The BMW i8 and Polestar 1 have a shocking amount in common for two cars that feel so different. They both employ small-displacement, forced-induction engines that would have been laughed at in this price bracket a decade ago. They both remain largely unchanged from the concept cars on which they are based. They both represent flagship offerings for new divisions of their respective automakers.
Don’t let that trick you into thinking these are similar vehicles, though. Between them exists a 1,700-pound weight difference and a power delta that could swallow a Volkswagen GTI. One also has three times the electric range of the other.
Because there’s so much that separates these two, the one you’d rather take home is mostly subjective, but I and the automotive experts that compose MT’s editorial team have our own consensus on which is the better-executed plug-in for your $150,000. It might surprise you.
Bavarian Beauty and Swedish Style
The most visible difference between these two is the styling. BMW‘s i8 draws more than a little inspiration from the i8 concept that made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2011. The production car is almost identical, with the same long, low proportions and dramatic butterfly doors that will have lots of folks immediately identifying it as a supercar.
Aerodynamic elements running along the rear haunches look as futuristic today as they did on the concept car eight years ago. This is still a car that demands attention and catches eyes out on the road. I don’t remember who was the first to point out the Porsche-like section of the rear end, but once you see the i8 as a supercar excreting a 991-gen 911, it cannot be unseen.
The Polestar takes a different approach to six-figure style. It’s a taller, wider car than the i8 and looks more like a conventional grand tourer à la the Bentley Continental GT than a hybridized impression of a mid-engine Italian. It’s rare that concept car styling makes it to the road, but just like the BMW, the Polestar pulls it off with bodywork cribbed from Volvo’s 2013 Concept Coupe.
This is a much more restrained design than the i8. The long hood, 21-inch wheels, and wide, square hips don’t stand out in the way the mid-engine BMW does, but the longer I looked at this design, the more I fell for it. Little details like the clamshell hood and bezel-free side mirrors elevate the Polestar 1 beyond a chopped-up Volvo S90—it looks the part.
Business in the Front or Party in the Back?
There’s a reason these cars look as different as they do; their engines are in different places. The Polestar evokes front-engine grand tourers like that Bentley because, well, the engine is under the hood up front. It’s a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that Volvo uses in more powerful versions of its sedans, wagons, and SUVs.
The i8, like the mid-engine exotics with billionaire doors, squeezes its engine behind the cabin and ahead of the rear axle. If you thought the Polestar’s 2.0-liter four-banger seemed inadequate at $150,000, get this—the i8 has a 1.5-liter turbocharged three-cylinder, borrowed from non-S Mini Coopers. Don’t get too upset, though. I was a big fan of this eager, torquey little engine when I drove it in a Mini last year, and for use in the i8, BMW turned up its wick quite a bit.
The hyperactive version in the i8 cranks out 228 hp—almost 100 hp more than it does in the Mini—and 236 lb-ft of torque. Combined with power and twist from an electric motor up front and a tiny starter motor hanging off the engine, total system output measures 369 hp and 420 lb-ft. In the opposite corner, the Polestar engine’s 326 hp and 384 lb-ft work together with three motors (one on each rear wheel and an integrated starter-generator up front) to produce 619 hp and a pavement-rippling 738 lb-ft.
Notice that the Polestar doesn’t rely as heavily on its gas engine as the BMW. Whereas 62 percent of the i8’s power comes from air, gas, and spark, the Polestar only gets 53 percent of its power from the engine. More on that in a moment.
Performance figures are as follows: The i8 hits 60 mph in 4.5 seconds and clears the quarter in 12.9 seconds at 112.1 mph. A lap of the figure eight takes 24.7 seconds; 100-0 braking can be accomplished in as little as 111 feet. Those numbers are nothing to scoff at, but the Polestar leaves them looking only subpar.
Despite its SUV-like 5,155-pound curb weight, the hybridized Swede is quite the performer. Straight-line acceleration in the Polestar results in a 3.8-second 0-60 time and a 12.0-second quarter mile at 119.1 mph. Huge Akebono brakes help it stop from 60 in 102 feet, and it’ll lap the figure eight in 24.5 seconds.
The Real World: $150,000 Hybrid Edition
As pretty a picture as the numbers paint, you can learn a lot more from driving these two back to back and living with them in the real world. On track and on the road in the i8, multiple of our staffers faced frustrating understeer. The i8 rides on particularly narrow 215-section tires that just can’t deliver enough grip. At or approaching the limit, the neutrality and balance we love in most mid-engine sports cars eludes the hybrid BMW.
In the i8’s Sport mode, which you can activate by knocking the shift lever over to the left, there’s plenty of snarl from the turbo three-cylinder. Some of that engine snarl comes from the speakers, not the engine, but it didn’t strike me as overly synthetic. It sounds a bit like half of a Porsche flat-six eager to make itself known.
It feels quick, too, but uninspired top-end performance holds it back from feeling fast. I will say that integration between the gas and electric drivetrain components is nearly seamless.
The doors are a massive pain. Not one of our editors managed to enter or exit the i8 with any semblance of grace; those doors combined with the high, wide door sill results in ingress maneuvers that executive editor Mark Rechtin compared to falling into a bathtub. Once inside, exposed-weave carbon fiber and running shoe-like seat inserts remind you you’re not in a normal new BMW, but so do the obviously last-gen iDrive and infotainment controls.
Oh, and the cargo area is small, awkward, and—because it’s right on top of the engine—hot. It smells like melting adhesives, and I’d be nervous to store anything I cared about back there.
