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Volvo’s electric programme and the 150 mpg V60 Plug-in Hybrid

Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid all-wheel drive estate car

Volvo invited Green-Car-Guide to its Gothenburg HQ to discuss the firm’s electric car programme, and in particular to be amongst the first to see the V60 plug-in hybrid – an all-wheel drive estate car with 640 Nm torque and emissions of just 49 g/km CO2.

All manufacturers need to be seen to be doing something on the electric car front. Volvo has gone down a route similar to other manufacturers by taking an existing Volvo C30 and replacing the combustion engine with all-electric drive, a car that we also drove on our visit. However it’s the V60 plug-in hybrid that really promises to give Volvo a unique differentiation in the electric car market.

The V60 plug-in hybrid combines new, sporty-looking styling with the classic Volvo estate concept, together with a powertrain that offers performance with extremely low emissions. As if all that wasn’t enough, thanks to the diesel engine there will be no range anxiety, and the architecture also promises all-wheel drive – something that should certainly be useful in Volvo’s home country of Sweden.

The Volvo V60

The V60 is a similar concept to the hybrid system of the Toyota Prius, with a conventional engine mated to a battery and electric motor. However the Volvo uses a diesel powerplant rather than a petrol unit – and a more powerful engine than that found in the Prius. To provide a longer range on the battery, you can plug in the V60 to the mains (charge time is around four and a half hours). It also has a larger battery than cars such as the plug-in Prius, offering around twice the potential zero-emission driving range.

The idea is that you would primarily use the car in its zero-tailpipe electric mode for short commutes (up to 30 miles), resulting in zero g/km CO2 emissions if recharged from renewable energy, but if you need to drive longer distances then the diesel engine provides this ability. A regenerative braking system assists with increased efficiency.

The five-cylinder 2.4-litre turbodiesel engine, mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox, primarily powers the front wheels, and the electric motor propels the rears. This provides all-wheel drive, however the torque will always be biased towards the front rather than the rear. It’s an all-wheel drive system with capabilities that are the result of its mechanical layout rather than by the goal of ultimate off-road ability.

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Although it might seem that the transition from front to all-wheel drive is purely due to the electric drivetrain, that isn’t actually quite accurate. If you need all-wheel drive to get up a snowy hill, and the battery is depleted, then Volvo says that you can send power to the rear wheels from the diesel engine via the generator, therefore meaning that the rear-wheel drive capability is not just pure electric drive.

The V60 has three driving modes: pure, hybrid, and power. The hybrid mode is the default, where the diesel engine and the battery work together. If the battery is low, then it can be regenerated by the diesel engine. Volvo says that it will be possible to prevent the hybrid system working if desired – for instance to save battery power in advance of entering an urban low emission zone.

Pure mode is where you select all-electric drive – which can mean up to around 30 miles of all-electric driving, if the conditions are right (this range could reduce to as little as 10 miles if driven in an unsympathetic way, or in very cold climates). If the battery charge gets too low, the car’s system will revert to hybrid mode. In an emergency, a full kick-down feature also activates the hybrid system.

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In power mode, the diesel engine and battery work together. This means that the 215 hp diesel engine and the 70 hp rear electric motor combine to produce 285 hp. However even more impressive is the combination of the 440 Nm torque of the diesel engine with the 200 Nm torque of the electric motor, providing a huge 640 Nm of torque in total. One result of this is an impressive 0-62 mph time of just 6.9 seconds, and a top speed of 124 mph.

Was it an easy job for Volvo’s engineers to develop this V60? No; achieving a smooth, seamless transition between diesel and electric had its challenges. Also, diesel engines take longer to get to their optimum operating temperature than petrol, which results in its own challenges in the area of emissions.

The luggage capacity of the production V60 AWD, at 430 litres, is not huge by traditional Volvo estate standards, and this reduces to 310 litres thanks to the hybrid system, but it’s still more practical than many electric or hybrid cars. It’s possible to fold down the rears seats, but the rear luggage floor is raised slightly, so you get a 60mm height difference in the load space.

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The V60 plug-in hybrid weighs around 150 kg more than the AWD diesel version, but one important benefit that it does offer is a towing capacity of 1800 kg – something that is very rare for a hybrid.

The V60 all sounds good – especially the figure of 49 g/km CO2 on the NEDC hybrid cycle, which equates to 150 mpg (and a resultant range of 746 miles). However caution should be exercised when considering such figures for any plug-in hybrid vehicle, as the very nature of their systems mean that they can achieve such impressive statistics over the relatively short distances of the official test, but it’s not realistic to expect such figures if normal driving is over much longer distances.

The V60 plug-in hybrid is due to go on sale in the UK in 2012, but what we don’t yet know is its price – however we can predict with some confidence that it won’t be cheap.

Volvo C30 electric car

The Volvo V60 will receive its world premiere at the Geneva Motor Show. In order to ensure that Volvo has a car to display at Geneva we weren’t able to drive the V60, but we did drive Volvo’s earlier electric experiment – the C30.

Even in 99 g/km CO2 diesel form, the C30 is a refined car. The all-electric version takes levels of quietness and smoothness to new heights. Unlike the V60, this is just a pure electric car, so it drives in a similar way to the majority of other electric cars, and of course it has a finite range (around 90 miles) before you have to recharge.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that safety is a high priority for Volvo with its electric car programme. One result of this is that the C30 has its battery sitting right in the middle of the car, between the two front seats. Volvo has also always had environmental issues as a priority, so the concept of safe, environmentally-responsible cars should be a natural alignment for the brand.

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Volvo is spending 1.7 billion Euros, or 35-40% of its total development budget, in the area of sustainable technologies, which represents a pretty serious commitment.

You can’t buy an electric C30 yet but it’s soon to go on trial with a number of organisations in Sweden. There are no plans to bring it to the UK at the moment.

An electric Volvo C30 provides the transport for the family of the One Tonne Life project. This is an experiment, between Swedish energy provider Vattenfall, Volvo, and house specialists A-hus, to see if a family can live life by reducing their annual CO2 emissions to just one tonne per person per year – which is what is believed to be required to curb climate change. Out of context, one tonne of CO2 may sound like a lot. However the average CO2 emitted per person in Sweden at the moment is around 7 tonnes per year – which is also the global average. However some Western countries are double this amount. Some fairly drastic measures are required to reduce these figures to just one tonne per person.

A highly efficient house with renewable energy and an electric car is the starting point. The idea is that we have 100 years to reach the one tonne target in reality, but the One Tonne Life project is aiming to achieve this in just one year. Sweden has a good head start as much of its energy already comes from renewable sources such as hydro power.

The visit to Volvo HQ also included the results from Volvo’s ‘Insider Circle’ survey, looking at people’s views about electric cars.

It was felt that in order to improve levels of acceptance, the average car buying public needs to see more electric cars on the road, and that the ownership model may need to change – electric cars are more expensive to buy, but cheaper to run – is there an ownership model that could reduce the initial extra cost?

One of the more debatable findings was that the survey respondents from Germany believed that electric would be the dominating transport technology by 2015. This seems a little over-optimistic, and certainly conflicts with most industry predictions that say that electric cars will only reach 5-10% of market penetration by 2020.

It was acknowledged by most respondents that consumers are driven primarily by financial reasons rather than green reasons. With fuel prices continuing to increase at current rates, this could be the driver required to accelerate the consumer’s move away from conventional combustion engines.

Rising fuel prices and some way of reducing the up-front purchase cost would make the Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid look even more of an attractive proposition than it already is. But even without these factors the car should succeed in providing a strong image representing Volvo’s core brand values and environmental commitment.

Paul Clarke