Volvo Bi-fuel (LPG) models (01- )
Volvo has launched a new range of alternatively-fuelled vehicles, which run on gas as well as petrol. These so-called 'bi-fuel' cars use LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas, a mixture of propane and butane) which currently costs just under 40p a litre, and they are significantly more environmentally friendly than petrol or diesel vehicles. They can also run on normal unleaded petrol, however - both for starting up, and as a back-up if you can't find an LPG refuelling station. LPG/petrol versions are now available of the S40 and V40 1.8, V70 2.4 and S80 2.4, with an LPG/petrol S60 2.4 to follow later this year. Volvo is also offering CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) cars, but these are not covered here as the infrastructure is not yet there to support the private motorist. LPG/petrol cars are a viable proposition, however, and one of the key selling points of these particular models is that the LPG system is fitted in the Volvo factory itself, rather than as an aftermarket conversion. Read on for more about these cars, and more about the pros and cons of LPG use.
Reliability and Quality
All the usual Volvo benefits of solid build and good finish; these bi-fuel models have modified camshafts, multi-point gas injection and a re-mapped on-board diagnostics and engine-management system with the ability to adapt to different grades/qualities of gas. This means they are specially designed to run on gas, and should avoid any tuning, timing or power-loss problems associated with aftermarket conversions. The suspension has also been modified to allow for the extra fuel tanks, and the cars are backed by the full Volvo three-year/60,000-mile warranty.
A great image-booster if you care about the environment - although the only exterior difference between these models and their petrol equivalents is a discreet 'bi-fuel' badge. Otherwise, as smart and respectable as any other Volvo.
The bi-fuel models have slightly less torque (pulling power) than the standard petrol cars, although in reality this adds only 0.1 sec to the 0-62 mph time. More to the point, the bi-fuel conversion is available only on non-turbo, relatively low-powered cars that aren't particularly high performers anyway. Volvo says there aren't any problems with converting turbo engines to LPG, and that more powerful bi-fuel models could be offered at a later date if there is sufficient demand.
You won't notice any real difference in the driving experience itself - see the standard road tests for the S40/V40, V70 and S80. An extra switch on the dashboard allows you to swap between LPG and petrol (this is usually done automatically: the car starts up on petrol, changes to LPG at operating temperature, and then back to petrol if you run out of LPG. You won't notice the change). However, you should be aware that not many petrol stations stock LPG, although there should be around 1000 stockists in the UK by the end of the year. Check the 4car LPG Directory to find out if you can buy LPG in your area. Take note also that Eurotunnel continues to ban gas cars - a hangover from the bad old days of dodgy explosive aftermarket conversions. This will be reviewed when a common European standard for gas conversions is agreed, but don't expect an immediate result. If you get to the Continent (by ferry), you will need to stock up on nozzle adaptors as there are different refuelling systems in different countries; some countries have more refuelling points than others, although LPG is easily available in France. Should you run out, then switch to petrol, but remember that the petrol tank is a lot smaller than in a normal petrol car.
Safety and Security
All the usual Volvo attributes (see standard road tests). You may be concerned about the safety of driving around with large tanks full of explosive gas, but these days, the tanks are so well reinforced that your petrol tank is more likely to blow up in an accident or under high pressure. The fuel system is completely closed to avoid spillage or leakage, and Volvo has tested the gas tanks and system very thoroughly indeed.
The main drawback with most bi-fuel cars is that the extra tanks take up boot space. Volvo has bypassed this problem in the S60, V70 and S80 by putting the LPG tanks under the floor, but there is a slight loss of space in the S40 and V40. Of more concern, perhaps, will be the loss of a spare wheel - although many new cars don't have one these days (and when was the last time you actually changed a wheel yourself?) Volvo suggests that 'get you home' spray, a puncture seal and an air compressor is enough
The cynical would suggest that an economical diesel model is just as cost-effective, but besides the fuel savings (tax has been frozen on LPG now until 2004, making the current average price of a litre less than 40p) there are other tax incentives, including company car tax and vehicle excise duty. A bi-fuel car may cost Â£1800-Â£2200 more than its petrol equivalent, but 75 per cent of that difference is refundable through the Government's Powershift grant scheme (www.transportaction.org ) on S60, V70 and S80 models (60 per cent on the S40 and V40). It's also very likely that bi-fuel cars will be exempted from London congestion charging or other similar schemes; incentives like this, including free parking and exemption from city centre car bans, already exist elsewhere in Europe.
Bi-fuel cars are no noisier than their petrol equivalents
Fun to Drive
Bear in mind that the variants converted to LPG are those with adequate, rather than thrilling, performance.
The stereo system is the same as for S or SE versions of the standard models; satellite navigation is an option on some models. Some of the bass speaker upgrades in estate models are not available, due to the positioning of the extra fuel tanks.
Buying a Volvo is never a cheap option, but you do get a quality car that will be cost-effective to run. It should also hold its value well. Although, traditionally, bi-fuel cars have been difficult to sell on, the latest evidence is that this situation is reversing as demand for LPG cars increases.
Although mainstream LPG use is still some way off, demand for used factory-fit bi-fuel cars is getting strong, so don't expect any second-hand bargains. The balance of the full three-year, 60,000-mile warranty will be a bonus.