2010 LA Auto Show: Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric First Drive Report

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One of the great things about auto shows is the chance for journalists to drive prototype cars, especially at the Los Angeles Auto Show, known for its green-car test drives.

We got a chance to spend 20 minutes behind the wheel of the Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric car, with Volvo's Lennart Stegland in the passenger seat. He's the president and director of Volvo's special vehicles group.

Silent start and idle creep

The car we drove was fully fitted out, unlike one driven more than a year ago by Popular Mechanics editor Andrew English, which had only one of the two pieces of its battery pack installed--and a bad wheel bearing beside.

Starting the car, or booting it up, occurs in dead silence. There's no chime or tone to indicate that the vehicle is "awake" and ready to roll. Like the 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt, the C30 DRIVe is fitted with simulated idle-creep, so lifting off the brake causes it to move forward.

That's a distinctly North American preference, Stegland agrees, and European drivers may prefer the car to behave as a manual-transmission car would, staying put until the accelerator is depressed.

Moving away from standstill, a whine from the electric motor increases in volume. It's barely audible at low speeds, but by 40 mph it's noticeable, though not intrusive. It signifies little more than that the car is a prototype. Chevy Volt engineers, for instance, eliminated audible motor whine entirely between pre-production prototype and salable car.

Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric car, 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show

Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric car, 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show

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Aggressive regen

The acceleration is nicely progressive, though the car lurches slightly on sudden liftoff. Regenerative braking is aggressive, much closer to the one-pedal driving of a Tesla Roadster than the "normal" coasting of the Volt.

"We experimented with 'sail' mode," Stegland says, in which the car rolls unimpeded and regeneration kicks in only on braking. But the team had to "toggle it back" to recapture the maximum possible energy.

The Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric feels slightly heavy on the road. The weight differential, Stegland says, is presently about 120 kg (265 lbs), though the engineering team feels it can bring that down to as little as 40 kg (88 pounds) more than the heaviest gasoline version.

Volvo claims a 0-to-60-mph time of about 10 seconds. We conducted no timed acceleration tests, but that feels about right. The punchiest acceleration comes in the 0-to-35-mph range, where the C30 DRIVe competes decently with urban and stop-and-go traffic. Top speed is limited to 81 mph.

Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric car, 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show

Volvo C30 DRIVe Electric car, 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show

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Test fleet 20 times bigger

Volvo has greatly expanded its plans for the C30 DRIVe test fleet, which was first unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 2009.

When the car appeared at the Detroit Auto Show in January, the fleet was to comprise just 50 cars. Now, says Stegland, that number has risen to 1,000, of which the first 40 will be built by the end of February.

More important for U.S. Volvo fans, the company changed its mind and will bring the C30 DRIVe test program to the States--or, at least, to California. Volvo had initially said it had no plans to bring the C30 to the U.S., limiting the fleet to Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Now both the U.S. and China have been added to the test. China's not a surprising addition, since Volvo is now owned by Chinese carmaker Geely, and it has plans for as many as three car plants in that country--its first plants outside its native Sweden.

Orders for the C30 DRIVe are being taken first in Sweden--they started in October--where the company will also offer a separate test fleet of diesel plug-in hybrids based on its larger V70 station wagon. 

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