That may look like an ordinary Volvo S60, but it's far from it. Inside that handsome but inoffensive Swedish body is the same technology that helped make Formula One cars so fast in the last few years — the hybrid Kinetic Energy Recovery System. That's good news if you like efficiency and speed.
In addition to race cars, energy recovery systems have become prominent in recent years on high-end hypercars like the McLaren P1, Porsche 918 Spyder and LaFerrari, but so far, they have yet to see duty on the kinds of normal cars that most of us can afford.
Volvo is working to change that. They announced recently that they have been conducting real-world tests in the UK on a flywheel-based hybrid technology that provides an 80 horsepower boost over a standard car and increases fuel economy by 25 percent.
If you're not familiar with mechanical KERS, it essentially works like this: kinetic energy normally lost during braking is instead sent to a flywheel, stored there, and then transferred back to the wheels when an extra boost of speed is needed. The system has been used in F1 since 2009 and has also been adopted on other racing series like the 24 Hours of LeMans. (These days, F1 cars use a revised version called the Energy Recovery System.)
The prototype S60 being tested by engineering company Flybrid Automotive, Volvo and the Swedish government works much the same way. The car's front wheels are powered by a standard 254 horsepower turbo inline five, while the KERS is fitted to the rear wheels.
Under braking, kinetic energy is transferred from the wheels to the KERS and is used to spin a 13 pound carbon fiber flywheel at up to 60,000 RPM. That energy can be stored or used immediately; the combustion engine switches off while braking, during which time the energy in the flywheel is used to power the car, or provide a power boost once the engine starts up again.
How does it drive? Ask Top Gear. The tested the prototype and found it to be markedly quicker than your garden-variety T5 Volvo S60:
This transforms it into a very un-Volvo-ey Volvo. Hit the KERS button and it puts on speed with a head butt, like a turbo-era hot hatch that's found some boost. When we tried it on a very moist Silverstone, the rear tyres writhed and scratched a bit before both axles settled into a cohesive thrust, then it lunged forward in a great gust of torque, which lasts, we're told, for up to ten seconds (we were on the baby Stowe circuit so couldn't let it run its course). Less empirically, with KERS switched on, our 0-60mph time dropped from 7.68 seconds to 6.07 seconds.
And all this thrust comes from a little box of gears and clutches that weighs 60kg, requires virtually no maintenance, and will last for what the company claim is the realistic life of the car. The batteries in Volvo's current petrol/electric hybrid weigh 300kg alone, and will have to be replaced after about a decade.
They report Flybrid says they can have a production version of their system ready by 2017, and Volvo's new platform will be built to accommodate it should it be ready for prime time by then. Jaguar, Lotus and other companies are working on similar systems.
The takeaway from all this? KERS and similar systems won't be just for F1 cars and $1.5 million hypercars for very long. Like all great technologies, they'll soon make it to the cars we drive, and given the improvements in power and fuel economy they will provide, that's something to look forward to.