Volvo is Pushing Down the Pedal on Battery-Powered Cars

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Paul A. Eisenstein

Don’t tell Peter Mertens that battery-cars don’t sell. The head of global R&D for Volvo Cars was similarly skeptical until the Swedish automaker launched its first plug-in hybrid, the “Twin Engine” version of its new XC90 SUV late last year.

“We were planning for 10 percent (of total XC90 sales),” said Mertens, “then we said 15 percent.” Demand has been running at 20 percent, and “frankly we did not expect that.”

That makes Mertens and other Volvo executives a lot more confident as they get set to roll out the Swedish automaker’s second plug-in model, the S90 T8 sedan. And Volvo plans to take the next step, with its first full battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, due out in 2019. Within a few more years, Mertens said during a media drive of the new S90, there will be battery-powered versions of every vehicle in the Volvo line-up.

Read More: New Lithium-Oxygen Battery Could One Day Power Electric Cars

Volvo is perhaps best-known for its long-time focus on safety, and that’s an area it will continue to target. The S90, for example, will be the first vehicle on the road to come with semi-autonomous technology, dubbed Pilot Assist, as standard equipment. But Volvo has been putting an increasing emphasis on environmentally friendly powertrains, as well.

Traditionally, luxury carmakers were expected to stock their line-ups with big, powerful engines. Competitors like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW offer plenty of V-8s and even V-12s. But Volvo made a conscious, if controversial, decision at the beginning of the decade to switch to only four, and even three-cylinder, engines.

It still brags about horsepower, but the most powerful package in its line-up is the Twin Engine, also known as the T8. It’s not your typical 4-cylinder engine. The gasoline side of the powertrain is both turbocharged and supercharged. It’s then paired with an electric motor, the combination churning out a solid 400 horsepower and 427 pound-feet of torque.

The plug-in hybrid SUV can manage 25 miles per charge, more than enough for over half of American commuters. The EPA gives it an adjusted 53 MPGe mileage rating, and 25 mpg on gas alone, making it one of the most fuel-efficient models in its segment.

Volvo is planning to add plug-in versions of other models in its line-up, starting with the S90 sedan and V90 wagon, and then the next-generation 40-Series. Due to debut next year, that will include a compact SUV, sedan and wagon.

While the R&D chief won’t go into great detail, Mertens did note that the Twin Engine system developed for the compact platform, dubbed CMA, used for the 40-Series will be “a much more simple solution” than the technically complex powertrain in the 90-Series models. Translation: less expensive.

Read More: Tesla Reveals the New Model 3, but Buyers Are in for a Long Wait

The next big step will come in 2019, when Volvo rolls out its first fully electric model. Mertens declined to say whether that initial BEV will be based on the small CMA platform or the big SPA “architecture” used in the XC90, but “from a technical point of view, it doesn’t matter,” he stressed. “Eventually, it will be used on both platforms.”

Within the next decade or less, said Mertens, “We will offer (full) battery-electric power on all of our vehicles.” He added that Volvo’s approach will be to make plug-in and BEV options available across the board, much like today’s gas and diesel-powered engine variants.

Volvo will not do “an odd-looking vehicle” designed specifically for electrification, as some competitors, such as Toyota and Hyundai, are doing. Both the SPA and CMA platforms were specifically designed with battery power options in mind.

How much demand there will be long-term is not yet clear, according to the executive. He acknowledged that Volvo is watching closely to see if the strong, initial demand for the XC90 plug-in continues, explaining, “I don’t know how sustainable that is over time.”

The now Chinese-owned Volvo faces the same pressure to electrify as its competitors due to increasingly stringent global emissions and mileage regulations. To get buyers to opt in, though, automakers and their battery suppliers have to solve several challenges, including range and cost.

Read More: Microsoft, Volvo Strike Deal to Make Driverless Cars

Another issue is the time it takes to charge a battery. But Mertens said Volvo is in discussion with an unnamed battery company that is developing a version of lithium-ion chemistry that could be recharged in about the same time it would take to fill a conventional gas tank.

“A 10-minute charge would be an absolute breakthrough,” said Mertens. “Anything better would be too good to be true.”

How soon such new batteries might be in a Volvo car is unclear. A key challenge, he cautioned, will be making sure that fast-charge technology can last out the full 10-year warranty the maker now offers on its batteries.