahl retains Polestar Racing, which is rebranded to Cyan Racing.

2017

Polestar is repositioned as a manufacturer of high-performance electric cars independent of Volvo. Its first concept, the Polestar 1, is revealed in October.

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.

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

Ingenlath wants the Polestar operation to achieve a global volume of “around 50,000-plus 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-inwhite 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.”