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Will your next SUV be a plug-in?

Published: Friday, June 05, 2015 @ 6:56 AM
Updated: Friday, June 05, 2015 @ 7:22 AM
By: David Lardner, Contributor

SUVs have had two distinct reputations. One as a family carry-all capable of hauling lots of people, their stuff and the occasional trailer. The other is as a fuel-chugging, bloated example of everything that’s wrong with the world. Love them or hate them, the SUV became the target of plenty of attacks that blamed them for everything from reliance on imported oil to climate change.

The SUV came about in the 1980s as an alternative for those who wanted to drive something else other than the station wagons their parents did. Sure, the minivan was also starting to get increasingly popular during the same period, but the SUV offered a rugged look and off-road capabilities that gave drivers a sense that they could go anywhere in the event the roads turned to mud.  A commanding view of the road was also a big draw. These capabilities, while firmly embraced by the buying public, came at the expense of fuel economy.

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Over the years, the SUV has morphed way beyond its humble beginnings into vehicles that offer all the luxury and comfort of high-end sedans combined with the three-row seating of the minivan. One thing that really hasn’t changed much is the SUV’s appetite for fuel. But that’s about to get a makeover.

 

Volvo's latest entry

Volvo was fairly late to the SUV market having introduced its first model in 2002. The XC90 was positioned to offer buyers an alternative to the wagons Volvo had successfully sold for years without buyers having to defect to another manufacturer. The XC90 was hugely successful for Volvo and the United States became its largest market. And, because of its success, it was offered from 2002 to 2015 virtually unchanged.  That is a very long product cycle in the automotive industry.

All things must eventually change and now Volvo is bringing a new XC90 to market and this one is particularly interesting for not only what it brings, but for what it does not.

The previous model offered 5, 6 and 8 cylinder models so buyers had a choice of going with a smaller and more fuel efficient engines or a powerful and less fuel efficient V8. In a radical departure, the new model is available in two versions and both of them rely on the same 4-cylinder engine.

The 2-liter 4-cylinder engine is remarkable because it's not only supercharged but turbocharged as well.  Typically, modern internal combustion engines offer either turbocharging or supercharging, but not both.

The two versions that are available are the T6 and the T8 Twin Engine. While the T6 makes due with the 4-cylinder engine and an eight-speed automatic transmission delivering power to the road through all-wheel drive, the T8 Twin Engine also incorporates an electric motor and full hybrid drivetrain attached to 9.2kWh lithium ion battery. This gives the T8 Twin Engine full plug-in electric vehicle (PHEV) capabilities.  In this application, the XC90 T8 Twin Engine is capable of up to 17 miles of all electric driving. This is the first time a 7-seater SUV has been brought to market with a PHEV drivetrain.

Why is this important?

The Department of Transportation has a study shows that the average motorist drives approximately 13,500 miles per year. That averages to about 37 miles per day.  The DOT also reports the average commute is 15 miles one way.

These numbers from the DOT show why PHEV capabilities are so important. Given that a driver falls into the average, at least one leg of a commute can be an all electric, zero tailpipe emission affair if they happen to be driving a plug-in hybrid like the XC90 T8. And, if that driver has access to charging while at work, the entire commute can be fossil-fuel free. Even for those with longer commutes, a significant reduction in expense can be realized by using this type of technology.

Driving the XC90

During the launch of the new XC90 in Southern California, I had the opportunity to drive both the new models. Volvo, like other manufacturers, is currently replacing larger, thirstier engines with smaller, more efficient ones. But, because the overall size of the vehicles really isn’t changing all that much, these smaller engines have to produce the same amount of power that the larger engine models did in order to keep customers satisfied. So, how is this done?

In the case of the Volvo XC90, the overall size and displacement of the engine has been reduced. In this case, reduced to a relatively small 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine. In order to keep the driver from feeling power-starved, the engine incorporates a supercharger that significantly boosts power from 0-3,000 RPM (rotations per minute). Above 3,000 RPM, a turbocharger takes over. Because superchargers tend to be more responsive at lower RPMs and turbochargers tend to need a bit of time to build pressure, this gives the small engine a significant boost in power from the moment the driver hits the accelerator and maintains that power all the way up to the redline (maximum RPM).

This engine powers the XC90 T6 though an 8-speed automatic transmission. With 316 horsepower available, there is plenty of oomph available and it feels much more powerful than one would expect out of a 2-liter 4-cylinder. Because of the combination of supercharging and turbocharging, the power delivery is very linear. In lower RPMs, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a 4 cylinder under the hood but as RPMs increase, the sound the engine makes becomes more serious and more substantial.

