It's not quite the equivalent of the all-encompassing full-vehicle efficiency program that is Mazda Skyactiv, but beginning with the 2015 S60 mid-size sedan, the V60 sport wagon and the XC60 crossover models, Swedish automaker Volvo's "Drive-E" efficiency-enhancing effort starts with an all-new modular family of engines and extends through a new eight-speed automatic transmission and a number of additional measures. The new all-aluminum, all turbocharged Volvo Engine Architecture (VEA) family will eventually include four gas and four diesel I-4s plus an I-3, all sharing the same 0.5L cylinder displacement and multiple common components.

Volvo model names now indicate relative performance, not cylinder count.

The first three 2.0L four-cylinder engines - a turbocharged and supercharged (I'll call it double-charged) gas T6 I-4 good for 302 horsepower, a 240-hp turbocharged gas T5 version and a 178-hp D4 twin-turbo diesel - were launched in the fall of 2013, and the first two reached US dealers in those nicely-refreshed mid-range 2015 Volvos early this year. Because they replace Volvo's T6 and T5 turbocharged I-6 and I-5 engines in those (but not yet all) models, the cars they power will continue to be labeled T6s and T5s. Volvo says this is to align them with the (similar-performance) older, larger engines in customer perception, so the model names now indicate relative performance, not cylinder count. Confusing? You decide.

Volvo Drive E Engine

Coming in the next couple years, the VEA family will add two more 2.0L turbocharged I-4 gas engines and three more same-size turbodiesels divided into two "clusters" of four - one of high- and medium-performance versions, the other optimized for maximum fuel efficiency. The current T6, T5 and (not yet for the US) D4 fall into the performance cluster, as will a later higher-output D5 turbodiesel. The economy-optimized cluster will include T4 and T3 gas versions generating somewhere around 186 and 148 horses, respectively, and D3 and D2 diesels rated at 147 and 118 hp, according to preliminary estimates. All will be built on the same production lines in Volvo's Skovde, Sweden engine plant, and there will likely be a turbocharged three-cylinder variant further down the road.

Volvo engineers began working on an all-new engine family in 2007.

According to Derek Crabb, Volvo's former powertrain engineering vice president (now a senior advisor), a team of engineers began working on an all-new engine family in 2007 when the company was still owned by Ford, and using derivations of Ford engines. "We suddenly realized we're spending a fortune adapting Ford engines to our vehicles – unique fuel tanks, unique software," Crabb told Wards Auto in a recent interview.

"We turned that business case around and said, 'What if we did our own engines?' The business case was so obvious," he said. Because Volvo needed specific features for its versions of the engines, he added, "We also were disturbing Ford's manufacturing processes." So Volvo's powertrain executives built a solid case explaining how Volvo's designing, developing and building its own engines would benefit both companies. They didn't know at the time that Ford was negotiating with China's Geely Automobile to sell it the Swedish brand.

"We actually went to [Ford CEO] Alan Mulally eventually and said the business case shows Volvo should develop its own engines," Crabb relates. "At that point, he said 'I agree, but by the way there is a sale process going on. Can you go talk to Geely?' That was, as you can imagine, quite an adventure going to Mulally and then the next day going to Geely."

Volvo S60 Drive E

The VEA program then became a key element of the sale and evolved into a serious, fully-funded R&D project following Volvo's 2010 sale to Geely. Among its major objectives were exciting drivability, best-in-class fuel economy and production flexibility.

In the four years since, some $11 billion have been invested in the VEA program and a new Scalable Product Architecture that will underpin all future Volvos, along with infrastructure and facilities upgrades, all aimed directly at positioning the upscale brand as more competitive and technologically independent. "The launch of our new Drive-E powertrains is an important step in Volvo's product investment plan that will result in a stronger, more competitive position in the marketplace," says Volvo Cars of North America president and CEO John Maloney.

The new Drive-E engines were designed to be teamed with electrification in future hybrid vehicles.

Volvo's Drive-E moniker encompasses a sustainable, efficient and clean manufacturing process (including the use of recyclable materials) as well as more efficient low-emission powertrains. But its most visible elements will be these new Drive-E engines, which are designed (like most others today) to deliver pleasing performance along with frugal fuel efficiency. They are also designed to be teamed with electrification in future hybrid vehicles.

"We have created smaller, more intelligent engines with power curves that give exciting drivability compared with engines with more cylinders, yet deliver the fuel economy of only four cylinders." Crabb says. "In addition, by adding electrification such as plug-in hybrid technology, we will reach power figures in the V8 territory."

The full VEA family will eventually replace eight engine architectures on three platforms, but in the US they will be sold for now alongside the current powertrain lineup until Volvo's Drive-E transition is complete. In the 2015 front-drive S60 sedan and V60 wagon, the T6 double-charged 2.0L's mechanically driven supercharger delivers instantaneous low-end torque, while its exhaust-driven turbocharger kicks in at higher engine revs. This somewhat complex and costly combo delivers 295 pound-feet of peak torque for grin-inducing grunt at any speed. The single-turbo T5 offers a fairly strong 258 lb-ft of torque with minimal turbo lag.

All Drive-E engines feature stop/start and brake regeneration.

All Drive-E engines feature stop/start, which shuts the engine down to save fuel when the car comes to a stop, then restarts it when the brake pedal is released, as well as brake regeneration. An electric pump maintains transmission oil pressure while the engine is off. Other efficiency-enhancing measures include continuously-variable valve timing, intelligent heat management with an electric water pump and low-friction camshaft ball bearings.

And they were designed from the beginning for future electrification. Key components, including an integrated starter generator, can be easily connected, and their compact size allows an electric motor to be fitted either in the front or in the rear of the vehicle, with the battery pack in the center. "A four-cylinder, transversely mounted engine is a way of building up for an electrified future," Crabb says. "Hybrids are definitely going to be a dominant part of the top end of our range."

I have been a fan of Volvo's S60 since it was redesigned for 2011, and these refreshed 2015 sedans and the newly-added S60 sport wagon are even more likeable than before even before you get to these eager and efficient new Drive-E engines. In recent extended test drives, a quick, agile, fully-equipped T6 sedan delivered 26.6 miles per gallon in mixed normal driving and a lesser-optioned T5 wagon was good for 26.8 mpg vs. their 24/35/28 and 25/37/29 EPA ratings. My only concern was their $40,000-50,000 stickers, although (to be fair) they are very competitive with today's even more expensive options from Audi, BMW, Cadillac and Mercedes.

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