Volvo C30EV on the road.
This post was written by Andrew English and originally appeared on the Popular Mechanics website.
In this rough economic climate, it appears Volvo has weathered the storm. In September, Ford’s Swedish car-making arm, Volvo, showed a 16 percent sales increase over last year—one of only nine automakers to do so. And the Swedes are showing a firm embrace on the latest environmental technologies, even if the company doesn’t quite have the wherewithal to put them all into production right now.
What will be in European showrooms next year is the plug-in hybrid V70 wagon with the capability of traveling 31 miles in electric-only mode. We’re going to have to wait for the battery-electric C30EV coupe, but Popular Mechanics was given a preview drive of both recently.
Volvo has been researching hybrid drivelines for almost 20 years with its first hybrid concept car, the ECC hybrid, appearing in 1992. Electric drive seems a perfect fit for a company that lists the protection of the environment in its articles of association. The V70 range of station wagons is a solid candidate for hybridization, with a constituency of wealthy, environmentally savvy buyers who might be willing to fork out a little extra for a bit of right-on eco hardware in their family wagon.
Rather than go for a traditional hybrid, where Toyota’s Prius has an almost unassailable lead, Volvo is choosing to leapfrog into plug-in technology with a diesel engine. With a conventional front-wheel drive 205-hp 2.4-liter diesel packing 331 lb-ft of torque under the hood, the V70 PHEV will operate in diesel-only mode most of the time. In the back, however, is a 12-kilowatt-hour, U.S.-made EnerDel lithium-ion battery pack that powers a 70-hp permanent-magnet AC motor with 162 lb-ft of torque driving the rear wheels. That, according to Volvo, is enough to propel this 4433-pound charabanc on electric-only power for a maximum of 31 miles, enough to cover over 75 percent of daily European commuting. Top speed using the diesel engine is about 135 mph; in electric mode it is limited to 80 mph and 0 to 62 mph acceleration is 8.9 seconds and 15 seconds, respectively.
As befits a Volvo, the emphasis is on safety, with the battery enclosed in a heavy steel cage that will withstand almost any conceivable accident, including a crunching offset rear impact. The separate diesel and electric drivelines also mean there is a rudimentary all-wheel-drive capability for when the going gets really sticky, which is also the basis of the forthcoming 4WD system from Land Rover.
The C30EV is an altogether more ambitious project, but one without a green light at present. Based on Volvo’s attractive four-seat coupe, this 3250-pound car is powered with twin 330-pound lithium-ion battery packs (also from EnerDel) that sit under the rear seat and down the center of the vehicle. With a combined capacity of 24 kwh, these batteries provide enough juice to the 109-hp permanent-magnet motor with 137 lb-ft of torque, to give a range of 93 miles, a limited top speed of 81 mph and 0 to 62 mph acceleration of 10.5 seconds, though not all at the same time of course. That theoretical range is enough to cover more than 90 percent of European commuting.
Climb in either of these cars and you quickly appreciate Volvo’s fundamental grasp of driver ergonomics. These are the clearest and easiest to understand instruments on any electric car, with gauges for battery contents, charge and discharge, and a separate needle for the rate at which the car’s ancillaries such as the heated windscreens, radio and so on are eating into the batteries’ charge. Add in Volvo’s immaculate passenger comfort, including brilliant seats and competent interior packaging, and electric power (hybrid or battery) seems as normal as, well, any other Volvo.
The V70 plug-in starts with a quick systems check followed by, um, silence. Select “Drive” on the standard automatic gearbox and this big station wagon rolls gently forward without you touching the accelerator. Volvo’s engineers have designed this “creep,” but also ensured it doesn’t burn up battery capacity at the standstill.
The whirring estate fair races away from the standstill, a characteristic of electric-powered cars, which provide maximum torque at zero motor revolutions. The rear-mounted motor is very quiet and provides easy 50-mph cruising and wafting acceleration that is perfect for commuting, if not the interstate dash, where the diesel engine will start and can occasionally be boosted with the electric drive for high-power overtaking moments. The car feels heavy, but not impossibly so. Trouble is, that weight takes its toll and after just three gentle laps of the test track we had burned 2 kwh of the batteries’ charge, which gives an effective range of just 18 miles. Fewer hills and much gentler driving would extend this, but it’s still obvious that the V70’s diesel engine is going to be running for a fair amount of time and then you are just dragging around 551-pounds of battery pack, control electronics, inverter and motor.
The C30EV doesn’t have this drawback, in theory at least, as it has no conventional engine. But you can feel the considerable heft as you take off. The front-mounted motor is louder than the V70’s, although a dodgy wheelbearing on the test car added to the overall cacophony. Acceleration is brisk but tails off as the speed increases. Without the planned distribution of the batteries (the test car only had a rear battery), it was difficult to judge the handling at extremes but the coupe felt stable and perfect for the suburban crawl, if not tearing around country roads.
The Bottom Line
Volvo is not in a position to lead the world into electric motoring. It lacks the money and the inertia. Even the V70 plug-in hybrid, which goes on sale next year, is a simple device that merely stores braking energy as volts and allows a bit of grid-powered driving. Volvo is banking on two things to make sense of the V70 and the C30EV. First: economies of scale that bring down the cost of lithium-ion batteries and second, that governments in Europe will restrict combustion engines in congested urban areas either with heavy tolls or outright bans.
In the first instance, it’s worth noting that the cost of batteries has fallen by 30 percent since last December and looks like it might fall further. In the second, will the V70’s mere 31 miles of electric-only range be enough to escape the European tolls? And will the V70 manage that range in normal driving?
As to the C30EV, this is a polished effort, which drives well and promises fine handling. Right now Volvo is doing the same math as most other companies: Do you sell or lease the battery? Do you get into bed with the electricity suppliers, or the battery recharging companies? The C30EV is an impressive start, but no one really knows what an electric future will look like and how it will work. With that in mind the best we can say is that Volvo’s technology is certainly promising.