Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid Driven

The Volvo V60 D5 is a very good car.  It's comfortable, safe, smart, well-appointed and reasonably economical, yet could never be described as remarkable. Now Volvo UK has just launched the D6, the world’s first diesel plug-in hybrid (the D6 moniker refers to the D5 engine plus one motor).

The launch, however, has been hampered by problems. Not, as you might think, by exploding batteries or overheating electrics but simply a complete lack of cars. The entire allocation of UK models having already sold, it took some effort to assemble a press fleet. So why the demand? Could the D6 make the unremarkable remarkable?

Think plug-in-hybrid and you probably think of an infuriating advertisement about the plural of Prius. It's a concept that I confess I hadn’t exactly grasped, and seemed to me like another Cygnet type exercise with the main aim of massaging manufacturers' carbon figures. After all, what’s the point of a car which can do a mere three miles on pure electric? And having driven cars such as the slightly offensive Chevrolet Volt, I am not a fan of hybrids. So, another Volvo, but with a plug. Big deal.

The car itself

We arrive at Edinburgh airport late for our appointment. Very late. It's freezing, wet and sludgy. We're met by the beaming Volvo team who assure us that it's not a problem. There are two V60s waiting and we're given a choice. They're identical so we choose the closest. The car boasts several distinguishing features: a glossy black grille and front spoiler, aerodynamic wheels with composite inserts, badging on the front wings and littering the tailgate, twin integrated tailpipes and a particularly ugly fuel flap on the front nearside wing hiding the charging point.

The interior is lightly redesigned with new inlays, detailing and lighting. The front seats allow for increased rear legroom and the rear seats offer a 40/20/40 split for added convenience. The infotainment system features a 7” screen with simple, logical controls beneath. The instrument panel is Volvo’s new active TFT display (more of which later). The only shortcoming is the decrease in boot space caused by the large battery pack. The floor is some 6cm higher which reduces load space from an already small 470 litres to a measly 310 litres.

The V60 Plug-in Hybrid has three driving modes - Pure, Hybrid and Power. Hybrid is the default mode on starting and balances power from the battery and engine as required. Pure draws entirely on the batteries unless the engine is required for a burst of acceleration or a steep hill, and Power uses both at the same time. In addition the ‘Save for Later’ button allows the reserve of power in the battery to be maintained, for example when heading towards a city centre. Finally, AWD operates the engine and motor together, specifically for improved traction when required.

We select Pure and cruise silently out of the car park. We've become accustomed to electric propulsion in smaller cars, however it's still something of a mindbender in a large real-life car like the Volvo. It’s been no simple pimp my ride transformation either, minute details had to be considered such as the noise of fuel sloshing in the tank when the car comes silently to a stop, the traction control had to be completely re-written to cope with the motor’s input and an enormous amount of work was undertaken to ensure the transition from electric to diesel is seamless: no mean feat with a large diesel engine, yet it's been implemented perfectly.

The TFT instrumentation is brilliant. A power gauge on the right shows how much power is being drawn (effectively how far down on the throttle your foot is) and the point at which the engine will cut in. It's surprisingly hard to invoke it in Pure mode and the motor can realistically take the car through to 78mph on electric only. The dashboard has three display modes - Eco, Elegance and Performance. Eco is well suited to Pure and Hybrid modes, and Performance is more relevant to Power mode: the blue dash accenting changes to red and the central speedo changes to a rev counter with a digital speedo inside. The execution of the instrumentation is excellent: attractive graphics, smooth animations and logical design which reduces the complexities of the car to simple, straightforward information.

The car features an astonishing amount of technology which we can’t even begin to fully cover in this article. Just a couple of examples are ‘Volvo On Call’ which can contact emergency services, inform the driver by text of the car’s charging status or if it’s moving without authorisation, or allow the driver to interact with the car through a mobile app, and Preconditioning, which allows the car to be heated or cooled before driving, either by timer or in real time through the app. All Volvo’s standard safety equipment is present, too, such as city safety, pedestrian and cycle sensing and cross traffic sensing, and monitoring of the charging which can reduce or even halt charging if the intelligent cable senses a problem such as overheating. And, incidentally, the car has the highest ever Euro NCAP score for an electrified car, with particular attention paid to protection of the battery pack during rear impacts.

