The year is 2010 and I’m explaining to you that, a decade from now, Volvo’s almost-unknown motorsport partner will be wrestling for supremacy with an American car company whose only product to date is an electric take on the Lotus Elise. You laugh, because it all just sounds so implausible. Tesla Motors will soon become the first US manufacturer to go public since Ford in 1956 and Polestar is starting to flex its appeal here in Europe, building go-faster versions of Volvo’s regular but increasingly attractive saloons. But the two hottest mass-market properties in an emerging low-carbon world order by 2020? Come on. Surely the German and Japanese giants would never let that happen…
Yet here we are, at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire, with a Tesla Model 3 and a Polestar 2. The former needs scant introduction. The reptilian-eyed Model 3 remains the most popular electric car in both North America and China – and before Renault refreshed the Zoe, Europe also. Some treble, that. People gravitate towards Tesla because its cars tend to go further and charge faster than anything else, and even the lowliest Model 3 – the Standard Range Plus, which at £40,490 is the most junior Tesla and uses one motor, not two – can out-accelerate even something as rapid as Honda’s Civic Type R. Tesla also sets itself apart from established manufacturers ideologically, but you could write a book on that subject alone. The takeaway is that, for those keen to wean themselves off petrol, the Model 3 is one hell of a package.
One thing it never had was a true rival, until now. The 2 is an electric car of Chinese, Swedish and, yes, British provenance (Polestar has a research and development base just off the M69, adjacent to where Rolls-Royce plc makes aeronautical fan cases) whose deadpan presence gives it the aura of something that could have escaped from a clandestine military facility. At £51,900 when fitted with the Performance Pack (which adds Brembo brakes, 20in wheels, gold detailing and, if you hadn’t heard, manually adjustable Öhlins dampers), it costs roughly what this Model 3 costs, and the quoted 292 miles of WLTP range certainly isn’t buried by the 329 miles of its rival.
True, were you to go for the Long Range version of the Model 3 rather than the Performance tested here, you would cut the price from £56,490 to £46,990 and extend your one-hit reach by 19 miles. But equally, if you ditched the Performance Pack, the 2 would cost a near-identical amount.
As for pace, the Model 3 Long Range can accelerate from 0-60mph in 4.4sec and the 2 takes 4.7sec, so regarding the one metric that the EV evangelists just love to quote, there’s little in it. Or at least that would be true were our Model 3 not a Performance. Its 3.4sec sprint time is closer to that of the McLaren F1 than the 2, but in broad terms, these cars are still deliciously closely matched.
We have but one day, so the plan is to run down the M1 from Millbrook, splice through London then wind our way down through the capital’s suburban south and on to Ashdown Forest. From there, we will go cross-country to Liphook in Hampshire where, if the maps are to be trusted, we will find rapid chargers for both cars. The trip is 160 miles, which shouldn’t trouble our protagonists, despite the varied roads, yet is further than many owners will regularly need to travel. (Rivalry aside, the EV business has certainly progressed in the past five years.) Getting under the skin of these cars will require long-term tests with plenty of numbers crunched, of course, but today will be interesting nonetheless.