The Polestar plays an entirely different game. It’s a car that can feel worryingly fast, not just quick. The twin-charged four-cylinder sounds more like a forced-induction kitchen appliance than an engine, but the Polestar leans hard on its electric powertrain. Its engine only kicks on under full throttle or if the car is running in Power mode.
There’s as much grip as you’d ever need on the street, and manually adjustable Öhlins dampers round the edges off sharp impacts. It’s hard to imagine any Polestar owners climbing under the rear end to adjust the damper settings, but the default setup (9 clicks up front, 10 in the rear) worked well for us on road and track.
Over the high limits, though, the Polestar is a bit frustrating. Its two-and-a-half-ton curb weight means fast transitions can be sloppy, and my figure-eight lap sitting alongside testing director Kim Reynolds saw him frequently needing to deactivate a traction control system that kept turning itself back on.
Conventional doors mean the Polestar is no harder to get yourself into or out of than a Camry. The interior is recognizably Volvo, but I maintain that most of these bits felt a step above what they needed to be in Volvo models, so especially considering the brogued seats, glass roof, and real carbon fiber, it almost lives up to the price level here.
You also get a Bowers & Wilkins audio setup that’s right up there with the best in the business—the i8’s system sounds muddy and shallow by comparison. The Polestar’s cargo area is actually smaller than the i8’s in total volume (thanks to glass-encased electrical hardware in the trunk), but it’s a wider, more conventionally shaped space that could easily swallow a golf bag.
That trunk hints at the most fundamental difference between these two flagships. The Polestar truly feels like a modern electric grand tourer with a supplemental gas engine; the i8 is more of a wannabe supercar with a boosted economy car powerplant and a little hybrid help.
Polestar’s first effort can travel farther on electricity alone than any plug-in hybrid on the market. Its 65-mile all-electric range is more than three times that of the i8—most owners wouldn’t ever actually need the gas engine unless they were taking a weekend road trip. Even if you didn’t feel like plugging in every night, an hourlong drive into downtown L.A. in Charge mode restored about a third of the Polestar’s battery and provided as much electric range as the i8 has on a full charge.
There are those who will fall in love with the i8’s exotic mid-engine styling and flashy doors enough to overlook its inconvenient ergonomics and middling performance. That being said, unless you feel an emotional connection to this car, it’s a hard one to recommend in this company.
If I wanted a hybrid sports car, I’d take an Acura NSX. Were I searching for a more affordable, great-looking hybrid grand tourer, I’d look toward a Lexus LC 500h. But if I sought the most versatile, well-rounded, mature, exciting, daily-drivable, electric-forward super coupe, I know which machine I’d want in my garage. It’s the Polestar 1.
|2019 BMW i8 Coupe||2020 Polestar 1|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Mid-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-3, alum block/head, plus 1 front/1 mid electric motors||Turbo- & s’charged I-4, alum block/head, plus 1 front/2 rear electric motors|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||91.5 cu in/1,499 cc||120.2 cu in/1,969 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||228 @ 5,800 rpm (gas); 141 hp (elec); 369 hp (comb)||326 hp @ 6,000 rpm (gas); 71 hp (front elec); 2 x 114 hp (rear elec); 619 hp (comb)|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||236 lb-ft @ 3,700 rpm (gas); 184 lb-ft (elec); 420 lb-ft (comb)||384 lb-ft @ 2,600 rpm (gas); 119 lb-ft (front elec); 2 x 177 lb-ft (rear elec); 738 lb-ft (comb)|
|REDLINE||6,500 rpm||6,500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||9.4 lb/hp||8.3 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||2-speed automatic (front); 6-speed automatic (rear)||8-speed automatic|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||0.98:1/2.47:1 (elec front); 3.68:1/2.47:1 (gas rear)||3.20:1/2.15:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, transverse leaf spring, adj shocks, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||13.4-in vented, drilled, 2-pc disc; 13.0-in vented, drilled, 2-pc disc, ABS||15.7-in vented, drilled, 2-pc disc; 15.4-in vented, drilled, 2-pc disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||7.5 x 20-in; 8.5 x 20-in, cast aluminum||9.0 x 21-in; 10.0 x 21-in, forged aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||215/45R20 95W; 245/40R20 99W Bridgestone Potenza S001 (star)||275/30R21 98W; 295/30R21 102W Pirelli P Zero VOL|
|WHEELBASE||110.2 in||107.9 in|
|TRACK, F/R||64.7/67.8 in||64.8/65.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||184.9 x 76.5 x 50.8 in||180.5 x 77.1 x 53.2 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||40.4 ft||37.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,484 lb||5,155 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||48/52%||47/53%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.7/32.4 in||38.0/33.3 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||43.1/28.2 in||42.0/20.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.7/49.6 in||56.3/49.7 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||4.7 cu ft||4.4 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||1.9 sec||1.6 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||2.0||1.6|
|QUARTER MILE||12.9 sec @ 112.1 mph||12.0 sec @ 119.1 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||111 ft||102 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.93 g (avg)||0.98 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||24.7 sec @ 0.79 g (avg)||24.5 sec @ 0.83 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,800 rpm||1,400 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$152,195||$156,500|
|AIRBAGS||8: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||7: Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|HYBRID/BATTERY||8 yrs/100,000 miles||yrs/100,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/Unlimited miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|FUEL/BATTERY CAPACITY||11.6 gal/11.6 kW-hrs||15.9 gal/34 Kw-hrs|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||69 mpg-E (comb only)||65 mpg (comb est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||49 kW-hrs/100 miles||52 kW-hrs/100 miles (comb)|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||0.28 lb/mi||0.30 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium, 240V electricity||Unleaded premium, 240V electricity|