We’ve always been fans of Volvo’s smallest SUV. Was it even better as a plug-in hybrid?

Why we ran it: To discover whether a technology that suits the car industry also suits drivers

Month 4Month 3Month 2Month 1 - Specs

Life with a Volvo XC40 PHEV: Month 4

Working out which XC40 variant to pick seemed like catnip for accountants. Did the PHEV have us rolling around in bliss? - 3 March 2021

When you’re considering a PHEV, it’s easy to end up spending hours staring at spreadsheets.

Take the questions raised by the Volvo XC40 Recharge Plug-In Hybrid T5 that has just left our fleet. You need to judge the potential savings offered by the official 28 miles of electric-only running. And, if you’re a company car buyer, the savings enabled by the 11% benefit-in-kind tax rating courtesy of its WLTP- certified 47g/km CO2 emissions.

More broadly, you need to consider whether, at £48,255 as tested, this car is worth the £20,000-plus premium over the £25,440 entry-level T2 petrol. Or, conversely, its savings compared with the £60,005 electric Recharge P8. Both of which depend on how much use you will make of the electric motor, what you will pay for the electricity and what you would otherwise have to pay for petrol. Then, of course, you need to consider residual values and whether to buy outright, lease, go for PCP finance or use Volvo’s subscription scheme.

While financial considerations have always shaped the car buying process, it has never felt more like sitting an advanced calculus exam. Especially if, like me, you’ve never been very good at maths.

Sometimes, then, you need to stop thinking about numbers and go for a drive. Particularly because it’s when serenely gliding along in considerable comfort that the XC40 Recharge T5’s appeal really shines. That’s partly because of how comfortable it is to spend time in, served with a pleasing dose of Scandi-cool. We’ve long been impressed with the XC40, and spending an extended time with the SUV in decked-out Inscription Pro trim only emphasised that.

We knew much from our past experiences of the XC40, of course. But what our time with the T5 highlighted was just how well Swedish style meshes with plug-in power. Short journeys around town were completed in the serene quiet of electric-only running. Nestled inside, journeys felt as relaxing as a meditation podcast full of Nordic woodland noises.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Find an Autocar review

Back to top

For 20 miles or so, that is. Because that’s when the battery ran flat and the combustion engine, with accompanying noise and vibration, kicked in. We’re talking in relative terms here: by any standard, even using petrol power, the T5 still offered a refined, smooth drive; it just wasn’t as smooth as you know it would be on battery power. Still, during my time with the T5, I also had a run in a mild-hybrid petrol B4. That was also an effective, quiet cruiser, but it made me really appreciate the extra refinement the plug-in hybrid powertrain offers.

Experience of the system helped achieve best usage. The realisation that setting the sat-nav prompts the car to mete out the electric power for optimum usage was key, as was determining that, for best results, I had to top up the battery whenever I could.

The 28-mile official EV range (significantly less than many rivals offer) was closer to 20 in reality (and occasionally less than that when temperatures dropped), which means plugging in as much as possible. The T5 became a regular visitor to the EV chargers at my local Tesco – and its charging cable became a regular trip hazard trailing out of my front door.

Without access to a home wallbox, I was reliant on a standard 3kW plug, which gave a full charge in just over seven hours – another reason to maximise each bit of electricity as much as possible. That said, it did highlight that a plug-in hybrid is an ideal car for the locked-down, home- working, essential-journey-only lifestyle: plug it in in the morning when you start work and it will be fully charged by mid-afternoon. Handily, the highly useful Volvo On Call smartphone app sends you a notification when it’s done.

As an aside, for all the premium comfort and class that Volvo imbues in its cars, its buying process and its app, charging still involves a not- at-all-premium process of hoicking cables out of the boot and then leaving them trailing from power source to car. That’s not unique to Volvo, of course, but the firm that finds a way to improve that experience will be onto a winner...

