First the Volvo XC90, now Polestar. Meet the man behind both

CEO Thomas Ingenlath tells us what Polestar is, how it's changed and where it's going

SAN FRANCISCO — The Volvo XC90 was already in the works when Thomas Ingenlath arrived to take over Volvo design, but the SUV he came upon was definitely not the end-result vehicle that will surely go down as one of the best-looking SUVs to ever be created. The rear end was completely transformed, as Ingenlath insisted that it needed the tall taillights that were a standout feature of the outgoing model. The Thor's Hammer headlight accent was his addition, as well. The proportions were basically the same, and certain things were locked in stone due to pre-existing engineering work, but the XC90 we know is ultimately Ingenlath's handiwork. It would go on to inspire every 90 and 60 series Volvo thereafter, each a feast for the eyes. The man knows how to draw a pretty car.

Now, however, he is tasked with an entirely new endeavor: selling pretty cars and creating an entirely new brand for them. Polestar had previously been an independent tuning firm for Volvo, akin to early AMG and M. Now, the name has been spun off into a separate brand devoted to high-performance, all-electrified offerings set to challenge the Tesla Model 3 in the affordable end of the luxury EV market.

It wasn't always going to be that way, however. The original Polestar vision was to exclusively produce high-dollar halo cars like the Polestar 1 and to be a brand Ingenlath compares to Aston Martin. The 1's boutique factory in Chengdu, China, that specializes in hand-built cars and is limited to 500 per year is effectively a vestige of that original vision. What changed?

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When still in charge of Volvo's design studio, Ingenlath's team created a four-door fastback-style hatchback with a slightly taller ride height. It was deemed too different by Volvo's American marketing wing – cars should be a sedan or a wagon, not whatever this was. The design was canned.

When Ingenlath arrived at Polestar, he and his team remembered that unusual car and brought it out of the closet, so to speak. That it was different from everything Volvo sold would make it perfect for Polestar. That it was basically different from everything else on the road, and vaguely crossover-like, would make it perfectly positioned to be a viable competitor for the Tesla Model 3. Suddenly, Polestar had a car and a vision that could make it a volume electric carmaker rather the maker of more trinkets of one-percenters. The brand's direction had changed, and the Polestar 2 was born.

By contrast, the Polestar 3 crossover to be unveiled at next year's Geneva Motor Show won't be coming from Volvo's cutting-room floor. It's a unique-for-Polestar creation, and Ingenlath says it'll be considerably different than the Volvo norm.

Yet, the lines of demarcation between Volvo and Polestar are much greater than the design similarities would indicate. We've already detailed the engineering and construction intricacies of the Polestar 1, and every future Polestar model will be 100% electric. Volvos will be "electrified," but gas engines will still be churning for the foreseeable future. There's also Polestar's greater emphasis on performance, but it doesn't stop there.

You can tell a car designer is in charge of the place because of the importance placed on visually establishing brand distinctions that go far beyond the cars themselves. Take their auto show stands, pictured above. Volvo's is warm and welcoming, with light-colored wood, soft gray couches and verdant images of Scandinavia. There were literally puppies in New York one year. Polestar, by contrast, is monochromatic and minimalistic, with white being the predominant color. It's cool and high-tech. "Polestar Spaces" will be similarly adorned, resembling something from a science fiction movie.

And what is a "Polestar Space?" That would be the brick-and-mortar stores masquerading as an "arty exhibit space" in Ingenlath's words, and staffed by what the Polestar website describes as "car nerds with encyclopedic knowledge and infectious enthusiasm." Sounds familiar. They will answer questions and demonstrate the cars, but do not work on commission. There will be no-haggle pricing, and purchases can be done at a Polestar Space as well as online. In that way, it's like Tesla. In another, it's not.

"We are not naïve to think that you'd buy a car without a test drive experience," said Ingenlath, quite obviously referring to Tesla's well-documented reticence in letting future customers try out its cars before purchase.

The Spaces will be adjacent to a select number of existing Volvo dealers, or in foot-traffic areas such as Tesla's brick-and-mortar outlets or those of some other luxury brands. The location in Oslo, Norway, is pictured below. 

There's something else that differentiates Polestar as a company: its size. The brand is owned 50% by Volvo and 50% by the Chinese carmaker Geely, which is not to be confused with the entire Geely corporate entity that owns them both. So, doesn't that just mean Geely owns 100%? When asked, Ingenlath basically said, "It's too complicated to even begin to explain." As I dislike going cross-eyed, I moved on. Yet, no matter the inanities of corporate agreements, the fact remains that Polestar is related to a larger, established automaker and can take advantage of its existing supply chain and manufacturing know-how – not to mention its design studio's deleted scenes.

Yet, it also has elements of an independent startup. Polestar has in its own headquarters building – albeit adjacent to Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden – its own small team of engineers, designers, executives and everything else that goes into a car brand. Ingenlath insists its small size lends itself to innovation by dealing with less overhead and corporate bureaucracy while fomenting stronger team chemistry and brand personality. Being small also means the CEO of a car brand ends up doing the product presentation for assembled journalists on a car launch. Now that's something I've never experienced before. There's certainly a humble, personable quality to Ingenlath that stands in sharp contrast to the typical automotive executive. Being new to the realm probably has something to do with it. If he proves to be as good at building and running a car brand as he was designing the cars themselves, Polestar should be a name we'll be paying attention to in the future.

Volvo XC90 Information

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