The heart of modern cars is no longer mechanical. Nor is it electrical, even on EVs. What keeps the show on the road, and what directs everything from driving dynamics to economy, is the software.
While we might be moving towards a motoring age with fewer intricate moving parts, the modern car is increasingly complex. If you want to go tinkering, then you need to put down the spanner and grab a keyboard.
And it’s becoming apparent that maneuvering from carmaker to software giant is proving a monumentally difficult task for many car brands.
Over more than 20 years of testing cars, I’ve had my share of breakdowns. Yet in the last few months, the main issues I’ve encountered were down to the software.
So far this year I’ve had two EVs suffer significant software foibles. In May, an all-electric BMW X1 alert on the dash popped up with a “Drivetrain” warning to “go directly to the nearest service partner to avoid a breakdown”.
A stop/start usually solves these sorts of issues, rebooting the system. However, as I approached the M1, a big message popped up telling me to “Stop carefully. Do not continue driving. Failure of safety-relevant functions if you continue driving. Battery can no longer be charged. Please call roadside assistance”.
More recently, a test drive in the Volvo XC40 suffered a similar fate. On a Sunday afternoon in torrential rain, this Swede decided it was not for turning. Or rather reversing. In the Ikea car park, it was forward, ever forward.
The problem with that was a steep embankment right in front of the car. The dash would show reverse was engaged but touch the accelerator and forward it went.
Another message on the dash was simply “Propulsion system Service required”. The usual method of switching off and locking to car to reboot the system didn’t make a difference, so it meant I had to put the Volvo in neutral and push the 2-tonne Swede out of its parking spot.
From there it went forward without any issues and when I tried to reverse later in the safety of a big empty car park, it intermittently worked. Volvo has since confirmed it was a software issue.
It doesn’t seem to matter about price: we’ve encountered similar – albeit more minor – software issues with cars across all price ranges. The good news is that they can often be fixed over the air, without recourse to a repair shop. Still, when today’s buyers hand over €50,000-plus for a new car, they understandably don’t have much latitude for forgiveness.
The issue with our XC40 ReCharge EV took the sheen off what was otherwise a pleasant time with the Swede.
This single-motor, extended range, rear-wheel drive version promises to get 556km on a single charge yet retains enough snap in its acceleration to deliver an engaging drive.
When Volvo created the XC40, it had a hit on its hands. Stylish, practical and remarkably comfortable, this small crossover was deceptively spacious. For that it picked up several titles, including the European Car of the Year title in 2018.
In its twin motor guise, it is really quick: 4.7 seconds to 100km/h is a performance car pace in a mid-sized practical family crossover.
Yet, it’s the single motor that probably better suits this car, and its core market. Spend a lot of time flooring the acceleration and your passengers will be filling up the sick bags.
Its more sedate 0-100km/h in 7.3 seconds is better suited to its core family audience and to a ride and handling set-up that’s tuned for comfort. For the XC40 buyer, range and practicality trump performance.
In this improved extended range guise, you get a bigger electric motor, putting out 252hp instead of 231hp, and the battery goes up from 75kWh of useable capacity to 79kWh. Changing the single motor set-up from front-wheel drive to rear has also improved matters.
Even when you’re a little heavy on the throttle, the new XC40 EV should be able to achieve 450km range, which is impressive. A maximum charging rate of between 150kW to 200kW translates into a recharging time of just 28 minutes to get the battery from 10 per cent to 80 per cent on a DC rapid charger.
This XC40 EV’s driving dynamics remain more serene than sporty and the steering remains a little vague, while the crossover does encounter body roll in the bends.
But I’m not convinced these matter too much to Volvo owners, who instead focus on the brand’s traditional values of safety, practicality, comfort and quality.
For all its performance car pace, the main criticism of the first iteration of Volvo’s XC40 EV was its range when compared with rivals and it’s impressive to see how quickly Volvo has reacted and amended the model offering.
The Swede is facing into a very important period ahead, with the long-awaited seven-seat EX90 here at the end of year this year and then the smaller EX30 crossover, due to land in Ireland next year. For all the wealthy suburban interest in the circa €120,000 EX90, it’s the €45,000 EX30 that will define the brand’s fortunes here over the next few years.
The ability to quickly improve and update is a trait of the software industry and one that will serve Volvo well.
The issue with taking cues from the fast-paced software industry is that it tends to develop and adapt to issues rather than iron them all out beforehand. That’s a major cultural shift for an industry built upon the methodical approach of expert mechanical engineers. Across the brands, certainly not just at Volvo, it is likely to throw up some interesting clashes and carry as many risks as rewards.
Volvo XC40 Recharge Single Motor Extended Range: the lowdown
Power: Battery pack with 79kWh of useable capacity powering a 252hp electric motor in a rear-wheel drive set-up
0-100km/h: 7.4 seconds
Range: 556km (WLTP)
Motor tax: €120
Price: €65,910 as tested (starts at €58,210)
Our verdict: Better range makes it more competitive but issue with software dented our impressions of the car