One big benefit of a plug-in hybrid is the freedom it offers when your destination is beyond any electric ambitions or where charging will be difficult. On longer journeys, the T5 was a supreme mile-muncher, particularly with Volvo’s suite of driver aids to ease progress without making you feel like the car was wresting control. And even when drawing its power from petrol, the extra heft of the big battery didn’t significantly compromise the XC40’s ride, handling or performance.

There were some niggles: the brake pedal didn’t offer much in the way of feel, making for some jerky moments, and the engine developed a still- unexplained thirst for oil.

Back to top

Another negative: while it’s no surprise that we didn’t achieve close to the inflated official fuel economy figure, the 38.5mpg we averaged isn’t really any better than you would get from a non-hybrid SUV of this size. Admittedly, though, it was affected by the number of long journeys that various team members made; for much of our time with the car, I had the average closer to 55mpg.

That difference reflects the odd reality of the past few restriction- filled months: I could go weeks doing nothing but low-mileage supermarket runs existing purely on electricity – and then would clamber in for long motorway jaunts for work that racked up the mileage while burning petrol. With a different usage pattern – such as that I had in my old life of regular short commutes to the office (remember those?), I reckon I could have exceeded that 55mpg in a real-world setting.

Which basically leaves us back where we started: plugging numbers into spreadsheets to work out the true cost-effectiveness of a plug-in hybrid.

To find the answer, I’m afraid you’re going to have to do your own sums, based on your own car usage. But if I was in the market for an upmarket, comfortable SUV, I’d be trying very hard to make the numbers for the XC40 Recharge T5 add up.

Second Opinion

Some cars are simply a delight to drive at any speed and, for me at least, the XC40 T5 is one of them. Its combination of smooth electric power and stripped-back yet refined interior have a real calming effect on shorter journeys, and while it has decent pace when pushed, I rarely felt the need. Stressed commuters would certainly benefit from the Swedish SUV’s relaxing effects.

Tom Morgan

Back to the top

Love it:

Smooth and silent Quiet electric running suits Volvo’s sense of style. It makes us excited for the brand’s forthcoming EVs.

Swede interior No shonky flatpacks here: this cabin showcases the very best of Swedish style. It’s fancy yet still friendly.

Premium practicality Easy to get into and with a large boot, the XC40 offers plenty of versatile space.

Loathe it:

Time to recharge Electric-only range of around 20 miles is shorter than some rivals’ and somewhat limiting.

Back to top

Braking the smooth feel Numb brake pedal occasionally led to jerky braking, which was at odds with the premium feel and drive.

Final mileage: 5271

Back to the top

It looks serene on the surface, but we’ve discovered this PHEV hides a few quirks - 20 January 2021

Having agreed to borrow the XC40 PHEV a week before everyone’s festive plans were scuppered, my annual pilgrimage to the West Country via East Sussex was rapidly shortened – but a support bubble at least meant that I wouldn’t be the one cooking the turkey and the Volvo would still get to stretch its legs.

Admittedly, I had managed only a two-thirds battery charge at my local supermarket before setting off, and as I pretty much default to Android Auto for every car that plays nicely with my phone, I missed out on the built-in sat-nav’s economy optimisations, which calculate how best to divvy out the remaining electricity along your route. This meant an MPG figure that dipped into the low-30s on the return leg.

It’s a shame that smartphone integration is crammed into the lower portion of the portrait-oriented touchscreen, too – it’s the same with Apple CarPlay, according to the car’s regular custodian, James Attwood, although he has no complaints.

For the most part, the Recharge T5 drives exactly as I remember the T4 petrol XC40 that we ran back in 2019: perfectly capable, relaxing at speed and happy to eat up motorway miles. The handover from electric to petrol power is very smooth, the digital dashboard makes it clear how much throttle will wake the engine and it feels very refined when running on battery power. Well, except for the overly sensitive brake pedal.

Back to top

This puzzled me, as Attwood mentioned in a recent report a somewhat numb feel to the brake pedal, giving the impression of it being unresponsive, even while stopping the car perfectly well. It turns out the opposite is true once you manually switch into B mode, which increases the amount of regenerative braking.

