The plugged in life: A month with the XC40 T5 Recharge

A month ago, I was a sceptic. Isn’t it silly swapping trading in an already very good (and very well specced) XC40 for another XC40? Wouldn’t it feel just like the same car?

Being in the very blessed position to have driven quite a number of cars, I’ve always held the position that PHEVs, straddling the line between normal Hybrid and full EVs with their rather limited EV range just aren’t as good as their full electric variants. I’m certain that there is still some merit to that thought though but stepping out of the “test drive reviewer’s” shoes and into one of an actual potential buyer/owner, I’d begun to see an actual reason why someone would pick a PHEV over a fully electric vehicle.

That reason is, of course, money. Whilst a PHEV might command a slight premium over its petrol/diesel-drinking sibling, going full electric with our minuscule tax incentives will represent a major hike in the purchasing price. It’s fun and novel being an early adopter but you will have to pay dearly for that privilege. Opting for the PHEV might not deliver a full EV experience but if your commute consists mostly of short trips to and fro, it might work out.

So, with a little over a month since Pebble-chan’s arrival, here are some findings.

The Driving Experience
Yes, we traded in an XC40 for another XC40, so it should feel pretty much the same right? Well, yes and no. Whilst all the buttons and controls on the car needed no introduction, the T5 Recharge’s Hybrid very smooth and almost silent drivetrain has enough of a difference to almost make it feel like an entirely different car. Acceleration is smooth and brisk with zero gear changes required and apart from the little hums from the EV motors, the only noise whilst on the move are from the tires, aircon vents and whatever passengers you might have.

Void of unnecessary vibrations noise, the one thing many drivers of petrol cars just don’t seem (or want) to understand is how relaxing driving an EV can be, which in my mind, make EVs perfect for daily commutes. Yes, you might not feel as “connected” or as “emotional” without a loud rumbly exhaust and 6-8-10-12 cylinders firing under the bonnet, but do you really want to feel “connected” or “emotional” just trying to get home after spending an entire day at work? Do you really want to “Jinba ittai” every single day, every single time you get into a car and arrived smashed just trying to get to the supermarket? Been there, done that. No, you really don’t.

That said, those pleasantries end once the 1.5 3-cylinder starts up. There’s a distinct 3-cylinder burble with the typical ICE vibrations transmitting through the steering wheel and seats. I could be wrong, but this engine feels slightly rougher and sounds slightly louder than our the 2-litre unit on our previous T5.

The Driving Modes and their stupid UI
To start off, there are 5 unique driving modes. Hybrid lets the car choose what it thinks to be the optimum setting, Individual allows you to customise and save your own preferred (rather limited) presets, Pure enables an electric-only drive and the last two settings Power and Off-Road are probably here just for fun since no one will select them. Off-Road does have a downhill crawl feature but no, you’re not gonna use it. While it might be tempting to constantly toggle through the drive modes and think you are outsmarting the car, leaving it in hybrid mode and letting the car do its own thing really works the best.

And in an example of badly designed UI interfaces, outside of this screen and nested deeper within a sub-menu are two rather important buttons. A button to “Hold” calls up the 1.5 litre engine intermittently to help with delivering power and maintaining the battery’s state of charge at the level upon which said button is activated, and another button called “Charge” which as you might expect keeps the engine running until the battery is happily charged up.

While I understand that designing a physical button might cost too much money, having those 2 rather important drivetrain buttons nested into little buttons in a sub-menu feels like a real oversight as they are not just cumbersome to use, they border on dangerous as you need to take your eyes off the road just to hit the right button whilst on the move. It’s not that difficult to fix this Volvo, have all the drivetrain related options on the same single screen that are easy to toggle. Here’s a simple example with the important bits on the same screen:

I suspect they didn’t bother redesigning the UI since Volvo is beginning to shift to their new Android based OS which after seeing all the pictures looks much more intuitive.

EV chargers are still lacking. Don’t believe the hype.
Whilst the media would love for you to think that there are plenty of EV chargers up and running. The truth is that if you’d like to keep your batteries charged up, there are still not enough chargers for you to head out without having to plan your day around a working charger. Take note of that word “working” because woe is unto you having driven into a carpark all ready to plug in only to be presented with not one, but two faulty chargers.

