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Will Trump's China trade war kill Polestar's plan to take on Tesla in the U.S.?

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

The Polestar 2, the first electric car to go straight up against Tesla's Model 3, is due to go on sale in the U.S. by summer 2020. But will it?

If the trade war between China and the U.S. gets much worse, the car -- which will be made at a factory in Luqiao, China -- might not be sold in the U.S. at all, said Thomas Ingenlath, Polestar's chief executive.

Polestar is a new electric car brand from Volvo, which in turn is owned by China automotive giant Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, known as Geely for short.

The Polestar 2 is a sporty electric sedan with 275 miles of range, priced between $45,000 and $65,000 before federal and state incentives, which can reduce that by as much as $10,000 for many California buyers.

The company plans to build 50,000 of the cars in its first year of production. Up to about 40% will be sold in China, Ingenlath said. Norway, which offers heavy incentives for electric cars, will be its No. 2 market.

Right now Polestar plans to sell about 30% or so of the first year's run on the U.S. West Coast and Canada. "We would embrace free trade as in the interests of the consumer," Ingenlath said. While all international companies must operate in a world where trade barriers are common, and Volvo's U.S. plans have been made with existing tariffs factored in, Polestar won't export cars to countries where rising tariffs make a product's price "ridiculous," he said, but will "scale up or scale down" U.S. plans depending on tariff levels. Tariffs on China-made cars sent to the U.S. are currently set at 25% by the Trump administration.

 

Ingenlath was in the Bay Area last week for the big Google I/O developers' conference. Polestar (and Volvo) plan to use the Android Automotive Operating System as the base for their infotainment systems.

Relaxing with a cappuccino at Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco's hip Mission District, the former Volvo head designer said that Android's open development platform, where third-party software writers that meet Polestar's requirement can add applications, is one way to differentiate the Polestar 2 from the Tesla Model 3.

There are other "big differences," he said. One is the design, which he insists "pushes the borders" more than the Model 3. Customer opinions on car design are mostly subjective, and Ingenlath damned the Model 3 looks with faint praise: "The Model 3 feels very fresh. It has a prototype quality to it, it's very primitive in some form."

Quality will set the Polestar apart from the Tesla, he said. Well aware that the Model 3 currently faces serious issues with misaligned body panels, infotainment screens that go black, and batteries that don't work, Ingenlath said, "We'll be much more professional in doing a complete product. More professional knowledge about processes, materials, long-term quality." Tesla declined to comment.

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