While most established carmakers are talking big on electrification, none are committing to it as wholeheartedly as Volvo is.
The company seems intent on becoming a Swedish Tesla, saying that fully half the vehicles it sells globally will be full EVs as soon as 2025, while the remainder will be either hybrids or PHEVs. So, while the 2021 XC40 P8 Recharge is the brand’s first pure-electric model, it won’t be waiting long for company.
COVID complications meant that what was originally supposed to be a trip to Gothenburg to experience the P8 turned into a drive of a Swedish registered left-hand-drive model in the UK. It was enough to confirm that it is both impressive and confusing at the same time.
The P8 shares its powertrain with the Polestar 2 (a more hatch-like high-rider from Volvo's performance electric sub-brand), with an underfloor 78kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a 150kW synchronous permanent magnet AC motor driving each axle. But while the Polestar gets funky new bodywork to match its funky new brand, the Volvo is intended to be deliberately familiar.
Barring the lack of a front radiator grille, replaced by a body-coloured blanking plate, the P8 looks exactly like a regular combustion XC40. Only badging and the lack of exhaust tailpipes give the game away.
The low-mounted battery pack has cut ground clearance slightly, from 211mm to 175mm, but beyond that it hasn’t required any packaging compromises – cabin space and above-floor cargo capacities are unchanged. It has also gained a small ‘frunk’ under the bonnet, although this is intended to transport the car’s charging cables, which pretty much fill it.
But electrification has come with a predictable increase to the XC40’s mass, with a kerb weight of 2188kg. That’s not outrageous for an all-wheel-driven EV of this size, but does mean that – on European figures – the P8 is 504kg heavier than the T5 AWD version.
As Volvo says the battery pack itself is responsible for 496kg, it means there hasn’t been any overall weight saving from the loss of combustion engine and gearbox.
The cabin is also reassuringly familiar, apart from a revised digital instrument pack with a power flow meter in place of a rev counter – and the arrival of Volvo’s new Google Android infotainment system – it is unchanged from the combustion XC40. So, rational design, good space for four occupants (or five at a push), and materials that feel more durable than posh.
Performance is strong. The P8 is set to be the fastest XC40 by a considerable margin and, as is the way with EVs, it feels even quicker than its published 4.9-second 0–100km/h time thanks to the immediacy of its responses and lack of time lost to gear changing.
Even with the accelerator pressed no more than halfway, it is delivering serious longitudinal G-forces, and getting it to the stop gets the sensation close to the savage acceleration of a Porsche Taycan or one of the quicker Teslas.
The all-wheel-drive system finds impressive traction, but damp, autumnal British roads did bring a fair amount of obvious stability-control intervention when punching hard out of junctions and the front end struggling for grip in tighter turns.
The acceleration is a neat, passenger-shocking trick, but not one that suits the laid-back nature of the rest of the car. The P8’s suspension settings are soft, and it doesn’t get active dampers or even switchable driving modes.
The result is a chassis that struggles to quell big bumps and which never settles down over high-frequency roughness. It’s a shame, as refinement is excellent. Even under hard acceleration, the motors are almost silent, and at highway speeds the cabin remains close to whisper quiet.
Relaxed progress is definitely what the P8 does best, with drivers likely to make plenty of use of Volvo’s excellent Pilot Assist smart cruise control – which does a good job of both intelligently regulating distance and keeping the car in lane.
It’s also possible to select one-pedal operation, with this giving more than enough regenerative retardation when the throttle is lifted for everyday operation. Call me old-fashioned, but I actually preferred to use the P8’s ability to coast and then to stop it using the brake pedal.
While the P8’s cabin is as nice a place to spend time as that of any other XC40, the new Google infotainment system isn’t without its foibles. The car I drove was running a late development build of this rather than the finished system, which looked good and was easy to operate.
Icons are crisply rendered on the portrait-orientated central touchscreen, and moving between different functions is done easily. But the navigation function was a disappointment, with a map display that doesn’t look any nicer than the one you’d see by simply running Android Auto from a smartphone.
It also seemed to struggle with the high-resolution display when zoomed out, with Google’s habit of rendering minor roads as small black lines making the screen look as if it was covered in cracks.
Volvo claims a competitive 418km of range under the WLTP testing protocol, although the speed at which the distance-to-empty figure fell during my drive suggests that would be closer to 320km in everyday use.
The P8 supports both regular AC charging and speedier DC charging, with a 150kW fast charger able to replenish the battery from zero to 80 per cent in a claimed 40 minutes. More typically, an 11kW AC charger would take 7.5 hours to refill the pack.
We don’t have confirmed Australian pricing for the P8 yet ahead of its scheduled arrival in the second half of next year, but we can safely presume it won’t be cheap. In the UK it costs £59,895 – approximately $110,000 at current exchange rates – making it twice as expensive as a base Nissan Leaf in Blighty, and too pricey to qualify for the British government’s £3000 (AU$5400) EV incentive.
Electrification is set to run through the Volvo range quickly. Boss, Håkan Samuelsson, has confirmed that another EV model based on the CMA platform that underpins the XC40 will be arriving in Europe next year, and that the forthcoming third-generation XC90 will also get a pure-electric variant.
We’re also told the company plans to make a lower-powered XC40 EV; one that will use a single front electric motor. On the basis of a drive in the P8, the lesser powertrain will probably suit the relaxed character of the rest of the car better, especially as it should be substantially cheaper.
For those who don’t want to jump into the deep end, the XC40 Recharge PHEV will also offer a cheaper and easier route to reduced combustion driving.
2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge P8
Engine: Twin AC synchronous permanent magnet electric motors, one per axle
Transmission: Single-speed reduction (twin), all-wheel drive
Power: 300kW (total system output)
Torque: 660Nm (total system output)
0–100km/h: 4.9 seconds
Top speed: 180km/h (electronically limited)
Range: 418km (WLTP)
Price: TBC (£59,895 in UK)