Norm Guthartz

See other tow car reviews written by Norm Guthartz

To discover if a hybrid can be a viable tow car, the experts at Practical Caravan review the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid – it's pricey, but is it worth it?

Overview

The V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid may look like a conventional Volvo estate, but it’s radical under the skin. A 213bhp diesel engine is combined with a 68bhp electric motor to create a car that the manufacturer claims will go from 0-60mph in 5.8 seconds, but return an amazing 155.2mpg on the combined cycle. With a kerbweight of about two tonnes, it’s a suitable match for just about any tourer. 

Great, but how does it fare as a tow car? Practical Caravan's Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid review looks to see if a hybrid can make a good tug and, indeed, if it can answer the question, "what tow car should I buy?".

Having read the above figures, there has to be a catch somewhere, right? The most obvious is price. Even after the government’s £5000 plug-in car grant has been deducted, this is a very expensive car.

The Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid needs to be a very special tow car in order to justify its price. So to see if this makes a good tow car, Practical Caravan's testers took it to the track looking for high performance, stability and speed – and of course, superb fuel economy.

Towing

This Volvo has just about everything you could want from a tow car. A high kerbweight (2030kg, including 75kg for the driver) and a decent legal towing limit of 1800kg mean there are few caravans it can’t sensibly tow.

What’s more, since the diesel engine sends power to the front wheels and the electric motor sends power to the rear ones, the car is four-wheel-drive, so slippery conditions shouldn’t pose a problem. With so much power and torque there’s a surfeit of muscle for towing.

Practical Caravan's reviewers hitched it to an unladen Swift Expression 554, with a maximum technically permissible laden mass (MTPLM) of 1454kg. With ‘power’ mode selected (which prioritises performance over economy), the V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid pulled the tourer from 30-60mph in just 6.4 seconds. Pulling from 50-60mph, as you might after being stuck behind slower traffic on the motorway, takes just 2.6 seconds.

Admittedly the caravan being towed wasn’t especially heavy, but these are still exceptional times. It’s the torque that really counts. When the diesel engine and electric motor are delivering their maximums, the car has 472lb ft of torque – double the typical output of a 2.0-litre diesel; you’ll soon be past any dawdling traffic. The Volvo makes even steep hills seem pan-flat.

Practical Caravan's expert reviewers would take stability over speed every time, but with the V60 Plug-In Hybrid you get both. In the emergency lane-change test the Volvo hardly rolled but gripped strongly, even on a wet surface. Our driver pushed the car harder run after run, with the van sliding more and more behind it, but never felt that the tourer was about to take control.

Cars this well-controlled are rarely troubled by lorries overtaking it or sudden sidewinds, and the V60 felt rock-solid at 60mph. On one dead-straight stretch of motorway, the driver hardly moved his hand for miles.

Wind and road noise are kept in check, we discovered, and although the 2.4-litre diesel engine can be a bit gruff when put to work, its voice mostly stays in the background.

Switching from ‘power’ mode to ‘hybrid’ makes for better economy with only a slight loss of performance. In ‘pure’ mode the car operates on electric power alone. The electric motor is strong enough to pull car and caravan at low speeds – handy if you have an early start and don’t want to wake your on-site neighbours.

The Volvo won’t pull away on electric power alone with a caravan in tow on a 1-in-10 slope (we tried), but we’ve no meaningful complaint about the V60’s hill start. The electronic parking brake held the outfit securely and released smoothly; with both power sources working, the Volvo easily hauled the tourer up the hill, and was just as capable in reverse.

It’s hard to find much to criticise. Perhaps the legal towing limit of 1800kg and maximum towball limit of 90kg could be higher – there are plenty of 4x4s at this price point that have higher limits – but that’s really nitpicking. By any yardstick, the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid is a brilliant tow car.

Everyday driving

No prizes for guessing that without a caravan, the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid is seriously quick. When both power sources are in use, Practical Caravan's reviewers found that acceleration is relentless.

But what’s more impressive is the way the Volvo can be a performance car one minute, then cruise through town in near-silence the next. Press the ‘pure’ button to run on electricity alone, and a fully charged V60 should be good for 31 miles before the diesel motor is needed – enough for many daily commutes. If you're wondering what tow car is good for everyday driving and caravan holidays, could this be it?

The V60 doesn’t have to be in ‘pure’ mode to run on electric power alone. Even set on ‘hybrid’, Practical Caravan's experts drove it for several minutes without firing up the diesel engine, provided the battery was charged and the driver wasn’t too aggressive with the throttle. 

When the diesel does wake up there’s no sudden jolt: the car juggles the different power sources almost seamlessly. Combine that with the smooth-shifting six-speed automatic gearbox and you have a car that will waft along quietly but quickly.

