Volvo C30 Electric test drive (video)

We've been covering the Volvo C30 Electric pretty closely because, well, let's face it: it's one of the few genuinely good looking electric cars in the pipeline. Sure, the Focus Electric looks fine, despite the excessive dental gear, and Tesla's products are certainly saucy, but for every Roadster in the world there are a couple-dozen Leafs and Prii putting their owners to sleep.

The C30 Electric, however, looks almost exactly like the C30 non-electric, which is a good thing, and it drives more or less like one too. About four months after we first saw the thing Volvo finally tossed us the keys, in the process taking us on a tour of Indianapolis-based Ener1, source of the battery packs that make the thing move. Yes, it's a funky little Swedish car with a big 'ol American battery pack. Read on for our impressions.

To start, Volvo began with its two-door C30, a cool little thing that isn't exactly a hot hatch, but we wouldn't call it a tepid three-door either. It has funky looks and a funky interior, but obviously in Electric guise it's stuffed with some rather different innards than the standard model. Out goes the 2.5 liter five-cylinder that normally powers the thing and in goes an 82kW motor, which equates to 110hp -- about half what the gas-powered one manages.

That's enough to get the car to 60mph in about 12 seconds, or not the kind of number that will have muscley car fans trading in their Hemis. But, it is quicker to 40mph than the gasoline powered car, so we're told. Sadly we weren't able to verify that -- the model that we took for a spin had been beaten on a bit and so was running on low charge and reduced power. When we moved pedal to floor mat we were met acceleration less like a bang and more like a whimper.

Disappointing, that, but it is still a prototype model. Still, we were able to get a good feel for the other driving dynamics of the car, which for the record is rated for up to 100 miles on a charge when driven in a more conservative manner. Steering is taut and direct, the center of gravity lowered thank to the battery packs mounted in the transmission tunnel and where the gasoline tank would normally be. This gives the car good balance, poise, and feel, despite it weighing 260lbs more than the gasoline model.

Volvo C30

Mind you, it's not supposed to be a sports car, and we were impressed most by the calming effect cruising within its doors inspired. That might have something to do with the gimped power delivery, but it was also in large part thanks to the silence of the cabin. Sure, all EVs are quiet, but many have lost some sound deadening material in the interest of saving weight, leading to more road noise coming into the cabin. Enthusiasts may enjoy the sound of a nice custom exhaust, but nobody likes the drone of tires slowly being worn down by concrete and asphalt.

In the C30 Electric you get none of that, nor is there really much wind noise to give you any sense of speed. In fact, we didn't really hear any unpleasant sounds until we'd parked the thing. When engaging the automatic parking brake a slight groan creaked out from somewhere in the rear, a faint sound that put a faint frown on the face of the Volvo representative sitting in the back seat. "Not premium," he said, pledging the noise will not be heard on the models that go up for lease next year.

That silence and calm in the cabin means future owners will want to pay attention to their speedos, because it's easy to lose track of just how fast you're going in this thing, which will do neither your range nor your license any favors. Situated next to that speedo is the car's gauge of just how economically you're driving, which is a clean, analog dial sitting where the tachometer would normally be. There are no fancy computer graphics as seen in the Leaf or Volt or the Prius PHEV, just a needle that sweeps one way when you're regeneratively charging the battery and then leans back the other when you're pulling charge from it.

Simple. Clean. Sophisticated. Not things you can say for the interiors of many EVs, which light up like Christmas and do their damndest to distract you as much as possible. Things are rather more muted here, which may or may not be a good thing depending on how much of a whiz-bang factor you need from your whips, but it sure looks nice.

A 24kWh, air-cooled, Ener1-sourced battery pack, built in the US of A, forms the backbone of the car. The prototype version works with Level 1 or 2 chargers, but has also been augmented with a CHAdeMO plug for incredibly fast charging -- the kind that can get a Leaf up to 80% charge in 20 minutes. It remains to be seen whether that'll be included on the production car, though.

Interestingly, though, the batteries aren't the only thing providing power in the car. A small fuel tank is hidden in there, designed to hold 3.5 gallons of E85 ethanol. That may sound like an odd thing to have in a purely battery-electric car, and it is, but it's here for a good reason. Remember this is a car built for Swedes, and remember too that it can get awfully cold in Sweden.

This fuel is used to power a little heater situated down low on the firewall. The ethanol is burned to produce heat, which can warm up the cabin in three minutes without having any impact on battery life, and Volvo estimates those three and a half gallons should be good for two to three weeks of daily use. But, the car can automatically pre-condition itself to temperature using power from the grid before you hop in for your morning commute, and there is a battery-powered heater too if you want to run totally emissions-free on a chilly day.

Overall it's every bit as comfortable to drive as any other Volvo, if not more-so, but there's a catch, and it's a real big one: Volvo doesn't ever really plan on selling you this car. Yes, it's going on sale next year, or on lease anyway, but the company plans to make just 400 of the things. Of those 100 will be coming to the US, which means the odds are long, but the price is high.

In Europe pricing isn't set and Volvo refused to give us a firm figure, but leasees can expect to pay somewhere around 1,500 euro per month for the car, equating to a bit over $2,100 per month. That's Tesla Roadster money, folks, and while it could be said that the C30 is rather more family-friendly and will certainly be nicer to live with in the winter, we think you'd have to be a little bit dead inside to pick this over the supercar competition.

So yes, the pricing is a shame, but right now these cars are still rolling prototypes, cars that Volvo is selling just to dip its toe into the EV pool before diving in head first with a wholly new model that we're told will be unveiled sometime next year. It'll be about the same size as the C30 and using a similar drivetrain, similar battery pack (but hopefully liquid cooled), and supposedly a price that you can afford. Maybe us, too.