VEHICLE ANALYSIS: Driving the Swedish nanny state

By Graeme Roberts | 17 July 2014

PHEV looks much like a regular Volvo V60 till you spot the recharge port flap

PHEV looks much like a regular Volvo V60 till you spot the recharge port flap

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Been lying awake at night wondering how plug-in cars are doing in Europe? Me, neither, but, having now evaluated a few - Vauxhall Ampera [aka Chevy Volt], Toyota Prius, Volvo V60 with the Mitsubishi Outlander and BMW i3 REX to come - I figured it was time to take a look. Cue the expert number crunchers at UK-based JATO Dynamics.

Against a backdrop of EU sales in 2013 off 1.7% to 11.85m units in 2013, and 2014 to the end of May up 6.9% to 5,431,921, JATO reckons plug-ins totalled 27,276 and 12,899 respectively. YTD May 2013 was just 4,406. Drop-in-the-bucket proportions maybe but still a lot more than I would have thought.

The reason for the 2014 surge can be summed up in one word - Outlander - which had just five sales by the end of May 2013, 8,239 by the end of 2013 and had shifted another 6,837 by the end of May 2014. This petrol-electric has come from nowhere to overall leader.

The surprising (to me, anyway) second place holder is Volvo's V60 plug-in, which combines diesel and 'lecky. First on sale in 2013, it shifted 8,066 units last year, less than 200 shy of the upstart Mitsi. YTD May 2013: 1,027; this year: a healthy uptick to 2,835. And the Geely-owned Swedish automaker is just launching an additional sporty R-Design trim option which should add appeal.

Third, a long way back, last year was Toyota's Prius petrol-electric plug-in (with a much shorter electric range of about 10 miles on test versus the 30-odd of the Outlander and V60) with 4,958 in 2013, 1,909 to end May 2013 and 587 to the end of last May. A redesigned Prius line is on the way.

The one to watch is BMW's i3 whose range extender version (REX) made 1,013 sales last year and had already reached 1,689 by the end of May 2014.

Geely's Volvo Cars started cautiously with the V60 PHEV but, after the initial 1,000 special launch units sold out before deliveries had even started, ramped up production in 2013 by 90% to cope with strong demand for the cars across Europe.

The increased demand, especially in Holland, Belgium and Italy, saw Torslanda plant output in Sweden increased continuously from 150 to 282 units per week with a 2013 target of 7,600 and 10,000 for 2014.

Here in the UK, production slots for 2014 were doubled to around 300.

As a UK buyer, you have to be pretty serious about the environment to buy one as you can slide into a lesser-specified base petrol 'Business Edition' V60 for just GBP21,820 on the road. And a zillion other engine and specification options await the fleet or private buyer, all the way up to GBP36,640. Decide to go plug-in, and the price rises to GBP49,920 for the SE Lux trim or GBP51,620 with the new R-Design Lux (sportier) pack.

The blow, though, is softened by the GBP5,000 plug-in car grant which reduces the PHEV premium to around eight grand. Apart from that, no annual 'road tax', exemption from London's congestion charge and maybe a subsidised or free home charge point, a private buyer gets pretty much nothing else up front but business buyers can enjoy various taxation perks, a company car driver gets a reduced 'benefit in kind' (BIK) tax rate and all enjoy lower running and servicing costs.

Volvo UK provided a test car with absolutely no supporting information at all but various digs on websites established that the PHEV supplements the 2.4-litre, 215bhp D5 turbodiesel engine and six-speed automatic transmission with a 50kWh electric motor driving the rear wheels, with an 11.2kWh lithium-ion battery above the diesel fuel tank. Apparently, only 8kWh of battery capacity is used, so it should last as long as the car. The fuel tank is reduced from 70 to 45 litres, but the boot floor is still slightly higher, reducing luggage space from 430 to 305 litres (1,126 with the seats folded).

There's no spare wheel - just a pump that will be useless for anything other than a simple puncture - and we found the 305-litres barely adequate for family use; only a lightweight toddler buggy fits and even a decent week's shop will challenge the boot.

The electric motor at the rear enables the car to offer all wheel drive on demand and claimed acceleration is sharp to 62mph (100km/h) in 6.1 seconds.

Volvo claims a 31-mile electric driving range and I achieved that no problem. The diesel engine may fire briefly for an initial cold start but soon goes away unless you floor the throttle and the usual 25-30mph, one to two-mile pootle to nursery, school and shop was usually achieved solely on electric. This range is said to suit the 75% of Europeans who daily drive no farther and it suited me perfectly - even most of the weekly 40-mile run to the office was managed on volts alone.

Pure EV 'range anxiety' is banished because the car is capable of several hundred more miles on diesel. If you particularly want to run on electric, perhaps back in a city after some motorway miles, a 'save' mode will let you reserve some 12 miles/20km of battery juice for later.

Charging at home from nowt takes about five hours if you can persuade your house circuit breakers not to trip at full power (16A). Charge condition theoretically can be monitored by pushing buttons on the remote key fob and squinting at the instrument display but the car had some individual ideas on that. I'd like something like the Nissan Leaf's easily-spotted-from-indoors triple blue dashtop lights but, then, a charge is not essential to mobility in the V60's case.

In Pure mode the car is powered solely by its electric motor as much as possible and electric range varies with terrain, climate and driving style.

Hybrid is the standard setting whenever the car is started. The diesel engine and electric motor cooperate to ensure optimal balance between driving and environmental halo. CO2 emissions are just 48g/km and total range is up to 560 miles.

In Power mode the technology is optimised to give the car the maximum possible power. The diesel engine and electric motor have a total power output of 215+70 horsepower and maximum torque of 440+200Nm.

I was delighted to find that Volvos still have some of the industry's most comfortable seats and the car dripped with all the latest comfort and connectivity devices which were all relatively easy to use. Passenger space is more than adequate for family use. Build quality is excellent with plenty of quality materials evident in the cabin.

I never did quite get the hang of all the 'nanny state' safety gear with all its bings and bongs and flashing warnings - there's a bar on top of the instrument display which reflects various coloured warnings in the windscreen - but radar cruise control and lane departure warnings worked a treat. Oddities included mirrors that folded automatically when keyless entry was used but not when remote buttons were pressed - did I miss something in the myriad of 'settings' menus, some of which are only accessible with ignition on?

Nonetheless, the V60 PHEV is an impressive car and a great show and tell for what Volvo can do. You can see it impressing The Boss who will go on to order a fleet of lower-spec models for his biscuit reps and reserve a PHEV for himself to show how 'green' he thinks these days.

With pure EVs still limited by range and range extenders themselves still something of a compromise, I've seen considerable comment of late that PHEVs are, for now, a best bet.

Al Bedwell, analyst with LMC Automotive, has high hopes for the technology, which he thinks will outstrip battery-only vehicles.

"We are pretty bullish on PHEV as the way to go. We show PHEV outselling BEV (battery electric vehicles) in the long run. I see it as a technology best suited for larger cars and especially for the premium segment where the higher costs (after all it needs an expensive battery pack) can be more easily accommodated. But in return for the outlay the driver gets EV mode for a reasonable distance and people will definitely pay extra for that, as well as the potential for very low fuel costs. And... there is no range anxiety."

Data courtesy of JATO Dynamics:

2013 May YTD
2014 May YTD
The following countries are included:
Czech Republic
Great Britain
Russian Federation