The first leg of our trip leaves us very impressed. The engine has cut in only twice, the first time when deliberately called for on a busy A-road and the second time imperceptibly, again when pushing on. We've averaged ‘over 200mpg’.

In the real world

The second stage of the journey is to Glasgow. We set off in Hybrid mode and the engine immediately makes itself known. I still occasionally wake up sweating in the middle of the night with memories of the ungodly noise of the Volt (N.B. petrol) engine cutting in like a fume spewing generator, completely uncalled for and without any logic whatsoever. The Volvo engine is incredibly refined and, even when you can hear it, sounds great.  The starting is undertaken by the ‘Integrated Starter Generator’ which replaces both the starter and the alternator, and also charges the 400V battery to a limited extent.

The brakes take a little getting used to as they are largely dependent on regenerative braking which, with today’s technology, can’t help but feel a little synthetic, but the transition is relatively smooth, and after becoming accustomed to them, they can easily be forgiven.

Eventually we decide to give Power mode a try, more for reasons of thoroughness than any sort of desire. Whilst driving I press the button, and to say the reaction is shocking would be an understatement. The throttle mapping changes completely, the gearbox kicks down a gear and the car leaps forward. There is no way to describe it other than to say we are driving a completely different car. There’s suddenly an enormous reserve of power, the sort of thing you’d expect from a three or four litre petrol engine. The lightest twitch on the throttle launches the car forward startlingly. Normally there's a perceptible lag while the turbo spools up, but this is completely eliminated by the electric motor which is on hand to deliver instant power while the engine catches up. It's sublime. We reach a set of lights and for a moment we set aside our carbon footprint and try the acceleration from a standstill. It's not dissimilar to the sensation a couple of hours earlier just before our early morning flight to Edinburgh left the runway. The reason for this remarkable performance is the blend of the engine’s 212bhp and 324lb ft of torque with the motor’s 69bhp and 147lb ft of torque. While the output characteristics differ, which means calculating overall output isn't simply a case of adding the figures together, the motor and engine combine to deliver a phenomenal helping of power and torque, particularly from standstill.

Would you actually buy one?

The price of the V60 Plug-in Hybrid might come as something of a surprise: at £43,775 after the £5,000 government grant, it's far from cheap. But then the battery pack alone costs Volvo £8500 which goes a long way to explaining the premium over the standard models. And at just under £10,000 more than the Vauxhall Ampera it still seems a positive bargain.

I find it hard to express how much I liked this car. The conception, build quality and finish are all to Volvo's typically high standard and the logic with which the technology is implemented and then translated to the driver is superb. The car is capable of running as a zero emission vehicle for 31 miles, a figure Volvo have calculated to cater for 75% of daily commutes. In hybrid mode, it returns just 48g/km CO2 which means it has free tax as well as being remarkably efficient. Yet in Power mode it's Volvo's fastest accelerating car bar none, dispensing 0-62 in 6.1 seconds, topping out at 143mph, capable of a (theoretical) 155mpg, and a worthy successor to any T5R of the past. And then some. I would go as far as saying this is the best green car I've ever driven.

Every car on the road today is a compromise in some way, but if you want to do your bit for the environment during the week yet still have a high-performance, dynamic, fun, yet practical car when the mood takes you, at this price there really is no other option, especially not one which takes one parking space, one (free) tax disc and one insurance policy. Think of a manufacturer which is a vanguard in the electric car field, and it would most likely be Renault, Nissan or Toyota, certainly not Volvo. But this (as well as the electric C30) can be seen as a clear statement of their intentions with alternative fuel, moreover one which instantly leads the field.

Our advice: buy one. Volvo have only allocated 150 cars to the UK this year which unlike our test car will be the facelifted 2014 model available from May 2013, so, like Volvo, you’d better make it quick.

Powertrain: 2.4-litre 5-cyl diesel/electric motor Power: 212bhp + 69bhp Transmission: 6-speed auto Top Speed: 143mph (78mph electric-only) 0-62mph: 6.1s CO2 emissions: 48g/km Economy: 155.2mpg combined (hybrid mode) Charge time: As quick as 3.5hrs Price: £43,775 (after govt. grant)

Photograpahy Mark Raybone

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