Sadly, with all the Government talk about installing EV chargers, just take a look at Singapore Changi Airport. Zero. If Singapore’s crowning Jewel full of eco features won’t even bother having a single charger, what hope do other locations have? Heading to Orchard road and need to juice up? Tough luck, there’s only Lido, Liat Towers or Heeren, not quite the most popular malls. There just aren’t enough to make for worry-free journeys.

There are several Shell stations with EV stations but again, you need to make it a point to find and visit them. BluechargeSG (formerly BlueSG) also has several locations where you can plug in your EV but again, not located in the best of places.

Currently, Ikea offers 2 hours of free charging for everyone but while there are 4 EV lots (at Ikea Tampines), there’s only 2 charging plugs available.

This means that once again, the best solution is to have your own charging system at home to plug in at the end of the day. Ideal? Yes. Practical for everyone? Hardly.

If you are lucky enough to be able to charge at home, then say goodbye to those petrol-station visits. We’ve had the car for a little over a month and we’ve still had no need to visit one. For our XC40, charging up at home from 0% takes slightly under 4 hrs, not great but not horrendous. At a fast charger outside, the same amount of juice takes 2 hours, again, not great but a bit of shopping usually does the trick.

Charging fees
Here’s an area of confusion, with 3 separate companies currently handling EV charging, the fees required to plug in your car are also all different. The best and easiest to use is SP Power’s charging network, requiring only an App to access with payments handled on the spot once you unplug, they also have the best rates currently. 

BluechargeSG on the other hand has the most user-unfriendly system to even sign up with. Requiring setting up an account, paying for a yearly subscription service and then tagging your account to an EZ-Link card at a physical charging station. Thereafter you don’t pay with your EZ-link card, you pay with a credit card linked to your account. It’s a real pain. I’ve signed up and paid for the subscription but have yet to tag my Ez-link card. Why make it so complicated and difficult? Why can’t we just use the NFC capabilities on our phones instead of requiring an EZ-Link card?

And then there’s Greenlots/Chargenow which sit in the middle, signing up is simple enough but Greenlots requires you to pump money into a digital wallet instead of paying for what you use. Feels like a startup that needs funding but no, Greenlots has Shell and BMW as partners. Rates for Greenlots stations are also not standard across the network with some charging by kWh used and others charging by time. So, good luck if you’re stuck with a time-based charger and your car isn’t capable of rapid charging because depending on the size of your battery, your charging fees might end up costing as much as petrol in terms of $/km. Don’t take at face value all the media buzz surrounding how quick the latest chargers can charge a car because EVs can only devour as much electricity as they were built to. The pumps listen and take instructions from the car, not the other way around. This means even if you have the latest super-duper quick charger installed, if your car isn’t capable of packing it in, there’s nothing more you can do. Better save up for that Taycan.

The cheapest place to charge? Once again, at home. Ideal? Yes. Practical for everyone? Hardly.

Economy
Again, this highly depends on how much you get to charge your car, with our almost daily charge and most of our driving done in full EV mode, our overall consumption of fuel has dropped to a pretty frugal 1.2L/100km, or a mega 83km for every litre of fuel.

Also, yes, on an EV, it is highly variable how much electricity used when driving, how many people are in the car, how fast you go, the types of roads you are on and the amount of aircon you use, they all add up when it comes to an EV’s range. Out on a hot day with plenty of inclinations and expressways? Expect to see your range drop faster than a BMW M5 downing Premium98. That said, on a full charge, our XC40 T5 Recharge will show a maximum range of 40km which interestingly, over the course month has been somewhat accurate averaging between 35-40km depending on previously mentioned variables. While 40km might not seem like much, it is enough for our usual trips.

When the batteries run out though, the little engine isn’t the most economical unit out there and might even be worse off than our previous petrol-driven T5, but I guess this is understandable considering the little 1.5 has to shift almost 1.7 tonnes of metal, plastic and glass around. It does help that the batteries still provide some assistance as they are slowly juiced up with regen braking but prepare to see your lovely fuel consumption figures rise quickly.

Overall
While one month might not quite be enough to suss out a car in its entirety, it did provide us with some insight into the world of part-time EV motoring. It’s still not perfect and fundamentally, how viable a PHEV or EV still really depends on a number of factors that are outside of how good the car itself is and I guess from my point of view (as of writing), my initial skepticisms have been proven wrong. PHEVs can work and can be viable alternatives to their much dearer fully electric counterparts, but only in the right set of (ever changing) circumstances.

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