Packing a bag for Polestar’s Arctic Circle Experience, I check the forecast: overnight snow, it says, then dawning sunny at -15 degrees, soaring to -8 by early afternoon.
So, thermal underwear, tuque and gloves? Check. Winter coat, check. And winter boots? Well, maybe not.
With freshly fallen snow on the ground, thick boots with chunky treads should be a no-brainer. Except, the purpose of the trip is to hone our winter driving skills at Mecaglisse, a motorsport complex 90 minutes north of Montreal. It’s not quite the Arctic Circle, but still, every inch of the road course, skid pad and slalom straight is coated in snow and ice.
Sure, my Kodiaks would help me keep warm and vertical when outside the car. At the wheel, however, a pair of ballet shoes might better provide the precise pedal control that’s a priority when traction is a fraction of what it normally is.
I don’t own ballet shoes, and for this assignment we won’t be outside much, so I compromise on thick socks and my all-season walking shoes.
This isn’t my first trip to Mecaglisse, but it is the first involving electric vehicles. Our host is Polestar Automotive and the Sino-Swedish EV brand has brought along samples of its 2023 Polestar 2 compact sedan – the all-wheel-drive (AWD) versions with a 150-kilowatt motor at each axle. A crew of ace Quebecois racers/instructors will provide in-car tutoring.
Also present is Christian Samson, Polestar’s director of product attributes, to explain what’s different about AWD electric cars on treacherous surfaces.
These days, handling is no longer predestined by the fundamentals of weight distribution, power and driven-wheel count – that would be four for an all-wheel-drive vehicle and two for a front-wheel-drive car. As Samson points out, everything is now masterminded by electronic stability control (ESC). On an AWD EV, the ESC can directly regulate the power supplied to each axle, which allows faster and more precise control than conventional AWD vehicles with one engine and mechanical drivetrains. Polestar 2s also benefit from a weight distribution that’s close to the same, front and back.
Samson summarizes Polestar’s handling philosophy as “honest predictability.” The cars should feel light, with an athletic, confident approach, but also super stable. The steering should be responsive but not nervous. “Even someone who says ‘I don’t like driving’ should quickly feel at home,” he says; at the same time, it should reward drivers who like cars.
Out on the track, the surface smorgasbord of packed snow, loose snow atop ice and bare ice covers most of the bases for potential winter-driving treachery.
Goal one is not to embed the car in a snowbank – they’re not nearly as fluffy as they look, says chief instructor (and driving expert on the show Canada’s Worst Driver) Philippe Létourneau. Otherwise, we’re free to experiment with the car’s ESC modes (default or Sport, but never completely off), adjustable steering effort (Light, Standard or Firm), and three levels of one-pedal driving (regenerative braking).
Goal two is learning to induce, to use and even to enjoy oversteer – the tail slide when rear wheels lose traction. But “drifting” an AWD EV isn’t as simple as powering a classic rear-wheel drive vehicle into a controlled skid. One option is to use maximum regenerative braking as you approach a tight curve, lifting off the accelerator so the weight transfer helps the front wheels bite while the lightened rears swing out and rotate you into the turn. Of course, it’s still up to you to modulate the throttle and steering to exit the turn pointed in the right direction.
Trying to simply power-slide the Polestar is a haphazard affair, as we discover on the skid pad. Sometimes you just get run-wide understeer, where the car turns less sharply than intended. Other times you get the tail out, but before you can segue into that long, heroic, controlled drift in your mind’s eye, the ESC slaps your wrist and shuts things down.
With the right effort, even the ESC can’t completely save you, though it slows the car significantly during your “unintended departure from the intended path.”
Classes end with a lesson in the Scandinavian flick or pendulum turn, a technique designed to avoid understeer through tight, slippery corners. It begins by using braking weight transfer, plus a flick of the steering away from the upcoming corner, to set up a fishtail motion; then, you countersteer and let the second “wag” of the tail rotate the car so it’s now pointing into the corner. If you’ve timed it all right – a huge if in our case – you can now power out in a controlled slide.
Between limited seat time, changing conditions and “unhelpful” ESC interventions, none of us master this skill with any consistency in the Polestars. The main take-away, however, is how easy and predictable the Polestars are to drive on slick surfaces when you don’t want to be slipping and sliding.
That said, we should also note that the dual-motor AWD Polestar 2s at Mecaglisse were 2023 models, equipped with the Performance Pack that, in addition to chassis and braking upgrades, now includes a performance software upgrade that adds 68 horsepower (to 476) and 15 lb-ft of torque (to 502). Not that you can really deploy the power on snow and ice.
In the meantime, however, Polestar has already announced significant revisions for 2024. In addition to a battery-capacity increase to 82 kilowatt-hours from 78, the 2024s will have new in-house-developed motors, all of which will increase maximum range on the single-motor version to 483 kilometres from 434.
Even more significantly, the single motor will have 299 horsepower and 361 lb-ft of torque, up from 231 and 243, and switches from driving the front axle to the rear. At the same time, the dual-motor version for 2024 will be rear-drive biased, with a more-powerful motor at the back and a smaller motor up front that engages only as needed. Combined outputs grow to 421 horsepower (455 with the Performance Pack) and 546 lb-ft, from the original 408 and 467.
All of which is to say, next winter Polestar needs to do the Arctic Circle Driving Experience again, with 2024 models. Maybe by then, someone will also have invented perfect winter driving footwear.
At Polestar’s Arctic Circle Experience, the brand showed off a car made treacherous conditions.
The Polestar 2 ‘Arctic Circle’ is a one-off created by chief chassis engineer – and trophy winning rally driver – Joakim Rydholm, optimized for extreme winter driving. Based on a Long Range Dual Motor Polestar 2 with Performance Pack, its snow-and-ice adaptations include 30-millimetre higher ride height, 30-per-cent softer springs, and dampers tuned to match. The 19-inch OZ rims are shod with custom studded winter tires. A prototype launch-control system is controlled by steering-wheel mounted paddles. There are no plans for production, Polestar says.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
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