Robert tries out Volvo’s pure-electric test car in sub-zero temperatures
By Robert Llewellyn on March 23, 2012 11:02 AM
There is always the painful dichotomy of travelling in an aircraft for 1,500 miles to drive an electric car 60 miles, have some lunch and then fly 1,500 miles back home. Quite simply, if you think too hard about it, you go mad.
That’s what I did last week – got an early morning flight from Heathrow to Kiruna in Northern Sweden, north of the Arctic Circle. The whole place was deep in proper snow, snow that won’t melt until late April. It is cold up there, very cold. Mid-winter temperatures of -25ºC are not uncommon.
When I went it was a balmy -8ºC and the Swedes were all walking around in T-shirts and shorts. Okay, not quite, they are very sensible and well prepared, a bit like the Volvo C30 Electric. I had driven the car before on another jaunt to the Volvo works at Gothenburg, but that was just UK cold, nothing special.
This car is, like so many other pure electric models from big manufacturers, not for sale and they have only made 250 of them for testing purposes. It’s a sophisticated conversion of the standard C30, so it did start life as a fossil burner. That said they’ve done a very good job, it’s ultra safe (I’ve seen the crash test footage), has about the same range as the Nissan LEAF, it’s smooth, nippy and handles very well, even on sheet ice... but more of that later.
Because the temperature was only -8ºC, Volvo stored the cars in freezer containers overnight, bring the temperature inside and outside the car to a bracing -25ºC. Let me tell you, that is proper cold. When I got in the car there was ice on the inside of the windscreen, the steering wheel felt like my hands would freeze to it. The seats were like blocks of ice, even the gear shift thingy was frozen.
I pressed the ‘On’ switch and the car came to life immediately. I faffed around with the heating controls but before I could do anything fans started whirring and a blast of warm air came out of the vents. I also noticed that the heated seats started to thaw out my frozen cold weather gear that Volvo had kindly supplied. Within about two minutes the interior of the car had gone from -25 to +22c. I had to get out and shed massive coats – I was boiling.
"Within about two minutes the interior of the car had gone from -25 to +22c. I had to get out and shed massive coats – I was boiling."
So the battery must have taken a real pummelling, right? I’m used to the LEAF, in which using the heater takes 10 miles off the range in very low temperatures. Not so with the Volvo – it makes no discernable difference. The fans use very little power and the heat wasn’t coming from the battery. The Volvo is fitted with an ethanol heater. It doesn’t smell – it’s all very contained and Swedish – but it makes a cold car very warm very quickly. It produces 12 kilowatts of heating power in what seems like an instant.
There is a 12-litre tank for the ethanol. Volvo was using bio-ethanol but you can use regular petrol just as well. The heater uses half a litre an hour if you leave the heating on all the time. That's good for a solid 24 hours worth of heating, which is pretty reasonable. However, I soon discovered that you really didn’t need it on all the time – once the cab was warm I drove more than 60 miles with it off and I wasn’t the slightest bit chilly. I think the Swedes are quite good at insulation too.
The car is really a development prototype for, reading between the lines of the comments from Volvo staffers, a future built-from-the-ground-up electric model. As far as heating goes, there’s nothing to touch it at the moment, truly impressive.
But the Volvo is amazing on snow-covered roads, which made up 90% of the journey they sent me on. The car was fitted with standard cold weather tyres – no studs – and it just sailed along very peacefully through the endless woodlands of Northern Sweden. I was keeping an eye out for Husky dogs pulling sleds (a common sight) and Reindeer (even more common). I didn’t hit anything and if the silent electric car really is a menace to man and beast that particular daft hypothesis wasn’t tested.
What was tested in the afternoon were my nerves. I ended up on a frozen lake. Yeah okay, the ice was thick but I was driving across it in a car. There were cracks in the ice; Swedish ice is very pure, very clear, and I could see through it to the deep water below.
I was there to take part in a slalom competition, driving flat out in a C30 Electric, this time with studded tyres. I gunned it across this vast super-flat ice rink. The car slewed around like a drunk bloke on skates when I drove it, but I was having fun – I was doing pirouettes, baby. Sadly this resulted in me coming fifth in the rankings. That is, fifth out of six.
However, I am very proud to relate that on the long drive we did in the morning, myself and my driving partner Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield came first, using the least amount of energy to complete the journey. The light-right-foot brigade did not let you down.
About Robert Llewellyn
Columnist Robert Llewellyn is a comedian, actor, presenter and writer. He’s perhaps best known for his role as Kryten in hit BBC comedy Red Dwarf and as co-presenter of Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, but since creating the Carpool series he has been invited to test drive all kinds of cars, from the pure electric Tesla Roadster sports car to the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car. As a result Robert has become an expert on green cars, in particular electric cars, launching EV web series Fully Charged in 2010.
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