Here things stiffen dramatically, which can result in some learner driver-style jerky stops if you aren’t expecting it. I think there’s a middle ground to be found, as this feels at odds with the XC40’s otherwise laid-back nature. The car defaults to D and doesn’t remember your preference between journeys.

Interestingly, just as my time with the XC40 was wrapping up, it showed a message requesting a litre of oil; Attwood had seen something similar in early November and obliged, so perhaps there’s a larger issue there. Some investigation is in order before we call time and hand the keys back to Volvo in the coming weeks.

Love it:

Well-tuned speakers The optional Harman Kardon stereo is a treat for your ears, even if you prefer podcasts to pop.

Loathe it:

Overwhelming settings There are so many icons shown on the screen at once that it can be tricky to find a particular function.

Mileage: 4423

Back to the top

Don’t rely on the petrol engine for battery power - 13 January 2021

Using the combustion engine to recharge your PHEV’s battery isn’t that efficient, but it still feels like Volvo has buried the XC40’s ability to do so within its infotainment. After I borrowed the car with next to no charge, it gained less than 40% from a supermarket’s rapid charger during the weekly shop. That meant taking an mpg hit before I could experience the XC40 at its best.

Back to top

Mileage: 3689

Back to the top

Life with a Volvo XC40 PHEV: Month 3

Semi-autonomous driving features and touchscreen tech actually prove pleasing - 23 December 2020

Slightly controversial statement time: I don’t mind the Volvo XC40’s Pilot Assist system.

In fact, I actually quite like it. Doubtless some of my colleagues will be shaking their heads at me right now. But, like them, I remain generally unconvinced by lane guidance systems, which do often aggressively intervene and save you from some imagined danger should you choose to steer vaguely close to a painted line. However, I do reckon that such systems have a use in the right circumstances – and that’s shown by my experience with the XC40 T5 on long motorway trips between various lockdowns in recent months.

Volvo’s Pilot Assist function effectively combines its adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane keeping assistance systems. You simply pick the speed at which you want to drive, set your preferred distance to keep from cars ahead and press engage. The XC40 will then not only keep you suitably distanced from cars ahead but also keep you in the middle of your lane. And it works better than any other semi-autonomous system that I’ve tried for an extended period.

While the car will gently try to correct your steering if it feels that you’re going off course, it feels more like it’s helping you than trying to wrestle for control. And when you indicate, it stops any resistance until you’ve changed lanes. Meanwhile, the ACC is a step up from many others: it’s pleasingly graduated in decelerating as you approach a car ahead and also restrained in getting you back up to your preferred speed once the path ahead is clear.

Back to top

In the right circumstances (such as on a reasonably long drive on a motorway you know well), it’s very effective, working in the way that a semi-autonomous system should: not by driving the car for you but by making it easier for you to drive the car. It removes a little of the tedium and frees you up to focus on the road.

It perhaps helps that it’s quite suited to the XC40’s role as an excellent and cosseting long-distance cruiser. Volvo’s stylish and premium Swedish design is very much evident in our range-topping Inscription Pro model, and it’s a comfortable place to pass a long journey.

That said, long journeys do show up both the benefit and limitation of plug-in hybrid powertrains. From a full charge, the T5 offers around 24 miles of electric power, which obviously doesn’t take long to exhaust on a longer journey. And once it does, the weight of the battery clearly hits the fuel consumption. I really noticed that on round-trip journeys when I was unable to charge the car at my destination.

If you programme your journey into the car’s touchscreen infotainment system, it automatically calculates the best usage of the battery’s electric charge on that trip for optimum fuel economy. But that means on the return leg, with the only electric power coming from regenerative braking, my economy was substantially lower.

Still, I’ve found a way to mitigate that by programming the journey as a round trip, with my destination as a waypoint. That means the car measures out the electric charge on both legs, which from my experiments has a small but notable positive impact on fuel economy.

