Interview: A Conversation with Polestar CEO and Design Director Thomas Ingenlath

Volvo’s performance brand doesn’t want to be anything like Tesla

Designers rarely get to run the show at carmakers. Think of Michelangelo commissioning his own sculptures and you understand why people who control purse strings tend to keep the creatives at bay.

But Thomas Ingenlath, CEO of Volvo’s new stand alone Polestar brand—and the former VP of Design at Volvo who before that had design responsibilities at both Volkswagen and Audi—might just be a smart choice here. To understand why he was chosen to head the brand, you have to know that Polestar isn’t meant to be what Lexus is to Toyota, or Genesis to its parent, Hyundai. The goal isn’t specifically luxury at all. Rather, it’s to be Volvo’s test-bed for performance and electric propulsion, starting at about $40,000 and topping out in the mid-$150k range.

The brand’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1 coupe, is an anachronism, more of a taste of what the company is to become. It jumpstarts Polestar with a serious splash, and all 200 cars allocated for the US market in late 2019 sold out rapidly despite their $155,000 price. The 600hp all-wheel-drive hybrid is the car Silicon Valley folks can drive to show they’re different from their Tesla-driving neighbors.

Much as the Tesla Roadster created awareness for the brand the path was always to their more accessible, higher volume Model 3, Polestar’s next of three announced models, the Polestar 2 and its estimated $40,000 sticker price, is intended to convince more people to desire driving an electric vehicle. It’s that broader commitment to emissions-free propulsion without a sort of, as Ingenlath put it, “clichéd” design trade-off that a designer brings to the table that a numbers-counting CEO might not grasp.

We met with Ingenlath this past week in New York, where Volvo revealed the production version of the Polestar 1, and he presented the car and the brand while wearing, not a suit, but black jeans and a bright yellow motorcycle jacket. While very much a designer he is also a strong operator.

What do you mean by saying Polestar is “a performance brand without cliché?”

There is this idea that we should give people what they expect and that’s just the wrong perception. We’re not paid to do that. We’re paid to be the creative minds to predict what the future is about. We cannot, and should not, hide behind old expectations. We have to create a new desire.

But talk about this in the context of performance, and where performance brands are at the moment.

That is the most difficult part of it. We’ve gone to this sort of grotesque extreme. At some point you still have to resonate with people. From the very first day at Polestar, we’ve said creating an individual brand with a strong personality cannot be at the expense of becoming exotic in a kind of outcast way.

Yes, but where do the scales go for balance and how do you signal performance and newness without going to extremes?

It’s not about being quirky or extremely extroverted, exotic just to be exotic. We’ve seen that already…over the last ten years, trying to make this special “electric aesthetic.” People tire of that. Polestar will be more holistic in our development. You cannot break basic rules of proportion, basic rules of beauty—that will not change. That was relevant in the Renaissance, it is relevant today, and it will be relevant in the future. You cannot sustain a brand and go against that.

But at the same time you get to leave Volvo behind, to do something new.

Yes, it’s amazing how suddenly not having the legacy of, you know, there was a car before or the market expects this or that. There is no market expecting this or that. We are starting from scratch with a totally new offer, and that is so enjoyable. We get to explore the opportunities of the moment. Note that society is always driving what’s happening with design, so even if you think you are doing something entirely new, you’re not doing it in isolation. You’re really reacting to what’s happening in society through your design. So an electric car enables certain changes, and maybe people now are more welcoming of new technology, and you’re reflecting that desire back to them.

Society is always driving what’s happening with design, so even if you think you are doing something entirely new, you’re not doing it in isolation. You’re really reacting to what’s happening in society through your design.

We spoke nearly three years ago and at the time you were concerned about the state of automotive design and aggression. What about now?

They’re still getting more bizarre. We will push the envelop, but not toward aggression, and that is where the car industry doesn’t help you. If you want to get that perspective you look at other industries. At, say, a soccer cleat. It’s highly functional, and can be quite extreme in its aesthetic, and while the expression is quite dynamic, it never crosses the border toward being hostile.

Both Volvo and Polestar are pushing a “club model,” where I become a member of the brand and I can drive a car for a year, but don’t deal with maintenance or insurance, or any of the restraints of a lease. It’s much more like a cell phone contract. And the dealer experience then is more like going to an Apple Store, where I might just go to check out what’s new and never buy anything. 

Apple is the master example of building a relationship with the customer. Yes you go to an Apple Store because you need advice, you need somebody to enhance your experience with the product and to learn about it. And maybe you buy something, maybe you go and click on purchase at home instead and it doesn’t matter to Apple, they earn money wherever you do that final step. So that is indeed a good role model for how the digital sales channel and retail can live in harmony.

Apple also does something you’re trying to do, to be cool for someone at entry luxury, up to something fairly expensive.

Yes, this too is an art. But someone asked me before about taking market share from Tesla, but that’s not the point. Nor is the idea that many carmakers talk about when they use this word “mobility,” as we transition to electric cars. Yes, this is a product, and it has to appeal widely, but let’s be honest: We are still selling cars. Yes, the retail space is important. The subscription model is important. But without cherishing the product I would never say “mobility” is our prime business. Our prime business is building better electric vehicles. Today that means, now that there is the Jaguar I-Pace, the Mercedes EQ, the Audi e-tron [link to CH stories on these] and the Polestar 2, which  will be revealed in Q1 2019, we can finally get out of this niche corner of electric vehicles and just think about them for what they are, not something amorphous called “mobility,” just cars.

Vehicle images courtesy of Polestar