Volvo Stops Greenwashing, Finally Delivers Some Real EVs

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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No major automaker has done less to advance electric cars — while loudly proclaiming itself an EV leader — than Volvo. But the company’s often-vaporous electric plans gained real substance last week, as the Swedish automaker unveiled its first, 100-percent-electric showroom car: The 2021 XC40 Recharge, a power-packed electric version of Volvo’s smallest SUV.

Call it a Day of Atonement for the Chinese-owned Volvo. Until now, the company’s only contribution to the electric field has been plug-in hybrids that cost a small fortune while delivering disappointing fuel economy. They include the S60 T8 Polestar sedan, whose burly 415-hp hybrid powertrain comes at a $14,000 price premium over a gasoline-only S60. Don’t rush to your Volvo dealership, is all I’m saying.

Volvo XC40 Recharge is slated to reach U.S. showrooms roughly a year from now. (Photo: Volvo)

The XC40 Recharge may fare better. First, it occupies the mega-popular compact luxury SUV category, and occupies eyeballs with its shapely Scandinavian design. Dual electric motors, one for each axle, spur the all-wheel-drive XC40 from 0-62 mph (or 100 kph) in a snappy, Volvo-estimated 4.9 seconds, with 408 horsepower on tap. A 78 kilowatt-hour battery pack delivers an estimated 250-plus miles of range. The technology premium will still be stiff, with Volvo estimating a roughly $55,000 base price, or less than $48,000 after owners take a $7,500 federal tax break. Even after the tax deal, that’s still about $13,000 more than the most-affordable, gas-powered XC40, which starts from $34,695.

On another front, Volvo is kicking off a new Polestar division of electrified and high-performance cars. First up is the limited-production Polestar 1, a 591-hp plug-in hybrid coupe< that should emerge from a new Chinese factory either late this year or early next. For people who can’t afford the $155,000 Polestar 1’s — meaning, 99-percent of car buyers — the Polestar 2 aims its competitive compass at Tesla’s Model 3. Coming to America next year, the The China-built Polestar 2 is an ultra-modern, five-door fastback sedan with 408 hp and roughly 275 miles of driving range. It’s expected here sometime next year, for perhaps $55,000 to start.

XC40 Recharge brings Volvo’s appealing interior design, debuts the brand’s latest infotainment system. (Photo:Volvo)

That’s a lot of electric action. But before I bring the applause, I’d be remiss to not recall Volvo’s history of fudging and delays in the electric space. The company made headlines around the world in 2017 when it proclaimed that its new cars would all be electrified by 2019. Clickbait-loving media trumpeted Volvo as some brave new competitor to Tesla. Håkan Samuelsson, president and CEO of Volvo Cars, kicked the drama up a notch, saying, “This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.”

The clear public takeaway — and I know, because so many friends and neighbors asked me about it — was that a pioneering Volvo was about to scrap gasoline engines entirely. Ah, not so fast: Volvo’s definition of “electrified” included gas-electric hybrids. Further, the announcement referred only to all-new models released after 2019, not to its existing lineups made up entirely of internal-combustion cars. In fact, Volvo has yet to set any firm date for the end of internal-combustion in its showrooms. The company did little or nothing to correct its widely misinterpreted statements, choosing to bask in glowing publicity instead. It was cynical greenwashing at its finest. And if there’s anything I hate, it’s when automakers cast themselves as pioneers and do-gooders, when they’re actually doing nothing out of the ordinary.

That overreach also recalled Volvo’s Vision 2020 initiative, which seemed to set a firm goal — again, to massively favorable press coverage — that by 2020, no one would die or be seriously injured in a Volvo car. Now, with 2020 almost here, Volvo has dialed back on the utopian claims. On the company’s website, they’re now “Aiming for Zero”\ deaths or injuries.

Volvo XC40 Recharge battery pack brings an estimated 250-mile-plus driving range. (Photo: Volvo)

Now, Volvo is far from the first automaker (or policymaker) to get a little ahead of itself, or a lot. Chevrolet notoriously promised that it would put 1 million hydrogen fuel cell cars in showrooms. The actual number? Zero. President Obama pledged that his pro-EV policies — including historic increases in fuel-economy standards, now undone by the bathing-in-oil Trump administration — would help put 1 million plug-ins on the road by 2015. Actual number, 400,000. A little off, but closer than Chevy, at least. So here’s where I’ll extend Volvo a green olive branch, and acknowledge that the company is now doing more than merely saying the right things. Samuellson alluded to that during the XC40 reveal, saying that “with concrete actions, more than symbolic pledges, we can bring sustainability to our company.”

Those concrete actions, Volvo executives further acknowledged, aren’t coming solely out of the kindness of their hearts. No automaker wants to be caught out and left behind, should the market suddenly pivot to EVs. Even companies who seem to be holding out for an all-gasoline, all-SUV future — FiatChrysler, say — will almost surely be slapped into line by pollution regulations in the United States, Europe and China. Now, every major automaker does business in China, but Volvo is linked more directly, as the jewel of China’s Geely Auto Group, based in Sweden but ultimately answering to its parent company. China’s enormous market not only exerts growing authority, but its authoritarian government may tip the competitive scales toward EVs with a heavier regulatory hand than in Europe or the United States. Samuelsson didn’t refer directly to Geely or China during his remarks, but did note those competitive pressures. Volvo, he said, is committed to electrification “not just because it’s good, or expected, but because it’s good for our business.”

As Volvo and other legacy automakers stake a claim in the electric space, that kind of honest take ultimately makes a better impression than future promises or self-serving spin. The biggest impression of all comes when automakers stop talking, and start delivering real showrooms EVs. I’m looking forward to driving the XC40 Recharge, the Polestars, and other tangible results of Volvo’s electric commitment.


About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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