Another minor niggle with the XC40 T5 is the brake pedal, which can lack feel, occasionally jarringly so because of the energy recovery system. It’s always effective, but it just results in a feeling of imprecision – which, when you’re exiting a motorway after a long, calming, comfortable and Pilot Assisted drive, is a little off-putting.

Back to top

Love it:

Reversing assistance The cross-traffic alert when you’re reversing is incredibly effective, detecting approaching cars from scarcely fathomable distances.

Loathe it:

Button symbols The signs on the steering wheel are a little vague, so I find I mute the radio while trying to expand the trip computer

Mileage: 3317

Back to the top

Touchscreen makes top-ups easy - 18 November 2020

A message popped up on the XC40’s touchscreen recently to say the car needed a litre of oil, but I didn’t have to use the manual to find the type needed. A simple tap of my finger opened the appropriate page in the system – a reminder that touchscreens can improve usability. Oil was then procured and the car is running happily again.

Back to top

Mileage: 3197

Back to the top

Life with a Volvo XC40 PHEV: Month 2

Something of a head-turner - 21 October 2020

The XC40 still draws attention. BMW- and Audi-owning neighbours have all stopped by to admire ours from a social distance and claim they are strongly considering switching brands with their next purchase. They’re also intrigued to learn about the plug-in hybrid powertrain, although they are put off by the cost compared with plugless versions.

Mileage: 2599

Back to the top

Life with a Volvo XC40 PHEV: Month 1

Volvo’s app gives a graphic illustration – literally – of the benefits of plugging in - 16 September 2020

Data is everywhere these days. As a keen amateur runner, I can track every run using my Garmin smartwatch and then spend hours poring over data showing my pace, cadence, foot strikes, heart rate and more in a bid to improve my speed. Usually, I find that the key is just to run faster.

Since I’ve been looking after the Volvo XC40 Recharge T5, I’ve got a new smartphone app battling Garmin Connect for my data-driven attention: Volvo On Call. Generally, I find many car firm apps to be little more than gimmicks, but with the XC40’s plug-in hybrid powertrain, the data it provides is fascinating.

Assuming you give the necessary permissions (because GDPR), the app’s Driving Journal function logs all of your trips, giving you a wealth of information that shows the benefits of using the plug-in to its full potential.

Back to top

An example: I recently made a 19.5-mile trip to visit family, setting off with the PHEV battery mostly (but not fully) charged. I made it virtually all the way there on battery power alone: I used 0.4 litres of petrol and 6.1kWh of electricity – including 0.5kWh captured regeneratively – resulting in an economy of 164.8mpg.

I’d planned to stop before the return journey to do some shopping at a supermarket where there is a Volkswagen-funded charging station, with a cunning plan to grab some free electricity. But my idea was thwarted by three Teslas and a VW Golf GTE all using the chargers (not so much being ICEd as EVed…).

That meant I had to make the return journey largely using petrol power: 2.2 litres of unleaded to be precise, and just 0.8kWh of electricity (although I did manage to recapture 1.2kWh). That meant my return run averaged 33.6mpg. Oof.

Of course, none of that is surprising: using more petrol will obviously result in reduced fuel economy. But being able to pore over such data is useful to illustrate the efficiency gains that come from using a plug-in hybrid properly.

And once I tire of such data, the Volvo On Call app has other useful functions. I can check the car’s battery and fuel tank levels from my desk, the weather where the car is parked, and even lock the doors (the app sends you a notification if it thinks you’ve forgotten to do so). Yes, those are a little more gimmicky…

Love it:

Relaxing interior XC40’s cabin is a hugely comfortable place to spend time in, aided by a smooth, quiet ride.

Loathe it:

Waking the four-pot Petrol engine is relatively unobtrusive but still feels gruff when it kicks in after the quiet of electric running.

Mileage: 1694

Back to the top

A charging free for all - sort of - 26 August 2020

Alliances are all the rage right now, and I can exclusively reveal a new Volkswagen-Volvo tie-up – to keep my plug-in hybrid XC40 charged. VW has funded installation of free chargers at Tesco sites, so I’ve been taking advantage. That said, speed is limited: during a recent 30-minute visit, just 1.6kWh went in. Add Tesco’s slogan as a punchline if you wish.

