When it was launched, the Concept Coupe brought up some interesting product development and branding questions. It’s now being released as the (arguably cooler) Electric Performance Hybrid Polestar1.
This is the introductory product and, presumably, the halo car for the newly-re-broken-out sub-brand Polestar.
For those that may not recall, Polestar was a tuner and racer of Volvo products that was brought in-house by Volvo to serve as its performance sub-brand (not unlike Mercedes’ AMG), relegating the R to little more than an insignia for an appearance package. Polestar is now a standalone, electric-focused performance brand, who may be introducing their cars on a subscription basis. The future is nigh.
Why did this happen? Volvo’s challenge may simply be referred to as the “near-luxury dilemma”. In short: how do you develop an emotional, evocative, and engaging brand in an amorphous but overcrowded and overshadowed market segment?
Does one lean toward technology and comfort like Lexus? Lean toward luxury and performance like Infiniti? Or become technology- and performance-oriented like Acura? Should you lean toward safety, comfort, and reliability like… Volvo? Clearly, a creating a unique selling proposition is integral in developing sales and maintaining an ownerbase of a brand’s product line.
One characteristic ingrained in the brains of US-market consumers is the safety bias of Volvo products. This is an immensely equitable aspect of the brand—it may not seem glamorous or exciting, but it’s exceedingly important and consumer concern for this doesn’t dwindle. (e.g. Searching for a daily driver: Option A looks good but explodes, Option B looks good and saves your life and the lives of those around you on the regular–by far most consumers would choose option B)
The issue here may be that staying on the leading edge of safe tech is expensive and other brands are keeping pace (see: Mercedes-Benz) while other unexpected brands are gaining (see: Hyundai/Kia). Assuming this is the concern, surely one can do safety AND something else:
Job 1; protect human occupants with the latest and greatest technology, including unique application of said technology.
Job 2; spoil human occupants with beautiful, tasteful, thoughtful and unique design.
Let us not forget another well-known Volvo attribute: reliability. My first car was a 1988 740 GLE wagon. It went 287,000 miles before I sold it, still running. It weighed over 3000 lbs, produced 23mpg, handled shockingly well… and it was an exceptionally comfortable long-distance driver. Though, of course, no sports car–unless you opted for the Turbo, which made things quite interesting.
Speaking of the 740 Turbo, another direction already explored is the R/Polestar angle. One of my favorites is the S60R/V70R. This is a 300hp/300ftlb turbo-charged 5-cylinder Sport Sedan/Wagon with AWD, active suspension, and rather large Brembos. The performance is hard to complain about (in 2004) considering the package and price. This was a Swedish M3 with a bigger trunk and AWD. That said, it’s a niche within a niche within a niche (especially the V) and could never have been a volume seller.
Extrapolating the R model into an R-Design package line was one way to get the R emblem on more cars (nod to Audi’s S-line), but the Polestar package was the way to impart its spirit. Is this the best strategy for the brand?
This Volvo enthusiast says no.
I would agree, though, that Polestar, R-design, and R were too many sport designations for a non-performance-oriented brand.
To keep the R alive, Volvo would have needed to reserve the moniker for the most extreme version of its road cars. R-Design dilutes the idea, and Polestar obfuscates it. Abandoning the R for a watered down variant (or a line of variants) seems an ill-advised move that promises more volume and hopes for more profit. The Polestar angle seems an attempt at redefining it.
The R had–and still has–a strong cult following. Swedespeed and ipd know what this is about: reliability, durability, performance, AND comfort and safety. With so many desirable attributes, it does make it difficult to nail down exactly why the R cars were so loved. That would also be an explanation of why there were so few produced. It’s not because it’s a weak product offering, it’s because it’s a niche product. And therein lies the rub.
With Volvo’s 100% acquisition of Polestar in July of 2015, it seemed the R was truly dead. Polestar was the new R, and the R-Design line would continue to put a sporty veneer on the standard cars.
It’s not the worst thing in the world: R enthusiasts clamored for the 274 S60/v60 Polestars destined for US shores in 2016. And, of note, the Polestar is equipped with AWD, a 345HP turbo-six, and floating and ventilated Brembo discs (fronts are 19″! ).
Interestingly enough, I might have been totally cool with this:
BUT, as of October 2017, Polestar is its own entity… so, even this fantasy is dashed. What now for Volvo enthusiasts? There’s only one choice.
In the mean time, read more about what Polestar is doing!