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First drive: Volvo EV hatch edges closer

Zero chance: Australian customers will not be offered the battery-powered C30 Electric.

We drive the car that points the way to Volvo Australia’s first pure electric car

17 Oct 2011


AUSTRALIANS will get the chance to buy the first Volvo pure electric vehicle (EV) by 2014, but only if the price is right.

The Swedish brand’s recently launched C30 Electric will not come here – apart from a couple that may head Down Under for brand awareness exercises – but many of the lessons and much of the technology that Volvo has developed since the limited-run hatch went ‘on sale’ in Europe earlier this year will apply to the next-generation car.

The all-new five-door hatchback, currently codenamed the Y555, will be unveiled at the Geneva motor show in March next year.

With names like C40, V40 and even H40 being bandied about, the EV version will eventually become a permanent and vital element in the Swedish brand’s premium small car ambitions against upcoming zero-emission models from BMW (1 Series), Audi (A3), Mercedes-Benz (B-class) and others.

Details are scarce, but we now know that the next Volvo EV – like all Y555 models – will retain a loose variation of the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension set-up underpinning today’s C30/S40/V50, while adopting a wider track, longer wheelbase and electric power steering.

18 center imageFrom top: C30 Electric charging, C30 Electric winter testing, C30 Electric's new Siemens motor.

Active safety systems found in larger Volvos such as the City Safety low-speed anti-collision technology, Pedestrian avoidance, Blind-Spot Assist, and Automatic Parking Assist are also likely starters for the Y555.

More importantly for the electrified version, a change to a Siemens-sourced electric motor from the current C30 Electric’s much more expensive Brusa-supplied item will slash the price.

According to Isak Olevic, Volvo’s EV commercial and business manager, the cheaper motor, along with the need to amortise the massive engineering costs, means that most future Volvos will offer electrification.

It should be noted that the Energy Corporation of Sweden has helped subsidise C30 Electric (and beyond) development cost.

Only between 250 and 350 examples of the existing C30 EV will be leased out to selected groups – mostly governmental agencies and private corporations in Europe – and then repurchased by Volvo for analysis.

“While (today’s C30 EV) will never be on sale, the cycle plan does have future products,” he told Australian journalists in Gothenburg last week.

“The tremendous development costs means (the EV technology) could be inserted into other vehicles.”

Mr Olevic said Volvo could also produce range-extenders like the Chevrolet Volt that use the EV as a base but add an internal combustion engine as a generator (rather than driving the wheels directly) to provide back-up when the electric motor is charge depleted.

Volvo commenced its C30 EV program in the late 2000s, when it was still under Ford stewardship. Selecting the smallest and lightest car in the line-up was a no-brainer, even if it was based on a 2006-era design.

Currently, the C30 Electric requires seven to eight hours to recharge its twin 24kWh lithium-ion batteries from empty. Costing around $2.50 per charge cycle, Volvo says that doing this every day should ensure about 80 per cent battery performance in eight years’ time.

The Brusa motor delivers 82kW of power and 220Nm of torque from start-up to the front wheels for a 0-100km/h-sprint time of 10.5 seconds, a top speed of 130km/h, and a driving range of 120 to 150km.

In contrast, the Siemens battery is believed to provide about 105kW.

There are two drive modes in the C30 Electric – ‘D’ for normal, with brake-energy regeneration around city and urban areas, and ‘H’ for Highway, which disengages brake-energy regeneration. Since less friction results from the latter mode, this results in quicker acceleration times if required.

Being safety-obsessed Volvo, the C30’s batteries are placed low down in the middle of the vehicle and away from the passenger compartment, to help meet and maintain the regular model’s five-star ENCAP crash-test rating.

Improved front/rear weight distribution (56/44 versus 60/40) is a welcome side effect.

It also contains a unique ‘climate’ system that functions whether the car is driving, parked or charging, to help maintain the correct temperature parameters for safety, efficiency and reliability.

