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Paying for a power boost in an EV—good idea or worst idea?

Paying for a power boost in an EV—good idea or worst idea?

Aurich Lawson | Getty Images

For some years now, the tech industry has been transforming the automobile. We often hear that consumers, enamored with their new smartphones, want some of that same functionality in their new car. Less is said about investors who have grown rich from software companies that sell a product and then charge customers a subscription or fee to unlock certain features. They really do want that functionality in their car company investments, so the era of being offered paid upgrades to your car is here whether you want it or not.

Today, Polestar announced a power upgrade for owners of the long-range, dual-motor Polestar 2, whose two motors generated an equal 201 hp (150 kW) for a combined 402 hp (300 kW). That’s more than sufficient to make the dual-motor Polestar 2 a quick car, befitting the new brand’s stated identity of being focused on electric performance cars.

The only problem is those electric Volvos that share the Polestar 2’s CMA platform. Both the Volvo C40 and XC40 have dual-motor battery-electric vehicles that, just like the Polestar 2, offer a combined 402 hp. With cars so utterly defined by the software that controls them, it’s easier than it used to be to give them different driving personalities. But perhaps to create a bit more differentiation, Polestar has always offered a performance pack.

It’s pricey at $5,500, but in addition to a 73 hp (55 kW) power bump, you get very clever adjustable dampers, bigger brakes, a set of larger wheels with stickier tires, and even gold-colored seatbelts to match the damper covers and Brembo brake calipers.

For people who bought the long-range, dual-motor car without ticking that box, there’s now a way to get the extra power, however. For $1,195, Polestar will unlock that performance via an over-the-air update, which obviously does not include the wheels, fancy suspension parts, and so on. The upgrade drops the 0–60 mph time to 4.2 seconds, but Polestar says the most noticeable part of the new power curve is felt at higher speeds—from 44 to 80 mph (70–130 km/h).

“This upgrade highlights how connected technologies can transform the relationship a car company has with its customers,” said Thomas Ingenlath, CEO of Polestar. “The driving experience in Polestar 2 is something we are really proud of. It is such a fun car to drive already, but with this upgrade, we can offer even more to our customers who might be after a little extra excitement.”

At least it’s a one-time purchase, and Polestar says it’s a permanent upgrade to the car. And it’s not like people haven’t paid for better performance in the past; Polestar’s own origins are as an aftermarket tuner for Volvos. Others are asking for a recurring subscription.

Those investors who want their automakers to create recurring revenue streams will surely be watching Mercedes-Benz’s recent news. Last week, industry watchers noticed a “coming soon” page for a new feature called Acceleration Increase, offering a 20–24 percent power increase for Mercedes EVs. Again delivered by software over the air, the update boosts the power of the EQE 350 4matic sedan or SUV by 60 hp (45 kW) and the EQS 450 4matic sedan or SUV by 87 hp (65 kW).

That’s a significant power increase, dropping the 0–60 time by up to a second depending on the model, although it still doesn’t rival the more expensive EQE 500 or EQS 580 variants in terms of power output. The cost is $1,200, but unlike the Polestar offer, this one is a yearly subscription rather than a permanent power improvement.

To me, this feels less like the tuning days of old, though repeatedly opening one’s wallet just to maintain the same level of performance might sound disturbingly familiar to some. And in terms of consumer protection, there are perhaps bigger problems to be outraged about than the buyers of very expensive cars shelling out more cash to get software upgrades. Even so, I’m not sure outrage matters more than the bottom line these days.

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