For the past three years, engineers at Volvo have been holed up in its labs in Gothenburg, Sweden, hammering out its vision for the future -- a future where V8s and V6s are replaced by inline four-cylinder turbo engines pushed from behind by electrically assisted rear-wheel drive technology.
The company claims that such a setup can give up more than 300 horsepower while gracing the driving experience with that delicious torque electric engines are known to provide. And if European demand for the company’s 2014 V60 electric-diesel plug-in wagon is any indication, the company may be onto something.
Volvo quickly sold out of its first run of 1,000 units of the car before the year began and last month it was the best selling full sized car in Holland and the third-best seller overall, behind the Volkswagen Golf and Volvo V40 minis. So far Volvo says it has sold about 10,000 units of the world’s first diesel-electric plug-in car in Europe over the past year.
Plug-in hybrids may not satiate the needs of the zero-emission crowd waving the flag for the Nissan Leaf and especially the Tesla Model S, but customers for these cars may never be able to support a large selection of EVs in the market – the Leaf because of its errand-length range of 80 miles and the price tag needed to extend that range to Tesla’s distance. (Whether scaling up production can provide at least 200 miles while dropping the price to sub-$40,000 has yet to be seen, to say the least.)
Meanwhile, hybrids are going main-stream and Volvo is betting big on electrically assisted smaller turbocharged engines. “We strongly believe in hybrid plug-in technology. That’s the best combination for the coming years. We know that customers are still very hesitant – except for the very niche customers – to go for full electrical cars and this gives the perfect combination,” said Lex Kerssemakers, senior vice president of product strategy at Volvo during a press event in New York on Wednesday.
Volvo can’t risk going after such a small consumer base of EV loyalists. And it can’t afford to build its dream car out of body panels that act like batteries -- at least not yet. But the company is presently committed to expanding the use of electric rear-axle engines.
“I am very reassured that this is an absolutely right concept,” said Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo's president and CEO. “I’m never going to argue that a four cylinder is better than a six cylinder, but a four-cylinder combustion engine completed with an electric engine at the rear axle is definitely better than a six cylinder or a V8 engine. It’s a high-tech alternative with much better torque and lower [fuel] consumption. It’s a waste to have a huge engine.”