Cleaner hybrids and totally electric vehicles are coming but their impact will not be felt anytime soon – apologies for the tired but accurate epithet.
Volvo is one of the carmakers tottering towards this cleaner future. These things take time. This week came two reports of the crisis.
Oxides of nitrogen from road traffic (mainly diesel engines) and coal, oil, gas and wood burning harm the environment, and the lungs of people and animals exposed, we are reminded by green-zones.eu.
It says that Lyon, in eastern France, has the highest NOx levels this year in Europe, much higher than Madrid, which is second. The dirty top ten includes several cities we are likely to visit as tourists, including Munich, Barcelona, Toulouse, Strasbourg and, at tenth, the lovely city of Pau in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
The other report this week looked at the health risks in “developing nations” where increasing prosperity has made cars more affordable. Citing China and India, GlobalData predicts annual increases of 10.6 per cent and 7.4 per cent. While this is good for the car industry it has “consequences in the form of increasing levels of CO2 emissions, increase in traffic related morbidity and mortality rates, and rise in hours spent in traffic congestion” said Arnab Nath, its economic research analyst. “The governments have to devise policies and provide incentives to encourage investment in the development of electric and battery cars.”
So, back to Volvo, Swedish by birth, now Chinese-owned, part of the problem and part of the solution. Supplies of electric batteries cannot keep up with demand as companies like Volvo move from petrol and diesel power to hybrid and fully electric motors. These batteries use lithium and China is the biggest producer, with lithium mines in South America and Australia. South Korean firms have factories in Europe, including LG in Poland making batteries for Mercedes, Volvo, Audi and Renault.
Thyme is a village in the glorious and hopefully unpolluted English Cotswolds, the sort of idyll loved by Japanese tourists, who may be able to stump up for a stay at the very discreet hotel where Volvo is laying out its future to guests from the British press.
The star attraction is a new saloon, the S60, a family-sized delight which is made in South Carolina using lots of mechanical and oily bits imported from other continents. The engines come from Sweden and the battery in the hybrid version comes from China.
By the time you buy your S60 (from £37,935 or £299 a month) its engine and gearbox have already been in Europe. I travelled down to the event in one of these, the T5 R-Design Edition. It’s a nice car. The equipment level and quality help to explain the price.
A 246bhp 2-litre turbo petrol engine and eight automatic gears give zippy performance (0-60 in 6.9 seconds) and it is rated at 39.8mpg and 149g of CO2. It makes history, being the first modern Volvo without a diesel option. I did plenty of miles in the S60 and after a while I got used to the unexpected tyre noise and harsh ride on poor roads, a consequence of the sporty chassis.
Volvo is moving towards partial and full electric power which will spread to all its cars in the next few years. In the S60 this phase has begun with the T8, a plug-in rechargeable hybrid version adding an electric motor and drive to the rear wheels for extra traction.
This 385bhp car is a contradiction. Its 0-60 time of just over four seconds is a fabulous thrill, verging on what my friend George calls bonkers fast, but likely to lure the idiot into, at best, a speed camera, at worst mayhem. However, unlike the Audi S4 and BMW M3 rivals it doesn’t shout or show off its street cred. On the other hand, running with a fully-charged battery you could achieve mpg in three figures – which is why it is rated at just 39g of CO2. Our test drive showed 36.5mpg. It was on the same size tyres as the S60 T5 but had a quieter and smoother ride thanks to a different chassis tune. Cost: £49,805.
Volvo has not yet abandoned diesel, and a new range of mild hybrid B5 diesels is introduced on the face-lifted XC90 and smaller but more wieldy XC60 SUV models. The XC90 returned 35mpg and the XC60 gave 33mpg over a different route. Everything faded in comparison with the 216mpg over a 19-mile drive in an S90 PHEV petrol hybrid with a fully-charged battery which allowed it to use electric power most of the time without consciously trying.
The day provided stacks of information from Volvo. It is working on giving equal safety protection to women – more likely than men to suffer in crash. Automatic monitors to warn and even halt distracted or intoxicated drivers are on the way, as is a restricted top speed of 112mph on all models, even the S60 T8.
Verdict: Classy Carolina car.