Volvo will launch its first hybrid production cars in two years' time. The 2012 replacement for the V70 - which won't necessarily be a conventional estate - will have a premium range-topper powered by a plug-in diesel-electric powertrain.
CAR's out in Sweden trying out the tech and today we drove a prototype for the new electric Volvo green car. It's being developed in conjunction with Swedish clean-energy giant Vattenfall, Europe's fourth largest electricity supplier. Buyers will be offered a 100% clean electricity tariff in countries where they operate, squaring the electric car argument that EVs are only as clean as the power station they're plugged into. It's worth pointing out, however, that Vattenfall isn't a brand present in the UK market today.
So what's the tech on Volvo's new plug-in hybrid?
The Swedes have chosen to follow in PSA's footsteps and pursue a diesel-electric powertrain. It mates Volvo's forthcoming evolution of the 205bhp 2.4-litre five-pot driving the front axle, with a new 50kW electric motor at the rear wheels. Yep, like the forthcoming hybrid Peugeots and Citroens, the leccy Volvo will be four-wheel drive.
It's also a plug-in hybrid. The idea is you charge up the lithium ion battery pack at home or the office, enabling most daily commutes to be completed in silent, zero emissions mode.
Combined, the frugal diesel-electric V70 successor could travel around 700 miles, says Volvo. Average CO2 emissions should stand at below 50g/km.
So how do I recharge the Volvo hybrid?
The small print's being worked out, but a fast-charge industrial plug could be used at specialist bays - or owners can recharge at home on a conventional 230V loop. It'll take around six hours for a top-up this way. Interestingly, the power cable will be attached to the car's alarm, sounding if a passerby unplugs you.
The batteries add 150kg to the kerbweight, but Volvo claims its hybrid should qualify for the proposed £5000 government grants. Just as well, since it predicts a £12,000 premium for the tech over contemporary diesels, in today's money.
How does the Volvo Plug-in Hybrid drive?
We tested a prototype in today's V70, which ran on EV mode but not as a full hybrid. Volvo is still developing the control modules and is obviously not keen to let journos weened on three generations of smart Priuses to pick holes in the Swedish iteration.
So, rather bizarrely, we took to the Volvo test track in a rear-wheel drive Volvo. Step-off is brisk, though the added weight blunts the acceleration compared with the smaller C30 BEV we drove this morning. This test hack has a stronger 70kW engine than the real car, but the drive is smooth, quiet and the extra weight has little discernible effect on handling.
Volvo's new diesel-electrics will be positioned at the top of its large car ranges. While those high prices will scare many buyers in 2009, it's worth remembering that lithium ion battery tech is getting cheaper every month. By the time Volvo launches in 2012, we expect prices to be less scary and leasing agreements to be in place to remove battery anxiety.
It's appropriate that the Swedes - who discovered lithium in 1817 - are now entering the electric car race. Volvo has long been a brand based on safety and responsible motoring. They might be behind the curve in timing, but engineers acknowledge the time is right to move into lower CO2 technologies. Expect plenty more electric Volvos to follow between now and 2020.