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Volvo V40 bi-fuel Roadtest

How much is a small fortune? Six of Camelot's lucky numbers? The price of a Club Class return on Eurotunnel, or a fiver? That was the price I paid recently for a single cup of coffee in a London hotel.

The chances are that if you talk to someone at Ford, they will tell you that's how much they've spent bankrolling the launch of Volvo's first serious, pan-European attempt at marketing a range of LPG bi-fuel cars. Some six months late, the first models to break cover are the V and S40s, built at the so-called NedCar plant in Holland, now owned by Mitsubishi, but until March of this year a joint venture between the two companies.

Bi-fuel cars are a component in Volvo's 'Clean Inside and Out' environmental concept, which also includes eco-branded interiors and filter systems that make the air inside the car cleaner than that of the outside world.

Soon to follow will be bi-fuel versions of the V70 and the flagship S80 - both offering LPG (or CNG in some markets, including the UK) as the 'alternative' fuel. In fact, in the two larger cars, gas will be the primary fuel with petrol relegated to a secondary and 'reserve' role. This is not possible on the smaller cars because space restrictions limit the size of the LPG tank. Volvo also state that a bi-fuel model will be added to the S60 range '...at the end of the year'.

But why the expense? Surely converting a car to run on LPG involves little more than a bit of basic plumbing and a Black and Decker? It may do if you're content to sit behind the wheel of a piece of self-propelled ordnance, and many (too many) are happy to do just that. (The main reason why Eurotunnel prohibit bi-fuel cars).

On the other hand, if you want to market a car that satisfies the recently agreed pan-European Type Approval for bi-fuel cars and one that avoids the slightest suggestion of a bolt-on lash-up, then serious research and development is called for. Add to that Volvo's exemplary safety-engineering record, endemic brand values that shout build-quality, and a particularly well informed and potentially critical customer base, and you become faced with an absolute need to install a properly integrated system.

And that, of course, is what Volvo have achieved. Up to a point. A large toroidal (doughnut-shaped) tank installed in the spare-wheel well of the V40 test car has replaced the under-floor tank originally proposed. Unfortunately the tank protrudes into the load platform and although neatly boxed in, nonetheless reduces the payload volume by around two cubic feet. But it must be accepted as a trade-off. A smaller tank of similar size to the missing spare wheel would have been a neater solution but at the expense of range, an important consideration in mainland Europe where long-distance driving is more commonplace than in Britain. The larger V70 and S80s will use special tanks located beneath the rear seats, which will in no way impinge on the load space.

The long-range tank aside, the remainder of the installation is the neatest I have encountered on a manufacturer's bi-fuel car and is the only one, as far as I am aware, that is actually undertaken on the vehicle production line. This is because other manufacturers (for example, Nissan and Daewoo) offer cars that comply only with local Type Approval for the countries in which they are sold, hence the need for a post-production conversion.

A glance under the bonnet reveals little evidence of the twin fuel-delivery systems, and even a detailed examination calls for specialist knowledge to identify the additional components. The Volvo system uses vapour injection, which requires a water-heated vapouriser, although most owners would be hard put to find it. Behind the wheel, the only distinguishing feature is an 'LPG' switch incorporated into the centre console and two fuel gauges, again neatly integrated into the standard instrument array. Even the extra filler socket (which the Swedes are pleased to refer to as a 'nipple') is tucked away under the normal filler cap.

The car automatically defaults to petrol on start-up and continues that way until the water temperature has risen sufficiently to properly activate the LPG vapouriser. (LPG is obviously in a liquid state in the tank and does not change to a gaseous state suitable for injection until its temperature is raised as it passes through the heat-exchanging vapouriser). In addition, the petrol injectors and pump must be used from time to time in order to maintain efficient operation.

With the LPG switch in the 'on' position (indicated by a small supervisory in the switch itself and a green 'LPG' legend in the instrument array) the engine will automatically switch to LPG as soon as the required coolant temperature has been reached. Unless the temperature falls below the threshold level the engine will continue to default to LPG even if switched off for a while. Should the tank run dry then the system automatically 'fails safe' to petrol. Alternatively petrol may be selected manually by releasing the push-button LPG switch on the console.

According to the vehicle data sheet, Volvo admit to a very slight tailing off in performance when the engine is running on LPG. In petrol mode the normally aspirated 1783 cc engine delivers 122 bhp, which drops to 120 bhp on LPG (except in France and Belgium where both are 116 bhp). Likewise the peak torque drops from 170 lbs/ft to 167 lbs/ft, but neither of these slight reductions is particularly noticeable in the real world. Top speed remains the same at 124 mph although the 0-62 mph time of 10.5 seconds when running on petrol increases to 11.0 seconds on gas. This slight penalty would hardly be apparent outside the strict confines of test-track conditions.

What does 'suffer', if that's the right word, is the fuel consumption. Because LPG has only 80 per cent of the calorific value of petrol, for a given measure of fuel, the range is reduced by a broadly equivalent amount. For example, the EU combined fuel consumption on the petrol cycle is 34.9 mpg and on gas, 27.2 mpg. Much the same differential applies on urban (25.0/19.8) and extra urban (45.6/34.4). On the other hand, tailpipe emissions are reduced from 193 grammes per driven kilometre to a more acceptable 168 g/km. Since this particular engine is not inherently one of the cleanest around, the LPG factor reduces the Vehicle Excise Duty from the top-dollar D2 band (£155) to the slightly cheaper C1 (£130).

