Throughout the long and noble history of Volvo, the brand has been associated with sober, serious, and above all safe cars and estates. Rarely have they or their products made UK headlines, save for one illustrious period from 1994 when they campaigned their 850 estate car, of all things, highly successfully in the British Touring Car Championship.
In contrast, today they seem rarely to be out of the news, either in the motoring pages or, increasingly, in the more general news sectors.
Witness their very public pledge early in 2017 that by 2020 nobody would be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo. No sooner had the ink dried on that one than it was announced that by 2019 all Volvos would be electric. And even more recently, we have seen an incredible deal for 24,000 fully autonomous cars to be sold over the next few years to Uber.
Underpinned by the might of Geely
So Volvo have very clearly redefined themselves, aided at least in part by the company coming under the ownership of Geely, the massive Chinese automotive brand.
Geely, founded only in 1986, have grown dramatically from their early days as a refrigerator maker to become a major player in the Chinese car market. Although some sales of Geely-branded products have taken place in Europe, their recent business model has been to grow by acquisition of brands well known in their respective markets, which neatly overcomes the need to establish the Geely brand into inevitably status-conscious markets such as the UK. Volvo Cars were their first acquisition, followed in 2013 with LTI, manufacturers of the ubiquitous black taxicab, and most recently in 2017 with Lotus.
Since the takeover, the taxi business has never been far from the news. In 2015 Geely announced plans to build a new £250 million plant for the London Taxi Company near Coventry (the company is now rebranded as the London Electric Vehicle Company, LEVC), with production starting at the new site in 2017. Capitalising on Geely’s talents in electric vehicle production, the site will produce initially their new TX5 hybrid taxi, which will, in these emissions-sensitive days, soon appear increasingly on London’s streets, neatly timed to support TfL’s directive that from 1st January 2018 all taxis must be zero-emissions-capable.
Volvo “Back on Track”
Interestingly, Volvo’s debut in the British Touring Car Championship was launched as their “Back on Track” project, so in some respects, history seems to be repeating itself! Going off-topic for a moment, which motorsport enthusiast of a certain age cannot recall the antics of those two big blue and white estate cars ably piloted around the thronged Cavaliers and the like by Rickard Rydell and Jan Lammers. Heady days indeed!
But back to today. Volvo’s announcement of an all-electric future does need a little interpretation, for battery technology is unlikely to be sufficiently far advanced in only a couple of years time to endow every new Volvo with the electric-only range to compete with their present products. More realistically, their intention is to “green-up” their product range by offering most if not all of their models with a hybrid variant as well as possibly a fully electric version.
Volvo’s hybrids are a bit different…..
Indeed, Volvo is already active in offering hybrid variants of some of their present models, albeit thus far in a very different form to the low-power hybrids available from other manufacturers. Intriguingly, Volvo have opted to emulate the supercar marques by using electric power to augment the already impressive performance of their highest-power petrol-engined cars, rather than using hybrid power to maximise fuel economy. Their resulting hybrid products are branded as “Twin Engine”. The Twin-Engine XC60 SUV, for example, boasts an incredible 407hp, giving it a Porsche-911 rivalling 0-62mph time of just 5.3 seconds! And all of this from a high-riding SUV weighing over 2 tonnes unladen.
Is this level of performance just too ambitious in such a vehicle, or does it make a great deal of sense? We set out to find out……….
Firstly, it must be said, the Twin-Engine XC60 has lost none of its premium quality virtues. As we said in our previous review of a T5 petrol-powered XC60, Volvo is now very firmly established in the premium car market alongside brands such as Mercedes and Jaguar. The cabin is a highly luxurious place to be, and the Scandinavian elegance-with-simplicity ethos works beautifully.
There are few separate controls, most functions being managed by the high-definition Sensus portrait-format central touchscreen. This now incorporates additional control functions for the hybrid system, for example, a hold function to keep the battery fully charged to enable subsequent zero-emissions driving. Further hybrid mode selection is carried out on the rotary mode controller behind the gearstick, where functions including “Pure” – where the car runs on electric-only power for as long as possible – can be selected. Alternatively, the rotary control can also be used to dial up “Power” mode, where both petrol and electric power are deployed together, but more on that later.
Crystal gearshift – elegant and unusual
On the subject of controls, the gear selector itself is also interesting and unusual, on two counts. Firstly, it incorporates a large chunk of Orrefors crystal, aesthetically elegant if a little cold in winter temperatures. Secondly, unlike pretty much every other gear selector which moves through a gate between gear positions, this one is more akin to a race-car sequential shift, returning always to the same point after having been pushed backwards or forwards as appropriate. Although this takes a little getting used to, the action is so satisfying that you soon start to wish that all auto boxes used similar systems.
So, how does this Swedish/Chinese luxury barge perform on the road?
Switching on – via that unusual rotary starter switch – is accompanied not by the throaty roar you might expect, indeed hope for from that 320hp supercharged and turbocharged engine nestling under the bonnet, but with silence! The T8 starts up in electric-only mode, only switching to petrol power when either the battery charge is exhausted, or Power mode is selected. Initial drive-away under electric power is serene and silent and, provided there is sufficient charge in the battery, is more than adequate for pootling around town or gentle cruising.