Mileage: 1316

Back to top

Back to the top

Welcoming the XC40 Recharge to the fleet - 19 August 2020

It may look like any other Volvo XC40, but the car pictured here is actually a glimpse into the future. Well, sort of. It represents both where Volvo is now and where it’s aiming to go. It’s a snapshot of a company – and an industry – in transition.

The clue lies in its unwieldy name: the Volvo XC40 Recharge Plug-In Hybrid T5 Inscription Pro. Let’s break it down. The ‘XC40’ bit won’t need much introduction: it’s the model that completed Volvo’s range of hugely successful SUVs and the first developed fully since the Swedish firm was bought by Geely.

The XC40 has now been around for a few years, and we’ve previously run one as a long-termer; the reason we’ve added another one to our fleet is the ‘Plug-In Hybrid’ part of the title. The addition of this powertrain, combining a 178bhp three-cylinder 1.5-litre petrol engine with an 80bhp electric motor, to the XC40 range means that Volvo now offers a PHEV version of every model in its line-up.

That leaves ‘Recharge’, and this is the element that signals where Volvo is going. The new sub-brand will be used for every Volvo with a plug-in hybrid or fully electric powertrain (replacing the Twin Engine badge previously used for PHEV models).

This is the first new car to use it; the next will be the electric XC40 Recharge P8 later this year. Expect to see a lot of Recharge models arrive in the near future: Volvo has pledged that, by 2025, half the cars it sells will be electric and the other half hybrid.

Back to top

Reaching that goal will involve the firm launching a new EV every year for the next five years, and it counts on public demand for EVs growing, charging infrastructure developing and battery costs falling. But with EU emissions rules requiring firms to cut their cars’ CO2 output, Volvo, like others, is using plug-in hybrids to plug the gap until that happens.

In short, the XC40 Recharge PlugIn Hybrid T5 Inscription Pro (we’ll plump for XC40 T5 from now on…) is very much a car designed for the industry in 2020. It’s intended for drivers who want some of the benefits of electric power but without some of the challenges an EV presents. We’re out to discover whether it’s successful in doing that.

We’re ramping up the degree of difficulty a bit, too. Several of our team who have recently run plug-in hybrids, such as Andrew Frankel with the Mercedes-Benz E300de and Mark Tisshaw with the BMW 330e, have the benefit of a 7kWh home charger. Lately, I’ve split my time between my house in Middlesex and my family home in Somerset. Neither has a home charger: my house is set back from the road and has no private parking, while my mum has so far resisted requests to have a charger stuck on the side of her house.

At one level, that means I’m not ideally placed to get the best out of the XC40 T5, but this is a challenge also faced by many of the drivers who are tempted by a step into electrification. So, can you still get the best out of a plug-in hybrid when keeping its battery topped up relies on charging from the mains at 2.3kWh and public charging points? That’s going to be a key question to consider for this test.

We’ll be considering that question in considerable comfort, because our XC40 T5 further highlights Volvo’s recent reinvention into a genuine rival for the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes. The Recharge line is only offered with Volvo’s higher-end trim levels, and we’ve decided on range-topping Inscription. And this wasn’t just because that means it has an Orrefors crystal glass gear selector, something I have a soft spot for after going to the factory to make one for an Autocar feature last year. Honest.

Back to top

As well as the fancy gear selector, Inscription means our XC40 T5 gets 19in alloy wheels, leather upholstery, wooden dashboard trim, a 12.3in infotainment touchscreen and, since this is a Volvo, just about every driver assistance and safety system there is.

Plenty of options have been added, too, including a 360deg camera, a panoramic glass roof, a powered tailgate, heated seats, a Harman Kardon audio system, wireless phone charging and tinted rear windows.

