The Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid: A Sell-Out in Europe, Unavailable Here

By · April 11, 2013

Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid

The Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid is at home on Europe's mountain roads--but not yet on the American interstates. (Volvo photo)

It’s really a shame that Volvo doesn’t have a hybrid car in the American market, because the company has led the way on environmental initiatives (including cleaning up factory pollution) for decades. And it was a pioneer in electrics and hybrids, too. The problem is that—until recently—none of them actually reached the market. But now the company is fielding both the C30 battery electric pilot program and, in wider distribution, Volvo’s V60 Plug-In Hybrid.

Volvo’s plug-in hybrid was in New York recently for the auto show, as a candidate for 2013 World Green Car of the Year. It didn’t win—the Tesla Model S did—but at least it’s getting noticed.

Europe Only

The battery-enhanced V60 isn’t coming any closer than Europe, and for an explanation of that look no further than the car’s diesel engine. Per-Arne Reinholdsson, technical director for the car, told me, “Europe is a diesel market, and having one is an advantage. We wanted to show what we could do with reduced greenhouse gas emissions in a diesel, and the V60 Plug-In Hybrid delivered 48 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer.”

If a Volvo plug-in hybrid comes to the U.S., it will likely have a gas engine, Reinholdsson said. The diesel model is an expensive car in Europe, selling for $74,000—I’d expect any American version would be cheaper, and also benefit from state and federal subsidies (as well as access to HOV lanes). Brits with a 5,000-pound Plug-In Car grant pay the equivalent of $66,512 for the car.

A Sellout!

The high price hasn’t hurt sales—the initial run of 1,000 2013 “Pure Limited Edition” cars sold out quickly. Reinholdsson said that Holland has been the V60's most popular initial market. The production run for 2014, starting in May, should be 4,000 to 6,000, Volvo says. Reinholdsson describes the car’s buyers as early adopters “interested in the coming techniques—people who want to have a luxury car, but also want to take responsibility for our journey toward a sustainable society.” Having their cake and eating it too, in other words.

Volvo Recharge Concept

The Volvo Recharge Concept was the precursor to the V60, but it's wheel motors didn't make it the finish line. (Volvo photo)

The heavy (4,400 pounds) V60 is indeed a green luxury wagon. There is 31 miles of electric driving on tap, less than the Volt but more than Ford’s Energis. It’s fast, too, with a 5.8-second zero to 60 mph time. Volvo calls it “an electric car, hybrid car and muscle car all rolled into one.” The company says the car achieves 1.8 liters per 100 kilometers, translating to 130 miles per gallon, but that’s in the European NEDC driving cycle. Some owners report 32 mpg in hard urban driving.

Emphasis on Performance

Under the hood is a 2.4-liter turbodiesel power plant making 212 horsepower, coupled to a 69-horsepower electric motor. It’s a through-the-road hybrid, meaning that the diesel drives the front wheels, and the electric motor the back. The battery pack is rated at 11.2 kilowatt-hours, but only eight is used. Speeds of 78 mph on battery power are promised, and 143 mph with the gas engine running.

Asked why Volvo hasn’t previously produced any kind of hybrid car, Reinholdsson says “We have studied it many times, and have been close to production. We’re a small company, and we didn’t find that the market was requesting it enough.” That’s true, but there were other factors, such as the previous ownership by Ford, which didn’t want to upstage its own 2004 introduction of the Escape Hybrid.

Volvo ECC

The Volvo Environmental Concept Car (ECC) was ahead of its time, with a hybrid drivetrain and modern styling. But the gas turbine and older battery tech wasn't greenlighted. (Volvo photo)

A Long and Colorful History

The history is interesting. Volvo produced a really ugly electric car prototype, based on a Dutch DAF vehicle, in 1976. The thing could hit the dizzying speed of 50 mph. In 1978, Volvo began exploring flywheel technology in concert with CVT transmissions, but that didn’t make it to production, either.

In ’83, it was on the Light Component Project (LCP), an ahead-of-its-time prototype that used plastics and carbon fiber. The whole car weighed 1,550 pounds, and was to have been powered by a three-cylinder turbodiesel with direct injection. Alas, also stillborn.

The hybrid work that is relevant to our discussion began as early as 1998, with a 42-volt parallel mild hybrid featuring nickel-metal hydride batteries. The first Volvo experimental car to make real waves was the Environmental Concept car (ECC) of 1992, which showcased not only technology but a new California-based design language.

The ECC hybrid, powered by a gas turbine coupled to a 90-kilowatt electric motor and 16-kilowatt-hour batterypack, maximized both environmental performance and safety. No speed demon, it could reach 62 mph in 10 seconds. Volvo hoped to put a series plug-in hybrid into production by 1998.

By 1995, Volvo had the system pretty well worked out in an 850 wagon, with a three-cylinder gas engine, 16-kilowatt-hours of NiMH batteries, and a 90-kilowatt electric motor. It didn’t happen either, and Volvo cites the poor state of battery development at that time as the reason. But ownership by Ford was also looming around then.

The modern era begins with the Recharge plug-in hybrid concept car of 2007, featuring lithium-ion batteries, a four-cylinder gas engine and four wheel motors. That led to the V60 we know today, but without the wheel motors for the market. The C30 hatchback battery electric followed in 2011, and just over 200 were leased in Europe.

So, finally, we have a genuine electrified Volvo production car, and it’s a plug-in hybrid. It may even come to the U.S. Someday. And with a gas engine.

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