First Drive - Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid

Tuesday 24th May, 2011
What is it?

It was a truly multi-cultural event. I was invited by a Brit from a French tyre company to an event in Berlin, Germany where I met a Romanian girl who introduced me to some Swedish guys that let me have a go in the new Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid. If you think that's complicated, you should hear what's under the bonnet.

Beginning with the widely used Volvo 2.4 litre diesel engine, connected to the front wheels, they add some batteries and an electric motor in the rear to upgrade the car to a full-hybrid - meaning the car, and all it's ancillary systems like the air-conditioning,  will run on batteries alone without the engine running. Connect those added parts and you create a car that is now front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive or even, when suitable, all-wheel drive depending which drive method is being used at the time. Finally, instead of the small NiMH batteries you may find in a normal hybrid, add in a fair 12kW lump of Lithium-ion cells and a plug socket in the front wing for charging.
The end result is what's becoming known as a PHEV - Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle. You can charge the car from electricity, allowing journeys of around 30 miles from a full charge at speeds of up to 62mph then, where appropriate or when charge is depleted, you can start-up that big diesel engine to give you plenty of high speed pull.

The Drive

So how does it drive? Well I'd love to say "like a Volvo" but, to be truly honest, I've never driven one before. Whilst I've been a passenger on numerous occasions, it was the first time I'd actually taken the wheel. As we drove out of the parking area at the Michelin Challenge Bibendum test track it felt comfortable and, as we were running exclusively on battery power, very quiet and hard to criticise. As we left the slow, windy, access roads of the airfield the on-board engineer engaged "power" mode to give it the best pull down the runway of the airfield. The powerful, but rather noisy, engine roared into life and we got an impressive delivery of torque from the combined electric and diesel engine transmissions as we approached the first chicane.

I glanced down at the dash to get an idea of the speed we were travelling but, unfortunately, at that moment the speedo display crashed! Instead of traditional dials, with analogue needles, Volvo have chosen to substitute them for a normal of small LCD panels. They look great in normal use but sadly, when the on-board computer crashed they just whited out and I had no idea of speed, battery charge level or any other functions. At this stage, I should clearly point out that this car is a prototype and well over a year away from production. It was clear to me when they had to reboot the car 3 times (by disconnecting the 12v battery) before it would even start, that they had a little way to go. Worse still, once the in-car displays had gone blank, the car went into limp home mode and the power output from the engine was all but gone.
The engineer was very apologetic and explained that he wasn't sure what had happened but thought perhaps the batteries had overheated. Whatever the cause, it was hard for me not to be disappointed but, in reality, Volvo should actually be given credit for showing a car this early in its production cycle.

The Technical Bit

At this point, regular readers will be expecting me to deliver an onslaught of reasons for why, from an environmental perspective, you shouldn't buy this car. In the past I've been heavily critical of Volvo, challenging their DRIVe range of diesel "green" cars that actually still throw a considerable amount of emissions from the tail-pipe - this even contributed to me making a New Year's Resolution to never drive another diesel car. Not only that, but they're mating it with an electric car (EV) - another type I've not had a lot of time for in the past. Well, I was forced to break that resolution for a reason and those regular readers need to read on and learn why 1 + 1 doesn't always equal 2.
I see some benefits in electric cars but have always felt that, when you hit the open road, the energy they consume outweighs the benefits. You can only carry so much charge in the batteries and to waste it all in order to drive up a hill or shoot down a motorway seems a little wasteful and inefficient. My own hybrid car will also use a battery powered motor at low speeds but, as soon as you hit a fast road, the petrol engine kicks in and saves that precious electrical energy for next time you hit an urban area. Also being a full-hybrid, this Volvo V60 does exactly that but, being a plug-in model with a larger Li-ion battery pack, it can do it for around 10-15x longer than many standard hybrid cars. This means even less use of the combustion engine around towns and the appeal of significantly reduced emissions for short local journeys powered by domestic energy.

OK, it's linked to a diesel engine but I have to recognise that there is a defined market for cost-efficient diesel cars. If you're a rep pounding up and down the motorway every day to visit clients, a diesel engine is a must purchase due to the continuing rise of fuel prices. These drivers may see the appeal of small eco vehicles but, in reality, they're never going to buy one. Whilst I'd love this car to have a cleaner petrol engine under the bonnet, I need to see it for what it is rather than what it isn't.
My past problem is that these diesel commuter cars spend many miles chugging around town and causing local air pollution but, mated to a plug-in EV, this simply isn't going to happen. I've heavily criticised modern "clean" diesels in the past and explained how their on-board particulate filter, isn't at all suited to urban driving. This fact remains but the 30 mile range from the electric motor in the V60 PHEV means that, in theory, you can drive from the M25 into Central London to a road-side charger and back out again without once starting the diesel engine until you're back on the motorway. Not only will this mean the DPF stays clean and efficient, it will also actually reduce the number of particulates generated in the first place - massively improving local air quality in urban areas and also reducing noise from roads alongside schools and houses.

If ever there was a diesel car that genuinely deserved exemption from the London Congestion Charge, and a £5000 plug-in car subsidy, this is it.

Numerous extra photos can be found here

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