For colder climates, a separate E85 bio-ethanol heater is employed to achieve the correct temperatures.

Inside, the C30 Electric is like the regular fuel-driven version, with four seats (the rears are individual fold-down items) and the same instrument panel.

But the cluster contains unique warning lights and icons to indicate when the vehicle is charging, when the battery level is low (illuminated from when 10km of energy remains) and when engine power has been reduced (a turtle icon shows on steep slopes or in temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius).

A separate display located on top of the dash shows the range and charging time information.

A smartphone app showing the same data is also available that can be used to remotely charge the car or fire up the heating/cooling when it is parked.

Further down the console, Volvo fits a bespoke Electric gear selector and electric park brake.

Volvo claims that servicing the C30 Electric during its five-year lease term is actually less expensive than its internal combustion-engined sibling.

Production commenced in the second quarter of this year.

Volvo Australia has yet to decide if it will import the pair of C30 Electrics offered, citing costs and resources as factors.

Drive impressions

VOLVO says its ‘Drive Towards Zero’ safety campaign – which aims to see no serious injury or death in a new Volvo car by 2020 – now also encompasses carbon emissions, and that the C30 Electric EV is the first step towards achieving total electrification.

But, unlike the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Australians will not be able to lease or even drive the world’s first full-electric Volvo for at least another three years, and even then it will be the still-secret successor to the C30, not the C30 Electric you see here.

The 2014 version will be built on a new-generation platform boasting a completely different body, interior and even electric motor, along with your usual array of improvements in safety, technology and refinement.

Regular internal combustion engine versions of the replacement for the five-year old C30 is just months away from being unveiled in Europe – although Australian sales are unlikely to commence before 2012 at the earliest owing to full engine and auto transmission availability.

The current (sorry for the unavoidable pun) limited-production C30 Electric is neither wacky like the Mitsubishi nor slightly intimidating in its futuristic form like the Leaf.

Indeed, save for the noise – or lack of – the C30 Electric pretty much feels like every other small Volvo. And that’s what the Swedes intended, for this car’s unofficial tagline is something like ‘Zero emissions without compromise’.

Start-up is almost eerily silent, save for the hums and clicks that every EV seems to emit, and, since an artificial noise has yet to be used for pedestrian awareness and safety, the game of startling the jay walker begins the moment you press down the go pedal.

Slot the T-bar lever into ‘D’ and the sensation remains remarkably unremarkable.

That ‘go pedal’ – like every other control in the C30 Electric – is exactly where you would expect it to be, and behaves normally. No unwanted forward surging or hard-to-modulate acceleration, just a determined forward shove that keeps growing exponentially with the speed.

It’s when you’re cruising from about 40km/h upwards that the EV personality asserts itself. For instance, tyre/road noise is clear and present, for there are no internal combustion sounds to drown it out.

While in ‘D’ mode, the C30 Electric’s regenerative braking creates a slight drag that’s obvious from the get-go, but slotting the lever into ‘H’ for Highway provides a free-wheeling effect where you can ‘sail’ along when coasting.

Unfortunately, suburban Gothenburg lacks the sort of curvy roads required to explore the C30 Electric’s newly improved front-rear weight balance, but the car sat flat when we did encounter the odd fast corner, turned with poise and ease, and braked with the pressure and feel of a regular C30.

We did, however, notice that the electro-hydraulic steering is – as in all Volvos – a tad too light and void of feedback for our keen tastes.

Still, with the motor’s turbine soundtrack humming quietly ahead and the C30 Electric rolling along with only the whoosh of wind and drone of tyres to keep you company, the overall experience is one of refined and relaxed progress. It all ended too soon for us.

The fact remains that Volvo’s pure EV experience won’t even start for Australians for a few years yet, but the C30 Electric shows what we can expect when the zero-emission C40/V40/H40 – or whatever the Swedes decide to call the replacement – lands on our shores in about 2014.

Order that home charging station and start fitting solar panels now.

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