Volvo's Ethanol-Powered Electric Car

Volvo has always had an alternative image in the United States market, catering to a certain segment of the upper middle class and above that is attracted to its once-quirky, always safety-minded cars. But alternative fuels have never been a big part of the appeal.

Sure, there’s been the odd diesel sold here over the years, but the strangest things found under the hoods of most Volvos are five-cylinder engines.

This isn’t the case overseas, where oil-burning Volvos are aplenty, as are ones that run on ethanol and even compressed natural gas. Even so, internal combustion of some sort has always been the primary motivator of its cars. That changes soon.

Starting in 2012 the Swedish automaker will begin selling a plug-in hybrid version of the V60 - a wagon version of the S60 sedan that is not offered in the United States. Not only will the car be the company’s first hybrid, but also the world’s first hybrid to use a diesel engine. Like the V60 itself, there are currently no plans to sell the car in the U.S., but Volvo has something else in mind for us.

The C30 Electric is a battery-powered version of the smallest car that Volvo currently makes. To create it, the sporty three-door hatchback was stripped of its engine and transmission and had an advanced electric powertrain installed that consists of a 110 horsepower motor driving the front wheels and a T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack tucked into the central tunnel of the car and the space vacated by the no-longer-necessary fuel tank.

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Volvo’s head of special vehicles, Lennert Stegland tells that the decision to convert an existing car to electric drive, rather than build a unique vehicle as Nissan did with its Leaf, was partly about cost, but intended to streamline the process of electrification by taking as many variables out of the equation as possible. This allowed his team to focus its efforts on all of the new technologies involved.

In keeping with the company’s reputation as a safetynik, much effort was put toward protecting the reinforced 600-pound battery pack in the event of an accident. Its position in the middle of the car isolates it from any likely crumple zones, and eight separate crash tests have demonstrated the near invulnerability of the installation.

The battery pack itself is built by Ener1, an Indianapolis-based company that is also a supplier for Think, a Norwegian automaker that is currently building a small, two-seat electric car in Indiana. Comprised of 384 individual cells, each about the size of a sheet of paper and as thick as a stack of 20 or so, the 24 kilowatt-hour pack takes about 8 hours to be recharged from a 220-volt outlet and provides the C30 Electric with a maximum range of up to 100 miles. Volvo concedes that most drivers can expect a more realistic range of 75 and 95 miles, dependent on driving style and environment, but adds that statistics show that is enough to satisfy the daily driving needs of 90% of the world’s population.

On a short test drive in Manhattan the Volvo exhibited the holy grail of electric cars: complete normalcy. The response of the accelerator and brake pedals – often a bugaboo of battery-powered vehicles – felt nearly perfect. And, with hardly any changes to the interior of the conventioal C30, there really isn’t much to tip you off that anything odd is afoot. That is, aside from a energy flow meter where the tachometer usually is and the soft whine of the electric motor as it seamlessly – there is only one gear – propels you on your way.

Most impressive is the near invisible integration of the battery pack and its electronic controls within the C30’s existing structure. Even the purpose-built Leaf has a large intrusion in its cargo area for its charger, and the upcoming Ford Focus Electric features a box the size of a piece of checked baggage behind its rear seats.

Volvo developed the C30 Electric in just over two years, and all indications are that it did its homework along the way. Compared to the Leaf – the product of a much longer and likely more costly project – the C30 Electric has little to be embarrassed about. Except, perhaps, for the fact that it’s not entirely an electric car.

One of the main drawbacks of electric vehicles is that the performance of their batteries varies greatly with the weather. Extreme temperatures, particularly the cold, can greatly reduce their ability to hold a full charge, which, combined with the use of heat and air conditioning in the cabin, leads to a significantly shorter driving range. Some electrified vehicles, like the Chevy Volt and Tesla Roadster, use actively climate-controlled battery packs to help mitigate this affect, as does the C30 Electric. The difference is that while the systems in the other cars run off the batteries themselves, also cutting into range to some extent, the Volvo has a separate generator on board that burns E85.

It’s an interesting, if less environmentally pure solution to a vexing problem, but one that makes sense for a car from a country that extends into the Arctic Circle. However, Stegland says that even when used in extreme conditions, the C30 Electric will use less than 4 gallons of E85 every three weeks. If the tank runs dry, the climate control system merely reverts to battery power and you’re all electric again.

Sales of the Volvo C30 Electric aren’t expected to begin before 2013, but later this year the company will put a test fleet of approximately 250 cars on the road in several cities around the globe – including New York and Los Angeles – in order to collect real world data from the vehicles and feedback from their drivers. Pricing for a production version hasn’t been set, but Stegland estimates that it could be as much as $50,000, or twice what a conventional C30 goes for.

With looming CO2 emissions caps in Europe, increasing fuel economy standards in the United States and China’s drive to cut its dependence on imported oil by electrifying its fast-growing population of automobiles, Volvo is ready to embrace this alternative fuel, which is itself quickly becoming mainstream.

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