However, ride comfort lets it down. It’s rather too firm, especially at low speeds. What’s more, despite the car’s performance, driving enthusiasts won’t warm to the numb steering, which keeps the driver at arm’s length on B-roads. All the extra weight of the electric powertrain helps anchor the car to the road when towing, but doesn’t help it change direction in a hurry.

Despite these niggles, though, we always looked forward to solo drives in the the V60 Plug-In Hybrid.

Space

Most hybrids struggle to find space for the batteries and electric motor. In the Volvo’s case, that means losing boot space and, despite being an estate, the V60 doesn’t have a generous luggage compartment to start with. Opt for the D6 Hybrid and capacity drops from 430 litres to 305 – less than in most small hatchbacks. In the Practical Caravan tow car review, this is a big black mark for the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid.

Look at the V60 as a high-performance hybrid that just happens to have an estate body, and perhaps that’s enough to live with. But for caravanners who take the car on touring holidays, so little luggage space is a serious compromise. Unless you can travel very light indeed, a roofbox will be essential, but will hurt fuel economy.

The Volvo isn’t especially roomy for people, either. Those in the front will be comfortable, with lots of legroom, reasonable headroom and supportive seats. The finish and elegant interior design are also in keeping with a car of this price.

In the back, though, legroom isn’t generous, and the flat, hard cushion in the middle of the rear bench means a third back-seat passenger won’t be comfortable. However, air vents in the door pillars will keep those in the back warm or cold.

While offering acceptable passenger space, just 305 litres of boot space means that the V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid is a poor estate car.

Running costs

Whether the Volvo makes financial sense depends on the type of driving you do, and whether it’s a company car. For business drivers the car sits in the 5% benefit-in-kind bracket, meaning rock-bottom bills. For private buyers, it’s £44,275, even after the government’s £5000 plug-in car grant – that's a lot given that the top-spec V60 D5 diesel costs £36,445.

Running costs will be lowest for drivers with a short daily commute, who can do most of their driving on electric alone, when not hooked to a caravan. Battery recharging takes three or four hours from a domestic plug, the Practical Caravan review team discovered.

Whether a driver gets close to the official combined figure of 155.2mpg depends on the level of charge when a journey starts and the distance covered. On a 40-mile solo drive, we achieved 83.3mpg, but saw closer to 170mpg for the first 10-15 miles. Yet a motorway drive that started with almost no charge saw economy of 47.3mpg.

Practical Caravan's driver started on the towing economy route with two-thirds of a charge and achieved 30.9mpg: superb fuel-efficiency for a quick, heavy car. Over several hundred miles, though, this figure will drop when the battery runs down.

What Car?’s used car experts predict that the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid will be worth 38% of its original price after three years and 36,000 miles – quite a hit. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a V60 Hybrid by your employer and have a short commute, it makes perfect sense. But for private buyers, especially anyone who regularly drives long distances, the sums don’t add up.

Technical specs

Engine size2400 cc
Kerbweight2030 kg
85% KW1726 kg
Towball limit90 kg
Maximum towing limit1800 kg
Power (electric motor)68.0 bhp
Power (internal combustion engine)213 bhp
Torque (electric motor)147.0 lb ft
Torque (internal combustion engine)325.0 lb ft
Official MPG155.2 mpg
CO248 g/km
30-60mph6.4 seconds
30-0mph10.2 m

Verdict

In the Practical Caravan review, the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid proved to be a fascinating car – brilliant in some ways, frustrating in others. Whether it fits neatly into your life depends on the kind of driving you do.

It makes great financial sense for a company car driver whose boss offers one of these, especially if most of your journeys are only over a few miles. Likewise for a private buyer, the V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid works best if your daily drives are short and you can run the car on electric power alone.

However, as our tests show, economy worsens rapidly after 30 miles or so. Even then it’s far from thirsty, but high-mileage drivers won’t get full the benefit of the hybrid powertrain.

The experts at Practical Caravan are also concerned about the amount of luggage space – by estate car standards, a 305-litre boot is tiny. Caravanners will soon fill this space and want more.

On the other hand, as a tow car, the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid is stable, fast and safe. At the test track, Practical Caravan's reviewers were amazed by how hard the car could be pushed in wet conditions without losing its composure, no matter how violently the caravan slid around behind it. At motorway speeds it feels solid and steady.

With as much pulling power as two diesel family cars, its performance is simply superb. But despite being so fast, the Volvo V60 D6 Plug-In Hybrid is just as happy to cruise along in what amounts to near-silence. 

There’s something quite addictive about driving this V60, with or without a caravan. But the high price and compromised boot space stop us from recommending it wholeheartedly.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Plenty of power, rock-solid stability and little road, wind or engine noise
  • Torque is double that of a 2.0-litre diesel
  • Outstanding fuel economy for such a large car
  • Can be very fast when it's needed

Cons

  • Stingy with space for luggage and rear-seat passengers
  • Very expensive to buy and to run for regular long distance drives
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