Volvo Power Meter is excellent
How do you know whether you are running on electric or petrol? By looking at the Power Meter which is the right-hand circular dial in the excellent digital dashboard. And this is one area where Volvo have really excelled, for their power meter is a master of clarity, unlike most electric or hybrid cars where the aforementioned gauge embodies a plethora of colours and lines whizzing around merrily. Which means that understanding just what’s going on under the bonnet from a quick glance is to all intents and purposes impossible. Not so the Volvo: the dial shows clear sectors where electric is active – denoted by the ubiquitous zigzag symbol, whilst petrol power is shown by a teardrop shape. Depending on where the line between the sectors is at any point shows the driver what’s going on – simples!
At least 22-mile range on electric power
And how far can you get on electric-only propulsion? When fully charged, the gauge indicated an available range of 25 miles, not too far off Volvo’s claimed 28, although they are quite open about stating that achieving this range is unlikely. So we were pleasantly surprised that in sub-zero winter conditions with all the consequent heating, lighting and other loads we still managed to cover 22 miles before petrol power kicked in. But – and it’s a big but – this full charge was only achieved with some penalty. Not necessarily financial, for some public charging stations are still free. The bigger concern was the relatively slow 3.5kWh charging rate, meaning that an empty battery takes around 3 hours to charge fully, whether from a domestic 13 amp supply, or a faster public charging station. To put this into perspective, we hooked up to a local Sainsbury’s charging station, to find that even after two hours charging we had only gained 16 miles worth of charge. In fairness, every other hybrid seems to have the same limited rate of charge, so Volvo is not alone in this.
Under petrol power, or more specifically the default “Hybrid” mode, where the car juggles petrol and electric power to best effect, fuel consumption was pretty reasonable for the size of the XC60, with around 33mpg being recorded. When you floor the throttle, electric power kicks in to help out the petrol engine, resulting in a total output of a mighty 407hp. That’s a fair amount, even to haul a 2-tonne-plus machine around, and that hard prod on the throttle soon has the T8 hurtling towards the horizon at a rate of knots entirely unexpected in such a luxobarge. That said, there was a curious lag between flooring the throttle and the car picking up it’s skirts and flying. Although this felt a bit like good old traditional turbo lag, however, that seems unlikely given the added supercharger, so the cause must remain a mystery.
Which suggest that the best way to treat the T8 is to forget playing with the various drive modes, leave the selector in the default hybrid mode, and let the car work the power needs out for itself…………
A wheel size too far?
Thanks to the standard-fit air suspension, the T8 driven hard feels a little soft and uncontrolled, meaning that all that available grunt was of little benefit on fast cross-country roads, although coming into its own on motorways or dual carriageways. It’s a pity that Volvo only market the T8 Twin-Engined package in R-Design Pro and Inscription-Pro versions, as the suspicion is that the standard none air-suspension of the lower spec models would suit the car far better. Presumably, the air-suspension settings are softened excessively to compensate for the oversized and pointless 21″ wheels fitted as standard – a classic case of style over substance which is sadly shared by the top models of every car manufacturers ranges.
Other reviewers have criticised the brakes on the T8, finding them over-light. Yes, they are light, however, you soon get used to this, and it shouldn’t be a reason to put anyone off. In fact, the regenerative braking, essential if a hybrid is to be effective, felt nicely judged – not too vicious as to slow the car violently when the throttle was released, but enough to be able to feel the amount of regenerative braking taking place and reduce footbrake application in proportion.
Our wintertime trial meant that a fair bit of driving was done in the dark, and particular credit must go to Volvo for the highly effective bend lighting, which angles the headlamp beams to point into a corner much more effectively than similar offerings from lesser manufacturers. Just a pity, though, that Volvo have not seen fit to equip the XC60 with adaptive lighting to shape the beams to avoid dazzling oncoming traffic. Why? Because the main beam indicator light sits as just one of a number of other lights and symbols at the top of the digital dash, and can easily be overlooked until your unintentional main-beam glare provokes angry responses from other drivers.
Quality never comes cheap
All that refinement comes at a price, and the Twin Engine XC60 starts at £56,850. Is it the right car? Looking past the superb quality, fit and finish of the vehicle, the value of the hybrid package depends entirely on the sort of driving you do. As a company car driver, it makes a huge amount of sense, thanks to the incredibly attractive low tax rates. It’s also exempt from London’s Congestion Charge.
For an owner-driver, however, there is a challenging calculation needed as to whether your daily mileage will be covered by the available electric-only range, whether you have access to free or low-cost charging such as solar panels, and perhaps most crucially of all, whether you can afford the time spent waiting for that very slow charging. If the answer to all these points is yes, then the XC60 T8 Twin Engine is, without doubt, an excellent luxury motor well worth considering. Otherwise, one of the petrol-powered T5 models could give you all that luxury but without the charging hassle and at least £13,000 cheaper!
Interested: find out more here: https://www.volvocars.com/uk/about/our-innovations/plugin-hybrids