Volvo S60L PHEV First Drive
America's First Chinese Import
Honda quietly started selling 2012-model Fits in Canada that were built in China, pretty much without incident. Now Volvo seems poised to be the first company to sell Chinese-built cars in the States when the S60L goes on sale here in mid-2015. One key difference: Offshore companies such as Honda are forced into joint ventures, like Honda's with Dongfeng Motor and Guangzhou Automobile Group, whereas Chinese-owned (Geely) Volvo was free to build its own new Chengdu plant, which produced its first S60L in November 2013.
Chengdu is the only plant building the S60L, which gets a 3.2-inch wheelbase stretch (the Chinese are just crazy for stretched cars), so when the remarkably well-proportioned L model was warmly received by U.S. dealers, Volvo had no choice but to blaze a trail for future Sino-American imports. Oh, and for the record, Volvo reps say that so far the product quality exceeds that of European-built S60s.
Photos in this story depict the S60L and, below, the S60L PPHEV concept.
Our S60L will be powered by conventional Drive-E four-cylinder engines, but a plug-in hybrid version is coming soon for other markets, including China, and that version was on hand for test drives at a recent event at the company's Gothenburg, Sweden, headquarters. Based on the diesel-electric V60 Plug-in Hybrid that has sold more than 7,400 copies in Europe, this one shares that car's 68-hp, 148-lb-ft rear-axle electric motor, its flywheel-mounted integrated starter/generator (ISG), and its trunk-mounted ll.2-kW-hr lithium-ion battery pack, but it pairs it all with a 238-hp, 221-lb-ft 2.0-liter turbocharged gasoline-direct-injection Drive-E engine and eight-speed automatic transmission.
Touted as "three cars in one," mode switches allow the driver to select Pure electric-only driving with a range of around 33 miles (the engine kicks on if the driver demands full power), Hybrid, which balances power sources for maximum longer-range efficiency, or the self-explanatory Power mode. There's also an AWD mode that permits gentle maneuvering with all-wheel traction, and a mode that can preserve battery capacity for later motoring through an EV-only city center.
On Volvo's cold, damp, hilly, twisty Gothenburg evaluation track, the S60L PHEV performed admirably, with nicely linear power delivery in all modes. The threshold for engine firing in Pure mode seemed to be around three-quarters of the accelerator pedal travel, and the motor was a bit more audible than expected, especially from the back seat. With winter tires on wet asphalt, the electric AWD kept the car nice and neutral near the low limits of adhesion.
Speaking of which, legroom is exec-sedan appropriate, and our tester was fitted with other boss-man accoutrements such as seat heaters, a button to motor the front passenger seat out of the way, and retractable window screens. Exact feature content of the U.S.-bound S60L has yet to be determined (ditto pricing), but it is expected to be pitched as a range-topping exec model and will feature at least the same 12.0-cubic-foot trunk that the shorty S60 gets. I find it fairly doubtful anybody would willingly pony up the substantial premium for that golf-club-space-eating PHEV battery in a car that already returns pretty strong fuel economy from its turbo-four, so don't hold your breath for getting this variant.
Finally, my extensive search for shoddy panel gaps, misaligned trim pieces, wind noise leaks, and other evidence of car-building inexperience came up empty. So while I seriously doubt any of the stand-alone Chinese car companies will be in a position to design, engineer, and build vehicles suitable for sale on our shores in the near future, it looks like you can probably trust the Chinese to assemble a Volvo designed and engineered in Sweden.