Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid review

The main issue with buying an electric car - other than the cost of purchase - is range anxiety. The internal combustion age means we don't tend not to plan when it comes to cars. We just jump in and go.

Despite the average person only driving 19 miles each day, many think they're either going to need to make some serious adjustments to how they use a car in order to go electric, or need a second car. But cars like the Volvo V60 Plug-in Hybrid are supposed to offer the best of both worlds: it charges from a plug at your house and then runs off battery power for most of the time when you're close to home, but also gives the capability to drive as far as you want, when you want, thanks to a diesel engine.

But what's a car like this like to live with in the UK? There's a lot of hot air blowing around about electric and hybrid electric cars today - from both the pro and the con brigades. But it takes real life to show the benefits - and disadvantages - that life with a plug-in car can bring. Has the Volvo V60 got the balance right?

Power hybrid semantics

The V60 Plug-in isn't a pure battery electric car like the Tesla Model S. Nor is it a "range extender" like versions of the BMW i3 where the electric motor and batteries do all the work, but under certain circumstances a petrol generator charges the battery back up. Instead, this is what you might term a power hybrid, rather like the BMW i8.

Up front you've got a V60 D5 - a 215 horsepower, 5-cylinder diesel engine that powers the front wheels. But added to this is a battery pack that sits under the floor of the boot and drives a 70 horsepower electric motor that turns the rear wheels. The Volvo can use either or both of these power sources depending on which mode you've got it in, what charge remains in the battery and how foot-to-the floor you happen to be driving.

Mode dilemmas

The benefit of this setup is that you get an extremely economical car and a very powerful one rolled into one - although not at the same time. How the V60 Plug-in Hybrid behaves depends on the mode you've got it set in.

There are Pure, Hybrid or Power options which you select via buttons at the base of the console. Pure runs the car primarily on battery power; Hybrid blends both power sources; while Power runs the diesel motor full-time and throws the electric motor in when needed as an "e-boost".

You can also get the battery to maintain a state of charge, and force both units into action to create an "AWD" setting which drives all four wheels, for slippery conditions. Which might all sound rather complicated, just as we highlighted with the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron.

READ: Audi A3 Sportback e-tron hybrid review

But the reality is that when the battery's fully charged you just press the Pure button on the V60's console (the default mode is Hybrid) and then drive it on battery power as much as you can. And when you're in a hurry you press Power and can then scare the living daylights out of reps in diesel Audis and BMWs.

Plug-in baby

To make the most of the car, you are going to need access to a plug - either at home or work. No fancy plug, just a simple wall socket will do. But if you've not got one that's within easy reach of the car then quite simply save yourself the bother and go and buy a V60 D5.

Luckily, there's a plug just on the inside wall of our lounge which the V60's 4.5m-long cable was able to reach via an open window. We soon got into a routine: get home at around 7pm each evening, plug the car in via the window, unplug and close the window at 11pm when we went to bed, then plug in again when we got up in the morning at 6am before leaving for work at 7am. By which point, the battery was just over three-quarters charged, which was enough to get us to the office and back (19 miles) entirely in electric mode.

Volvo reckons it should take about six hours to fully charge the battery from a home plug socket, which our experience bears out. There's a display inside the car to tell you when it'll be fully charged, or you can connect your smartphone and check it remotely that way.

And if you're worried about the thing blowing your home power circuits, then fear not because this is a Volvo after all and the Plug-in Hybrid adheres to a high level of safety standards. The heavy Vatenfall power adaptor unit comes complete with a clever transformer and power-breaker system, which stops the car tripping your house fuses. It didn't bother the ancient electrics in our 1850s house once.

We tested the car for a week and the slight inconvenience of throwing the power lead through a window each night is made up for by not having to visit a fuel station. But anyone who buys a V60 Plug-in (or indeed any car you can charge via a plug) would do well to access the current government grant available, which means you can have a dedicated charger installed at home for around £100. That could make all the difference.

Tangled cables

But if you're planning to charge the V60 anywhere other than home, make sure you tick the option box for the so-called Type-2 charge cable (for £50). This industrial-style plug means you can charge the V60 Plug-in Hybrid at many public charging stations, like the ones installed in the public car park we park in during the day. It's worth noting that in the good old United Kingdom, there are no less than seven different types of plug connector for electric cars right now, so don't bank on being able to charge up everywhere just yet.

And while we're on the subject, we think Volvo's missed a trick by not adding a layer into the navigation system to help you locate electric car charging points - as you can in a Tesla or BMW i series. Sure, if your car has an internet connection as our test car did, you can find this out - but it'd be far nicer if it was integrated with the in-built satnav.

What you can't do with the V60 Plug-in, though, is fast-charge it. Which makes it much less appealing should you cover bigger distances more regularly. A network of fast chargers (which should be able to charge 80 per cent of a typical EV battery in about 30 minutes) have been installed at service stations across the motorway network, and they're currently free to use if you've got an RFID access card - which we'd signed up for before the Volvo arrived.

However, having smugly pulled into the charging bay at Leicester Forest services and plugged the Volvo in, we were greeted by a red-light in the plug charge point - meaning the battery wasn't charging. A call to Ecotricity (the company that runs the chargers) confirmed that the Volvo wasn't listed as a compatible vehicle, and Volvo themselves later confirmed to Pocket-lint that the V60 can't be used with these fast-chargers. A shame, as - while Ecotricity does also provide regular chargers which the Volvo's Type-2 plug will work with - you won't get enough charge into the battery during a service station coffee break to carry you more than a couple of miles.