I had the opportunity to drive the T6 model from Santa Monica to Ojai and back. Along the Pacific Coast Highway, it performed exactly as one might expect a Volvo to. The ride was comfortable and well controlled and the standard Lane Departure Warning sends its message through a gentle steering wheel vibration. It worked particularly well and is fairly unobtrusive.  It did, however, take a while to get accustomed to the vibration.

The pedestrian/cyclist detection system was quite jarring but extremely accurate. There didn’t appear to be an override switch but, if there were, I’d use it. Or, at very least, find a way to make the warning less alarming.

Despite having ample opportunity to put the engine though its paces, I averaged a respectable 25 MPG. That included stop and go traffic, highway and mountain driving. Use of an available ECO mode and start/stop capabilities certainly helped me get that mileage and I suspect that ordinary drivers will have little problem besting the numbers I achieved.  

My test drive in the XC90 T8 Twin Engine was more focused on city driving so I could really test the electric portion of the drivetrain.

Despite the fact that I was driving a pre-production model, everything seemed to work very well. The electric portion of the drivetrain seems to offer enough power to keep up with traffic. If the accelerator is pressed to the floor, however, the gasoline engine will start to provide the maximum amount of power and immediately shut down when the need for power subsides.  

There are a variety of settings that can be selected by the driver. During my drive, I selected ‘Pure.’ That setting maximizes the all-electric experience and, as mentioned, only uses the gasoline engine when the accelerator is pressed to the floor. Other settings include ‘Save’ which saves the use of the battery for more appropriate times such as city driving. There is also a ‘Hybrid’ mode in which the vehicle operates as a hybrid.  

Because I was driving a pre-production model, I won’t go in depth on the driving experience except that it was very similar to the gasoline-only T6. I did find that in ‘Pure’ mode, the steering feel was somewhat vague and that may be a result of the electric power steering set to use as little power as possible.  In ‘Hybrid’ mode, the steering felt just as good as in the T6. Because the ‘Pure’ mode will likely be used by most around town, this will be of little consequence to most drivers.

The T8 Twin Engine is mechanically quite a different beast.  It is an all-wheel drive vehicle as well, but there is no mechanical link between the front and rear wheels.  The front wheels are driven by the gas engine and hybrid system whereas the rear wheels are driven independently by an electric engine that is packaged where one might expect to find the differential in a conventional car. It’s a very efficiently packaged drivetrain and there is no intrusion on the interior.

Speaking of the interior, it is very typical of what one has come to expect from Volvo. The seats deserve special mention because they are monumentally comfortable.

Volvo proudly states that, while the new XC90 was under development for five years, the seats have been under development for seven years and that they have been specially designed to reduce the risk of spinal injury in an accident.

It is clear that a lot of thought has been put into them. The same basic seat design is used for the front, two outboard seats in the second row, and both in the third row. The center seat in the second row features a built-in booster seat for children.

Another feature of the interior are the center-stack controls for the navigation, radio, climate control and phone. They are instantly responsive with no delay and the navigation system responds to ‘gestures’ so zooming in on a map is very similar to zooming in on a webpage on a tablet or smartphone. Just place the fingers on the screen and spread them and the section of the map covered by the fingers springs up in detail.

How’s the efficiency?

The XC90 T6 is rated at 25 highway, 20 city and a combined MPG of 22.  The XC90 T8 Twin Engine has a preliminary rating of 59eMPG. eMPG  is the rating system used for electric cars and PHEVs. In hybrid mode and after the 9.2kWh battery has been expended, it’s possible to see fuel economy numbers in the low to mid 30s. That’s pretty impressive for a seven-seater.

The competition

As it stands right now, Volvo will have the only game in town when it comes to seven-seats and PHEV technology.  However, the T8 Twin Engine goes on sale this fall just about the same time that Tesla is expected to release its fully electric Model X. Although Tesla has yet to release numbers, the price is expected to be close to $100,000.  Volvo has said that the XC90 Twin Engine price will start at just over $68,000 and the gas-only T6 will start at just under $49,000. That’s not cheap. But, in the case of the T6, it is very much in-line with the competition.  The T8 Twin Engine is priced somewhere between the Mercedes GLE (formerly M-Class) and Audi Q7 on the low end and the BMW X5 and Porsche Cayenne on the higher end. It should also be noted that all of those other models are available with diesel engines that do offer a mileage boost over the gasoline equivalents. But, none of them offer PHEV variants yet though Mercedes, Porsche and BMW have them in the works for 2017 and Audi has an all-electric version of its Q7 slated for sometime after that.

Conclusion

But, until those models come out, Volvo has the only one. And, while it is pricey, it’s also an excellent way of reducing some of the expense of driving an SUV while still having access to the features that made them so popular in the first place.