A couple of years ago we drove Volvo’s C30 electric car
, a limited-run version of the company’s three-door coupé converted to battery power. Now the Swedish carmaker has unveiled a second-generation C30 Electric, developed in partnership with German engineering giant Siemens. We took an early example out for a day’s testing on the public roads near Volvo’s Gothenburg headquarters.
Much of the updated electric car remains very similar to the first iteration, and like that initial generation it is not destined for general sale – instead it will be leased to selected customers as part of Volvo’s powertrain development programme. In total 250 of the first generation were built, and they will be joined by 100 of the second generation car.
The most significant upgrade is the inclusion of a new on-board charger, which runs at a maximum of 22kW from a 400V, three-phase AC supply. This high-power capability dramatically cuts charging duration, particularly when delivering top-ups from a partial discharge. Around ninety minutes at 22kW will take the battery from 30% to 90% capacity, for example, while just 10 minutes will typically add 20km (12.5 miles) of range.
We exploited this new capability to recharge our car from an indicated 25km reserve to full power in a little under two hours, during a break for lunch. The C30’s maximum range according to the NEDC test regime is 163km (101 miles) while Volvo advises that real-world ranges will vary from 120km to 150km (75 to 93 miles) depending on both driving style and seasonal temperatures. The range indication takes a rolling account of both to try to provide a more useful estimate.
A full recharge at 22kW will take 3.5 hours, compared with 8 to 10 hours charging from a 3kW domestic socket, a charging option that remains available in addition to single-phase wallboxes that charge at intermediate rates.
Volvo is not the first manufacturer to accept three-phase charging, indeed the Chameleon Charger fitted to Renault’s Zoe electric car can accept charging rates of up to 43kW. However, Volvo and its charger supplier – German company Brusa – argue that Volvo’s implementation offers superior safety due to complete electrical isolation of the charging and drive circuits. Volvo’s engineers were careful not to suggest that Renault’s design is unsafe, preferring to stress that their own approach adopts a belt-and-braces, failsafe approach to risk.
Other upgrades can be felt more readily out on the road. Siemens and Volvo began working together in August 2011, and the C30 Electric now boasts a beefier motor and new power electronics developed by Siemens. Maximum power has increased from 83kW (110bhp) to 89kW (120bhp), while peak torque has risen by 15% to 250Nm. The car’s 0-62mph time is now a reasonably brisk 10.7 seconds.
From behind the wheel, the C30 Electric feels quick and highly refined – more like a finished product than a development project, aside from a big red emergency kill-switch and a slight grumble from the differential when turning on full lock. Throttle response is instant and linear, while the motor is virtually silent and entirely free of vibration. Braking also feels progressive and predictable, despite mixing electrical regenerative braking with conventional hydraulic discs.
There is only one forward gear, but the driver can use the car’s unique spring-loaded gear selector to switch regenerative braking on or off. In the car’s standard mode, recuperation slows the car down a little more quickly than conventional engine braking might – indeed the car’s brake lights are activated to warn following cars whenever the accelerator is released. But toggling the gearlever selects an alternative highway mode, where the car will glide ahead with no apparent braking effect whenever the driver lifts off the throttle. The first mode feels most appropriate for urban routes, the latter for faster open roads.
The car’s 24kWh, liquid-cooled, lithium-ion battery carries over unchanged from the initial production run. Supplied by US company EnerDel, it sits low down in the car in a T-shape, running down the spine of the car and sitting widthways across the rear, well inside the car’s crumple zones. About 1.3kWh of the total capacity is never drained, to protect the long-term health of the battery.
Volvo is hand-assembling 100 of the generation-2 electric cars in its special vehicles workshop in Gothenburg, using fully trimmed C30 bodyshells built at its factory in Belgium.
A bigger run for the C30 Electric is out of the question, as C30 production has now ceased. Any future battery-electric Volvos will either be based on the V40 hatchback or a new model underpinned by SPA, the company’s Scalable Platform Architecture, which will go into production next year. SPA has been designed with electrical propulsion in mind from the outset.
For now, Volvo is taking a wait-and-see approach to the electric-car market. “To be frank I don’t think Volvo can drive the market,” said Johan Konnberg, senior manager of electric propulsion systems at the company. “Other companies will do that. But the technology is here and when the market asks for it, we will go for volume production. We have a palette of different options including hybrids, plug-in hybrids and pure EVs.”
For now, Konnberg added, the business model remains “hard to justify” for a company of Volvo’s relatively modest size. It builds fewer than 450,000 cars each year in total, whereas a volume producer like Nissan makes 500,000 cars every year in its Sunderland plant alone.
Konnberg singled out the high cost of lithium-ion batteries as one of the most significant stumbling blocks. “The cost reductions talked about a few years ago, of a 50% drop over five years, haven’t happened,” he said. “It’s been more like 10% instead.”
So for now, Volvo’s C30 Electric remains a refined, well-engineered electric car that you can’t actually buy. And the future prospects for a pure-EV from Sweden rest on the success – or otherwise – of much larger German, French and Japanese competitors as they attempt to bring their own electric cars into the mainstream.