On a late July evening, Tesla CEO Elon Musk stood onstage outside the automaker's Fremont, Calif., factory. Behind him, side-by-side videos were projected on a large screen showing a Tesla Model 3 and a Volvo S60 undergoing side-impact crash tests.
"On one side you have one of the safest cars in the world, a Volvo S60," Musk said, with cheers, then laughter from Tesla employees as the S60 driver-side door caved in while the Model 3 door barely budged. "The Volvo is arguably the second-safest car in the world."
Though just throwaway lines at the Model 3 sedan launch, Musk's remarks highlight a growing competition between the upstart electric vehicle maker and the Swedish luxury brand.
Both are bucking performance and sales trends, with a close eye on China. While Tesla has skyrocketed in value off flashy products, lofty goals and Musk's public persona, Volvo's 90 years of experience coupled with massive Chinese financing could unseat Tesla from its perch as a top tech and luxury EV brand.
"With the financial backing Volvo's got, they have the ability to try new things that they would not have been trying before," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "They can position themselves in a way they've never positioned themselves before."
Less than three months after the Model 3 launch, Volvo held a flashy introduction of its own: the Polestar electrified performance vehicle subbrand.
The new product line, part of Volvo's strategy to electrify all new vehicles starting in 2019, is to consist of the Polestar 1, a hybrid performance coupe; Polestar 2, a higher-volume all-electric sedan; and Polestar 3, a battery-electric SUV. While discussing the sedan — due in late 2019 — Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath had Tesla square in his sights.
"We want to go all-in, to where it's happening, to where it's cooking," he said. "We decided to build an electric car that will be joining the competition around the Tesla Model 3, bringing an exciting, appealing midsize battery vehicle to the market."
A spokeswoman for Tesla said the automaker welcomed competition to advance the market for EVs.
"Every compelling EV on the road is a win for Tesla," she said in an emailed statement.
Before heading Polestar, Ingenlath led Volvo's design turnaround after Zhejiang Geely Holding Group bought the automaker from Ford Motor Co. in 2010.
With an $11 billion investment from its new Chinese owner, Volvo rolled out a slew of well-received products packed with advanced driver assist technology.
The makeover drove a sales streak, with 461,313 vehicles sold globally in the first 10 months of 2017, and a target of 800,000 vehicles sold annually by 2020. With Polestar, the automaker is branching out of its traditional customer base to a more niche, performance-minded buyer.