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Volvo Plug-In Hybrid Defeats Range Woes, But Battery Limited

“Volvo’s decision to use a diesel rather than a gasoline engine means higher cruising speeds are possible”

Volvo’s decision to use a diesel rather than a gasoline engine means higher cruising speeds are possible The choice is yours. You can be a purist and brag about zero emissions with a battery-only powered vehicle with limited and unpredictable range which requires an expensive charging network to make it viable.

Or you can compromise a bit with a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) with modest battery-only performance, but backed up by conventional technology which matches the range and flexibility of regular vehicles. There’s no need for manufacturers to spend fortunes on a charging infrastructure.

Put like that, the case for plug-in hybrids like the Volvo V60 against the battery-only vehicle seems overwhelming. I’ve been driving the V60 diesel-electric hybrid and although Volvo’s claims for overall fuel consumption of almost 130 miles per U.S. gallon seems over the top, the fuel efficiency is way better than conventionally powered vehicles of this size.

The V60 Plug-in Hybrid R-Design combines a powerful five-cylinder 2.4 litre, 215 hp diesel engine with an electric motor producing 70 hp. The diesel powers the front wheels, the electric motor the rear ones. From rest to 60 mph takes 5.8 seconds. You can select three modes, Pure, Hybrid and Power. “Pure” runs on just the battery and will give you about 30 miles range. “Hybrid” mixes battery and diesel power, and will capture some energy to replenish the battery. “Power” will just engage the diesel and will allow you to conserve the battery if you plan on entering an electric-only zone in a town. This version combines luxury as well as performance and its price undermines its utility case. In Britain it sells for the equivalent of $86,500 after taxes but before a government grant of $8,375.

Works well
The technology works well, and there will be much more affordable versions soon made by this and other manufacturers as the concept is developed and proven. Volvo’s decision to use a diesel rather than a gasoline engine means higher cruising speeds are possible with better economy than you would get with a more conventional hybrid, but the company may yet offer a gas-electric hybrid. The diesel hybrid isn’t going to be available in the U.S.

Volvo claims the V-60 plug-in hybrid’s official average fuel consumption is 129.2 miles per U.S. gallon, but this depends heavily on the type of trip involved, and your familiarity with the car. On a trip driving across country with speeds rarely over 60 mph and mainly using the diesel engine, the car returned 40.1 mpg. Other more urban trips which were able to engage battery-only use more often returned 57.0 mpg and 67.9 mpg.

Dr Peter Wells of the Centre of Automotive Industry Research at the Cardiff Business School said the choice between plug-in hybrid and battery-only isn’t that simple. It depends on the needs of the car buyer.

It all depends
“Is an electric vehicle better than a plug-in? It depends on what kind of driving you do,” Wells said.

A battery-only car would be suited to those who needed transportation just for a fixed commute.

“The average consumer might prefer the plug-in hybrid for the extra flexibility. But that does mean a lot of the time the car is pulling around a lot of heavy kit for no purpose. On the highway, the hybrid is only contributing weight and cost. You are paying for a lot of redundancy, Wells said.

A recent report from Morgan Stanley underlined the likely inside track that plug-in hybrids will have, saying pure electric vehicles have failed to meet sales targets, and over-ambitions global projections will have to be scaled back. Renault of France used to claim that 10 per cent of global car sales would be electric-only by 2020. This is more likely to be closer to one per cent, the report said.

IHS Automotive predicts that by 2020, global production of PHEVs will exceed electric vehicles by a ratio of 55:45.

Al Bedwell, analyst with LMC Automotive, agrees PHEVs are likely to have the edge on battery-only cars, especially in the luxury segment.

“We show plug-in hybrids overtaking battery electric vehicles within five years. Their natural home would appear to be in the premium segment as they do add considerable cost and the premium segment has the biggest CO2 problem to solve,” Bedwell said.

“Regarding diesel versus gasoline PHEVs, I think both can succeed in Europe. On paper at least, both diesel and gasoline PHEVs achieve very respectable economy and both offer the electric-only ability that people are very fond of,” Bedwell said.

Money on PHEVs
“There’s still a place for battery electric vehicles, but I don’t see a battery price/capability breakthrough any time soon so this will continue to be a barrier to widespread demand. At the moment I don’t think we can confidently pick winners but I’d put my money on PHEVs and in the longer term, fuel cells,” Bedwell said.

Compromisers one, purists nil?

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