Your mileage may vary

So just how much saving do you stand to make by running a V60 Plug-in? It depends on where and how you drive, and your personal circumstances. The official European Drive Cycle consumption figures Volvo is obliged to publish are very favourable to plug-in hybrids, with the V60 achieving 155.2mpg.

In the real world, after four days of purely charging at home and 70-odd miles of urban commuting, the Volvo's computer was showing us 138.8mpg. After a run up and down the M1 motorway and around 400 miles in the car, we were on 60.9mpg. Neither of which take into account the electricity you've fed into the car with a plug. And at home, that isn't exactly free - how much it costs depends when you charge and which company provides your electricity.

Confused yet? Good, because add to this that road tax is going to cost you nothing, you can also drive into central London for free because the congestion charge is waived, and if you're running the V60 Plug-in as a company car it attracts a benefit in kind rating of just 5 per cent (the D5 is 20 per cent). The Volvo could save you money, but you'll need to do your maths carefully. Either way, at beyond the £50k mark it's going to take a while to claw back the extra thousands the V60 Plug-in Hybrid costs over and above an equivalent D5, even when taking into account the UK government's grant which gives you £5,000 off the list price.

It's all about the experience

All of which should keep the arguments over the merits of cars like this raging in the comments. But it doesn't tell you anything about the experience of driving the V60 Plug-in, which is where the car shines. Because, setting aside arguments about whether it's cheaper to run or more environmentally friendly than an equivalent this or that, the V60 Plug-in Hybrid is the best Volvo we've driven for years.

A surprising statement, yes, but if you're sceptical about battery-powered cars, take a test drive in a V60 to see just how relaxing - and fun - it is to drive. Driving in Pure mode and there's no internal combustion engine present unless you absolutely flatten the accelerator, and so you can just waft round in near silence. The refinement is exceptional, all the while you're sat in the usual, tasteful V60 interior with its super-comfortable seats, cool Swedish style and usual raft of Volvo safety and tech kit. It's particularly great in the city when you're crawling along in traffic, giving you the smug satisfaction of running emission-free.

The flip is that, in Power mode, the V60 turns into something of an animal - as you might expect when you consider it's effectively got 285 horsepower on tap in total. It's not as fast as the V60 Polestar we recently tested, but still, it simply piles on speed, accessing huge wads of torque that the combination of a turbo diesel and electric motor creates. The Plug-in Hybrid rockets from 0-60 in under six seconds and sometimes takes you by surprise with its sheer turn of speed. You have to pinch yourself and remember it's a hybrid. We'd also urge you to spec one in white like our test car, because everyone on a UK motorway then thinks you're in an unmarked police car and gets out of your way. Which makes for amusing and easy progress.

 

What we particularly like is that - regardless of which mode you've got it in, the Volvo's digital dash display provides a gauge to show you the threshold you need to stay under to remain in battery-only mode, which allows you to adjust your driving style accordingly. As with other Volvos, the display can be used to put the car into the usual Performance, Elegance and Eco modes, but now you get an extra Hybrid option in the Plug-in. In practice we drove in Performance on the motorway, because it brings up a large digital speedometer, while Hybrid mode was spot on for the city as it gives the largest, clearest battery charge gauge.

V is for versatile?

The biggest issue for us is that the batteries eat into the V60 Plug-in's boot space, raising the boot floor and creating quite a shallow load bay. Which meant that our eight-week-old's pram and travelcot system wouldn't sit side-by-side and allow the boot to close with the load cover to be pulled across, as they will in our BMW 3-Series Touring (and we suspect would in a regular V60). It won't be a problem for some, but it is the most obvious sacrifice you're forced to make for the battery capability. And it still comes as a disappointment given this is a Volvo - a brand famed for its capacious estates, indeed the V in V60 stands for "versatile".

The on-board tech is mostly impressive. Volvo's radar-guided cruise control is the best of its type we've used and makes motorway driving the easiest thing in the world. Meanwhile the new Sensus infotainment system is markedly quicker than earlier models, plus it's far nicer to operate than the systems we've previously experienced in Volvos.

Otherwise, the V60 is a comfortable place to sit for a long distance and only a comparatively hard ride - we suspect the rear springs are firmer to cope with the extra battery weight - impacts on the peace and refinement in the cabin.

Verdict

Reviewing an electric - or partially electrified car - in the UK is tricky right now. Many of the infrastructure issues that dominate the experience of living with one, and that affect whether it makes sense for an individual to buy one, are hardly the fault of the car itself. Yet they do dominate the experience: we spent half of our week with the Volvo in email correspondence with the council, trying to persuade them to stop non plug-in car parking in the bays they'd equipped with plugs in the municipal car park. Once we'd won that battle, we realised we didn't actually have the right cable to plug the Volvo in, which kind of sums up the picture of EV-charging in the UK right now.

Of course, the V60 Plug-in is designed specifically to overcome these issues. No plug? No problem, just keep on driving on diesel. Only when you do that, you're basically running a very heavy Volvo V60 D5. So if you've not got access to a plug at home or work, we'd not recommend running a V60 Plug-in.

If you have easy plug access though, then the V60 Plug-in Hybrid provides one of the most painless ways to go electric we've yet come across, albeit one that costs several thousands more than the equivalent diesel.

Volvo has built a car that looks just like a regular V60 and forces few compromises on the user. The overriding impression is of an extremely refined car that - when you need it to be - is exceptionally fast too. It's loaded with technological kit, is cheap to run as a company car and gives you the usual Volvo raft of industry-leading safety kit.

The V60 might not quite have the futuristic-looking wow factor of a BMW i series, but those looking for a quiet, unassuming and easy way into the world of plug-in cars, the V60 Plug-in makes for an eminently likeable choice.