All this raises the cost of our car from £42,305 to £48,255, and that needs to be considered next to the £25,295 base price for the entry-level XC40, the three-cylinder petrol T2. Even with the promised fuel and tax savings offered by the plug-in hybrid’s greater economy (with an official economy of 134.5mpg) and lower CO2 emissions, that’s a big difference – and we’re going to need some convincing that it’s worth it.

Early impressions are largely positive: the XC40 is as comfortable and pleasant to drive as I remember, and the plug-in hybrid powertrain is impressive, offering serene electric-only running and a smooth transition when the engine does have to kick in.

Less smooth, so far, is the slightly ungainly sight of the charging cable snaking out of the house from the plug nearest to the front door when I’m slowly charging the XC40 from the mains supply. Clearly, it’s not the ideal solution – but it is a reminder that plug-in hybrids are something of an interim technology.

For Volvo, the Recharge brand represents the future – but we’ll be judging the Recharge Plug-In Hybrid T5 by how well it can serve us right now.

Second Opinion

Back to top

The XC40 remains my premium compact SUV of choice, led by its good looks and cemented by living with the petrol-powered T4 version for six months last year. It’s pricey, and the PHEV even more so, but I suspect that many who favour an electrified powertrain in an upper-end car will go for the T5. I can’t wait to try it.

Rachel Burgess

Back to the top

Volvo XC40 Recharge plug-in hybrid T5 FWD Inscription Pro specification

Prices: List price new £42,305 List price now £42,550 Price as tested £48,255

Options: Xenium Pack (panoramic sunroof, 360deg camera, Park Assist) £1600, Intellisafe Pro Pack (auto-dimming mirrors, blindspot detection, Intellisafe Assist) £1500, Convenience Pack (electric boot, electric rear headrests, keyless drive, puddle lights) £400, Winter Plus Pack (heated rear seats, heated steering wheel) £300, Sensus Connect and Harman Kardon stereo £550, smartphone integration £300, wireless phone charger £175, tinted windows £350, Mode 3 charging cable £50, spare wheel £150,
metallic paint £575

Fuel consumption and range: Claimed economy 134.5mpg Fuel tank 48 litres Test average 38.5mpg Test best 56.2mpg Test worst 36.3mpg Real-world range 350 miles, plus 20 miles as EV

Tech highlights: 0-62mph 7.3sec Top speed 127mph Engine 3 cyls, 1477cc, turbo, petrol, plus electric motor Max power 259bhp at 5800rpm Max torque 314 lb ft at 1500-3000rpm Transmission 7-speed automatic Boot capacity 460 litres Wheels 7.5x18in, alloy Tyres 235/55 R18 Kerb weight 1741kg

Service and running costs: Contract hire rate £645 CO2 55g/km Service costs none Other costs engine oil £30 Fuel costs £439.26 petrol plus £135.21 electricity Running costs inc fuel £604.47 Cost per mile 12.9 pence Faults none

Back to top

Join the debate

Comments
14
Add a comment…
Openscape 18 March 2021

Can only manage 34-36mpg using the petrol engine, 16-18 miles on a fully charged battery.

Absolutely useless. As a company car user, its costing me £13.00 per tank out of my own money. Claimed figures are all hype.

Currently in the garage now, it needs a software update at only 2 months old, also the voice recognition doesnt recognise my speech, repeats back nonsense.

Wish I had never went ahead with choosing this car. My previous Q5 had better mpg and had NOTHING go wrong in 5 years and 96000 miles. Should have stuck to Audi.

xxxx 19 December 2020

Of course it is possible, even the eu think so and give figures for every phev and bev car. The reviewer knows how much electricity is per unit and how much petrol costs so should be able to work it out. As a footnote top gear get 35 mpg once the electricity runs out, hardly great.

rob26 18 December 2020

People want consumption figures to compare vehicles. In a PHEV it's useless as what you're really measuring is the journey which isn't comparable. In PHEV the consumption is entirely based on how you drive it, how fast and how you charge it. Also partially true in a ICE car but ten times more so making comparisons impossible.

I'm not planning on spenting 43k on anything. The 12 yr old Golf GTI will suffice for the next decade. 

Find an Autocar car review