The first thing we noticed about the Volvo C30 Electric – the automaker's most serious contender in the electric car space that will enter production in 2011 – is that it's a great platform to turn into an electric vehicle. The standard C30 has an instantly likable interior that felt comfortably wrapped around us as soon as we closed the door. Sure, sure, we like the all-electric powertrain and all the benefits that come with it, but when it comes to the instant vibe that a car gives us when we step inside, the C30 Electric wins the everyday driving award, hands down. Everything feels so right, competitors should be taking notes. We did just that during our recent test drive, and you can find all the details after the jump.
Volvo's electrification plans
We drove around the LA Convention Center with Lennart Stegland, president of Volvo Special Vehicles, who said that Volvo began work on the electric C30 around 18 months ago. The reasons for the project are not hard to figure out: emissions legislation is getting tougher, and there's only one way to meet those specs. "Immediately, you end up with electrification, one way of the other," Stegland said. The C30 Electric project is one way for Volvo to learn everything it can possibly know about electrifying vehicles. "Normally, we would ask the suppliers. But right now, no one knows, so we have to acquire this competence in-house first. Because if we don't, then we can't buy the right stuff."
Remember the Volvo ReCharge? That was an early research vehicle, also based on the C30, that Volvo used as a testbed for things like in-wheel motors (which the C30 Electric does not have. It has a 84 kW motor that puts out the equivalent of around 110 horsepower instead). Stegland said that the C30 Electric contains a lot of technology from previous prototypes but that the reason this one has advanced further than the others is that battery technology is finally ready:
The 24 kWh battery pack comes from EnerDel, which Stegland said was the best provider of the type of li-ion chemistry Volvo engineers wanted. There are six main types of lithium-ion battery chemistries (with hundreds of variations among them), he said, and EnerDel was able to provide a chemistry that is very stable. It's not the most efficient when it comes to energy density, he said, "but we believe we will have a car that will have very very good life expectancy of the battery and we will not have a "nervous" battery." Wait, what's a nervous battery?We have been doing electric motors before, but we've never ever before had a battery technology that could deliver the range that was necessary. I think 100 miles is a good range. In practical life, that will deliver about 80 miles. If you do very careful driving, you can get 120 miles, easy.
Ah. Okay. Let's move on.If you take a battery that you have in a telephone, that is designed to last a maximum of two years and it is very capable of storing a lot of energy in a small volume. But, when it comes to, say, the ability to withstand shocks or demolition, it will not like it at all. So in that case, it is "nervous." Volvo is about safety, and we know from component testing that we should avoid putting batteries where it can be impacted in a crash.
In the C30 Electric, the battery is in two parts along the center tunnel and under and behind the rear seats. That's good for crash safety, but means that, if something goes wrong with the pack, Stegland said that, Volvo dealers would only be able to swap out the entire pack, leaving the cell-level repairs to Volvo specialists. Dealers would have spare packs on hand that could be placed into the vehicles. The dealers would then ship the malfunctioning packs back to Volvo for repair. Stegland said that Volvo is not interested in working with Better Place on a swappable battery vehicle because the pack needs to be secure in the vehicle, even during a crash, and the engineers are designing the pack to form part of the structure of the car. Lastly, he said, swappable packs can cause problems with the contact points between the pack and the vehicle, and that's a difficult problem to fix.
Put all these pieces together, and you can see that the C30 Electric is getting ready for the big time. Almost. A limited production run of electrified C30's that will head out to test fleets in Europe, China and the U.S. early next year. Aside from this vehicle, the company has more plug-in projects going as well. Volvo's first plug-in hybrid,based on the V60, is coming in 2012. Paul Gustavsson, the architect behind Volvo's electrification strategy, has said that Volvo's new owners [Geely], "are very keen to focus on electrification" and Volvo's new CEO, Stephan Jacoby, is a new convert to electric vehicles now that heʻs driven them. As with any automaker electrification program, this is all subject to change. The C30 Electric, for example, wasn't supposed to come to the U.S., but now it will.
Driving the C30 DRIVe
As we said, the C30 is a wonderful little car. It doesn't quite have the accelerator punch that some other electric vehicles have, but the size, the look and the feel of the car on the road are all top notch. With great rear visibility and clean lines, we can totally see ourselves getting into one of these day after day. At least, thatʻs what 15 minutes in the car told us.
The dashboard, which is all preliminary and not representative of the production version at all, features a little "eco" gauge, which we couldn't really understand at first glance. Stegland said it is there to let the driver know the measurement of how much energy you consume that does not bring mobility or range. So, if you put on seat heating or the defroster, he said, the needle will drop outside the green field. The final version will also use an information screen to provide more detail to the driver. See also: the Nissan Leaf.
The C30 does have a slight creep, like an automatic, and it feels very much like a normal car, something Stegland said was a goal of the engineers. Another goal: not putting in driver-selectable regenerative brake levels, the way VW has done with the Golf Blue-e-motion.
Stegland did tell Plug In Cars, though, that the driver can use the gear lever, "to remove regenerative braking in a kind of cruising mode."We don't go in that route and the reason is very simple. When you get adjusted to a car, you need to learn how a car behaves. You are automatically storing that in your head. That is what we call predictability. If you start to manipulate one of the most important criteria, then you really end up in a situation that could be cumbersome for you. Secondly, when you are in slippery conditions, then you will also understand that it's wise that the [Dynamic Stability Traction Control] system is kicking in and taking down the regeneration as well, redistributing torque to the wheels, either with the motor or the ABS system. Otherwise, you will create a problem for yourself.
The only battery-powered car with an ethanol heater
As we learned during a visit to EnerDel Indiana facility earlier this year, the C30 Electric has a unique feature: an ethanol heater. Stegland said that every electric C30 will include one of these because, "in tough winter conditions – below -10 degrees – you need an extra heater. This is a very logical way to [provide that heat]." The heater itself is small, about the size of a chainsaw motor.
What's perhaps not so logical is that the heater only uses ethanol, and that this requires a special ignition system to get going. Stegland said that "if necessary," Volvo can install a heater that burns standard gasoline. The heater uses less than one liter per hour and the system has a 15-liter tank. That should provide around 15-20 hours of use, which Stegland said would be around two weeks of use. The driver, though, can override the ethanol burner and use the battery to heat the car for totally emissions-free motoring. If you're okay using the biofuel and/or want to "secure your range," then you let the vehicle use the liquid fuel for what it's great for: burning up and providing heat. Like with everything else about this car, we like that.
Photos copyright ©2010 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
A video interview Steglund conducted with Plug In Cars and two videos put out by Volvo are available below.