Boasting about the summer holiday getaway was traditionally part of the pre-summer tradition. However, that boast has become more of an apologetic whisper as climate concerns rise. Be it an NGO director from Brussels, or a school teacher from Berlin heading to the South of France, more people are becoming familiar with the impacts of climate change, highlighted by 'flight shame', or smygflyga, as originally coined in Swedish. Even the alternative VW camper van fraternity, which often appears more ubiquitous in German cities than conventional saloons, are often heard just whispering about their planned road trips outside kindergartens. However, thanks to the dawn of electrification, can those long-distance journeys begin again, with the shame part being left at home?
PARIS – Driving from Southern Germany to the Automotive News Europe summer conference held at the prestigious Automobile Club de France in the heart of Paris, which focussed on decarbonisation, there was really only one way to attend the conference. The weapon of choice? A Polestar 2. Polestar CEO, Thomas Ingenlath, claimed recently that the Geely-owned and now publicly traded company which has its headquarters in Gothenburg but exclusively, for now, manufactures in China – US production begins 2024 – is decoupling emissions from sales growth. With the Sino–Scandinavia brand, which is derived from the Volvo performance arm, already giving it some brand equity and helping recognition which recent studies have indicated is far ahead of its Chinese premium competition outside of China, Polestar are putting a heavy emphasis on life cycle analysis as a key marketing attribute and racing to reduce emissions holistically from cradle-to-grave rather than just the well-to-wheel part of the active driving cycle. With just one product available – with the limited 1,500 unit Polestar 1 PHEV essentially just a halo-car marketing exercise to get the ball rolling – they have manufactured 130,000 Polestar 2 models up to the end of this year's first quarter. Available across 27 markets worldwide, the majority of models are sold in Europe, where 7,300 of the 12,076 first quarter 2023 deliveries (+26% y/y) were delivered, of which 43% ended up on UK roads. A 65,000-unit deal Polestar has with car rental company, Hertz, will help them scale further and is similar to BYD's deal with SIXT enabling the "new" brand to be seen on the streets. Former Volvo and VW designer and now head of Polestar, Ingenlath, claims this will also work as a driver to get new customers into their models, saying the company is already experiencing its first repeat customers. The Sino-Swedish brand has now been around since mid-2020 in Europe, launched at the height of the Covid pandemic. Over 75,000 have entered the region, up to the end of May 2023, since then. During 2023 they have a 60,000 - 70,000 global delivery corridor target, with 27,900 delivered in H1. Across the West European region, Polestar are present in 16 of the 18 markets, with Greece and France not represented. Stellantis defiantly battled to keep the Swedish/Chinese brand off French roads, claiming the Polestar logo infringed on copyright, stating it was too similar to the Citroën and DS brand logos. This was recently settled, and a French market entrance can be expected soon. After all, France accounts for almost 15 per cent of the total West European BEV car market and also witnessed it become Tesla's second-largest regional market after 5 months this year thanks to generous government subsidies. In light of the sales ban in France up until recently, driving to Paris had parallels – I imagine – of crossing the iron curtain in a Western premium model back in the late 1980s having attracted much attention during charging stops. The situation was so absurd, in fact, that one almost felt obliged to give the LEVC taxis, belonging to the same Geely group as Polestar, that were in evidence on Paris's bustling inner-city avenues a wave. Another fear was with the anti-Chinese rhetoric coming from the Élysée recently that some French vigilantes would be tempted to set it alight, which was the type of welcome Japanese cars received when they originally attempted to enter a hostile US market in the late 1970s. So bravely setting off to Paris in the delightfully low seating position from the wine hills of South Western Germany with Place de Concorde routed into the native Android Automotive operating system, Google maps made easy and coherent work of planning the journey. With little preparation, to be naive as possible about a cross-border long-run electric journey in the 78kWh single front-axel driven motor, the journey began.
Leaving Germany with a 100% charge at the crack of dawn, the route to Paris indicated just one stop would be required at an Ionity charger located about halfway between Metz and the Champagne region of Reims and instructed how much charge would be required to reach the French capital. As the ambient air temperature was already 20C at 08.00 in the morning, battery pre-conditioning was unnecessary, especially after a 130km/h, 250km journey. Arriving at the station with a 37% state of charge, it was within about 30 seconds that the charge speed rose to an impressive 157kW. Returning 25 minutes later – or, in layman's terms, an email, coffee and a croissant (ECC) – the battery was back up to 87% and was ready to go. Rolling into the outskirts of Paris 2.5 hours later with a consumption of 19.8kWh/100km, the navigation system, which could be viewed on the central touch screen or the digitized traditional cockpit view behind the steering wheel, which was of preference, indicated that the destination would be achieved with 10% charge remaining. Dumping the car in one of Paris's overpriced subterranean car parks, which is where visibility was a slight issue, and plugging it into an AC charger, the trip was completed 5 minutes before the shuttle bus to Renault's ReFactory facility departed, which was part of the conference programme. Thanks to the reassuring highspeed charging infrastructure lining the empty Autoroutes, appearing just as often as traditional fuel stations, charge- and range anxiety were intentionally left behind in the exotically Parisian hotel room on checking out for the return journey following the conference the next day. Having navigated the city's crowded streets, including kamikaze motorcyclists, out of the city in the late afternoon rush hour, back in the direction of the German border, the Pilot Assist system, which assists in steering, and ACC, were engaged to operate at 130km/h, while The Eagles, Life in the Fast Lane was lined-up using Apple's Carplay and turned up using the physical volume control wheel – highlighting the ideal balance Polestar adopted with both physical and touch screen buttons. The song appropriately reflected the evolution in EV driving patterns, moving from the first generation of EV drivers that could mostly be found dangerously slip-streaming trucks at 80km/h, evolving to a three-hour drive, between charges, at speeds of a constant 130km/h no longer an issue – in France at least. Meanwhile, the car's system indicated two stops would be required on the return journey as the car wasn't fully charged on departure. However, stops at a Fastned charging station reaching 149 kW using Alpitronic hardware that slowly appears to becoming the industry standard and a final splash and dash at Engie (135 kW) were a bonus, giving more opportunities to test the faultless French charging network. Volvo Cars ex-CEO Håkan Sammulasson who played an instrumental role in getting Polestar off the drawing board and remains their Chairman, once said during an investor call that he was eating too many hotdogs at Swedish fuel stations as the charging infrastructure wasn't up to the job.
Crossing into Germany and seeing the magic "no speed limit" symbol, it was slightly unexpected that the vehicle was limited to 164km/h.
Despite being rational, that could be overly sensitive for German drivers.
Having returned the vehicle with full confidence that at least those holidaying in France will have no problems this summer, the only question that remained was why Polestar's European volumes were comparatively low (14,020 Western Europe 5-months 2023) compared to Tesla's Model 3 (26,989).
The brand is still being built up, and they are also keen to achieve healthy growth rather than just rapid growth.
With the future models, the company said they will push even more strongly into the luxury segment, so they are clearly different from Tesla, which is after mass production.
While other Chinese OEMs will have a tough job of convincing BMW or Audi drivers to switch, Polestar, having clandestinely leveraged Volvo's brand equity and Scandinavian heritage, is carving a niche for itself.
And finally, just as a road trip was looking sensible again, a high-speed TGV train darted past, giving a brief reminder that the genuine ZEV fast lane in France remains on the tracks.
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*Western Europe 18 Markets: EU Member States prior to the 2004 enlargement plus EFTA markets Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, plus UK