The toroidal tank as fitted to the test car has a total volume of 57 litres. This must be reduced by 20 per cent to allow for expansion and a little more to allow for the bit slurping about below the feed pipe, leaving a useable volume of 40 litres or roughly 8.8 gallons. This equates to a range on the combined cycle of 240 miles, more than adequate in view of the fast-growing number of LPG outlets in the UK.

Although we might be catching up with mainland Europe in terms of LPG coverage, we are certainly out on our own in terms of price. We tested the car in Holland, where LPG is around 0.9 guilders or about 27 pence per litre. Compare that with the average UK price of 38 pence a litre. As it happens, diesel is also a lot cheaper in Holland, as you will be able to work out from the photograph showing the pump prices.

But what of the car itself? We were fortunate in being able to sample the new V40 Sport, which has been recently introduced to occupy a mid-range position between the S and SE variants. Blessed with smart new alloys, a front and tailgate spoiler and other minor upgrades it adds a touch of class, although the performance is no different to the other 1.8-litre models.

Smart as it may be you cannot add it to your wish list. The only models offered as bi-fuel cars in the UK are in S and SE trim. The S40 prices, respectively, will be £17,020 and £18,842 and for the V40 estate, £17,870 and £19,692. Automatic is simply not an option, although it will be offered on the larger bi-fuel models. These prices represent a premium over petrol cars of between £1500 and £1770, according to model, which is much less than the premium charged by other manufacturers. The 40-series cars have qualified for a PowerShift grant equivalent to 60 per cent of the additional cost, the reference number being 01-62-786-LPG.

The presence of the large-ish LPG tank reduces the load volume (seats up, to glass line) from 14.6 to 12.6 cubic feet. Seats down, these figures increase to 26.5 and 24.5 cubic feet, respectively, but in this configuration the raised platform concealing the tank does make loading and carrying long objects a bit awkward as they will not sit flat.

The performance from the 1.8-litre engine was adequate but not exhilarating. The engine could be heard to strain under heavy acceleration and the absence of a rich torque curve meant that the slightly notchy five-speed 'box frequently came into play during rapid overtakes.

But forget outright performance. In so many respects this is a real inter-city Euro car and its principle merit proved to be its outstanding driveability. Switching from motorways to major and minor cross-country routes tested the V40's all-round flexibility. Drivers familiar with northern Holland will know that rapid cross-country driving calls for more circumspection than in Britain. Many roads are none-too-wide ribbons of tarmac perched on top of tall and meandering dykes frequented by careless flaxen-haired maidens on bicycles laden, for effect, with Gouda cheese (Gouda is pronounced with an 'H' and lots of spit). If you're not perched above the surrounding countryside you find yourself on roads alongside which the bordering verges are thoughtfully constructed from a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.

The Phase ll V and S 40s introduced last year offer much better handling than their predecessors, but I admit that the presence of steep drops and the ever present H2O, and the fact that I was driving a pre-launch car shipped in from Sweden for the occasion took, shall we say, the edge off my driving. A launch car it may have been, but I wished it to remain so only in one sense. Having tested a 2.0-litre version in the UK last year, you may assume that I can vouch for the improved handling and road-holding.

Once a long-distance UK and continental coach driver, I would cover at least a thousand miles a week and I can assure you that ergonomics are more important than pace. Translated to driving a car over long distances, a cabin that's not properly sorted can generate a nightmare cocktail of aches and pains, fatigue, and lapses in concentration. An accident waiting to happen, you might say.

But the V40 seems to have been designed for drivers to whom their car is a second home. Flawless ergonomics coupled with sensible and logical controls sited in an angled centre console reflect the form-follows-function mind-set that characterises the larger Volvos.

Speaking of reflections, I was pleased to note that the fascia of the V40 Sport was finished in grey to match the rest of the trim. Considering Ford have invested good money in investigating the effects of so-called veiling glare (windscreen reflections) I am constantly amazed that safety-conscious Volvo continue to cover most of their fascias with cream and beige and seem happy to expect drivers to cope with the concomitant magic-lantern display in dappled sunlight. (Volvo say these light fascias are a matter of customer choice although I have yet to encounter a press car not so equipped).

Even though I was driving a left-hooker on right-hand drive roads, an unfamiliar configuration for most UK drivers, I never once found myself disconcerted by the reverse order of things. This may seem an unnecessary comment since you are unlikely to be driving in the same conditions, but I mention it in order to illustrate the instant, bid-you-welcome nature of the car.

The longer wheelbase of the Phase ll cars and softer damper settings have also improved the ride quality and the net result is not dissimilar to that of the new V70. I also liked the high-ratio steering which allowed my hands to remain in one position on the wheel in all but the tightest city-centre turns.

Endemic to all things Volvo, the V40 is liberally equipped with active and passive safety features and the usual cluster of cubby holes, cup-holders and other origamic devices to ensure that every cubic inch serves a purpose. With Volvo's well-publicised environmental credentials, bi-fuel motoring is a natural progression for them towards the next generation of V and S 40s, which are likely to emerge with ISG or parallel-hybrid power, already breaking cover in the Ford Escape announced recently for the North American market and due here in 2003 on board the new Ford Maverick.

In the meantime LPG continues to gain a foothold in the UK market and the launch of the bi-fuel Volvos will surely be viewed by conservative middle England as an endorsement of alternative-fuel motoring along the same lines as Waitrose selling organic foods. Now it's only a matter of time before the ladies of Weybridge will be glancing over their glasses of Old White Knuckle and saying: " My dear, you're not still using petrol, are you? How quaint."

Posted on 26.06.2001 by Graham Whyte
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