Plug-in hybrid Volvo road trip to the Scottish Highlands

If you have a lifestyle that requires regular long miles or you can’t always charge, then a plug-in hybrid might be the ideal solution if you’re thinking about reducing your emissions or just want better miles per gallon. 

What better way to put both plug-in hybrids and the charging infrastructure to the test than with some extreme testing? For this experiment I’d be taking the Volvo XC60 Recharge petrol plug-in hybrid on a couple of thousand mile journey around Britain, from the south coast of England to the north coast of Scotland and back.

Can a plug-in hybrid improve your range on a road trip?

As challenges go, this isn’t really a difficult one because even if we can’t get charged up then we should be able to get petrol. However, it’s worth noting that as we leave on this trip it’s just after the height of petrol prices and we’re still paying around £1.60 per litre in most places. Plus there have been a few areas of Britain without fuel because of protests at depots in the same week – I like to think they threw this in just to add a bit of jeopardy to our road trip. 

Our journey would start with a bit of a slog north but fortunately, it gave a few opportunities to charge and try to really stretch out the mileage. I’d be leaving my home on the Hampshire coast driving a few hours north to Northamptonshire where I’d be meeting up with my co-driver and stealing some of my parent’s electricity overnight. The XC60 has a pretty impressive range anyway with a 70-litre tank that would be able to keep us going for more than 400 miles, at least.

Should I buy a Volvo XC60 Recharge?

As plug-in hybrids go, the Volvo XC60 Recharge is a great choice. It doesn’t have the biggest electric range but it can do a very respectable 21 miles on one charge. That doesn’t mean that’s all you can use though as it’ll recharge as you drive either from the engine generating electricity or kinetic energy from the brakes. 

It also allows you to choose either a normal drive setting or the higher level of regeneration, meaning you brake automatically when releasing your foot off the accelerator and build up your battery reserves at the same time. You can change how you want to use the hybrid power too, either using automatic, charge or hold settings. In automatic, the car will choose for you whether it should be charging or using the batteries and I used it in this mode most of the time. However if you want it to charge the battery or you want to ‘hold’ the battery until you’re driving in town, for example, then it’s easy enough to do that too.

What is Scotland’s electric vehicle charging network like?

Scotland has a network called ChargePlace Scotland, which covers most areas of the country. However, it’s not alone and even at very remote outposts on the north coast we’d find places to plug-in. 

One of the best features of the ChargePlace network is it can show you when charging points are free and exactly what connections are available – something that will be really important for us. Despite our very small battery capacity, we can’t charge fast and have to use the 7kW Type 2 plug. While it’s frustrating that even those 21 miles will take a couple of hours of plug-in time, it also means we’ll be using a connector that most people wouldn’t be mad enough to use. Electric vehicles are unlikely to want to pay for the overnight experience, especially if they can charge using the 22kW or more chargers and be done in less than an hour. 

What’s brilliant is how many chargers there are in this network, and a quick scan around the map shows that we’ll be able to charge near to each of our hotels. We’d also be able to charge along the way but the time it takes to charge and the distance we have to cover means only evening charges will be possible. 

Our first planned charging location would be just outside Edinburgh. The journey there was around 470 miles and would wipe out our battery, however, the two charges on the first tank of fuel meant that by day two we still had around 50 miles left on the range. Charging overnight wasn’t so successful though and proved how local issues can foil even the best laid plans after a crash on the road between the hotel and the charger meant we couldn’t actually get to it. However, at least for the purpose of our experiment, it would let us see what the car could do without plugging in.

How easy is it to charge an electrified vehicle on Scotland’s coast?

Things would at least get easier on day two as we crossed the Cairngorms National Park. Our route took us north and, once we escaped the busy roads and motorways around Edinburgh and Perth, we could relax. The Scottish countryside always seems to appear from nowhere, hiding just behind the towns and villages. Cairngorms is also known as the Snow Roads, as you climb higher into the Scottish ski resorts. 

For a hybrid, the wonderful thing about areas like this is they’re perfect for conserving a bit of electric power without needing to plug-in. Every crest of the hills and mountains is another opportunity as you coast downhill and the regenerative brakes charge the batteries. Sadly for the Volvo XC60, its petrol engine alone isn’t the punchiest for when those roads are really steep.

After a few hours in the remote hills, the towns snapped back into focus as we approached the coast. Here’s where we’d be stopping for the night in the town of Nairn – not the most picturesque town on its own but it has one of the highest rated beaches in the UK. With views out over the cliffs of the opposing coastline, it really is a sight to see. 

Our charger for the night was just down the road from the hotel and an example of just how easy it can be. It was tucked out of the way by the local police station, with free car parking and no one else using it. I connected up the car using the app and then left it to charge for a couple of hours while we grabbed some dinner! 

It wouldn’t be so easy at our next destination though. Day three would take us to the north coast of Scotland, although not on the traditional NC500 route we joined it near Bettyhill. From here we drove the stunning and surprisingly sunny coastal roads to Ullapool. Here the plan was simple, with a charging point right by our restaurant for the evening, we’d plug-in, eat and then drive back to the hotel much like the night before. However, in this case a faulty charger that thought it was already attached to another car meant it was free but unusable.

What can go wrong on a road trip to Scotland?

As if the broken chargers weren’t enough, day four would be when it all went wrong. We probably should have predicted it as it was our longest day with the most mileage, but after everything had been going so well in the morning as we approached Invergarry everything got a lot slower. Sadly, an accident closed the road and that meant we wouldn’t be going in the direction we were planning for at least a couple of hours. 

After waiting around 45 minutes and unsuccessfully trying some creative options to get around the lake to Spean Bridge, we had no choice but to go in completely the wrong direction. Scotland is beautiful but when it comes to roads around the Highlands, there aren’t a lot of options, which is often because there’s a mountain or loch blocking the way. 

Instead of driving through Glencoe and visiting the Skyfall road, we ended up back near Inverness before looping south and west again towards Aberfoyle. Luckily, we did get to see the world’s oldest tree although we’re still doubting its credentials. The journey added around 100 miles to our already long day but we did make it in the end. 

Do many hotels offer electric vehicle charging?

Our final day of driving in Scotland would take us back into England and to the Yorkshire Dales, for our first hotel with an electric vehicle charger. There are a lot more hotels these days that offer electric vehicle charging but that hadn’t been the case for us at all in Scotland. 

Our late night had meant we didn’t have a chance to charge nearby to the hotel in Aberfoyle either, but we took the opportunity to stop in at one of ChargePlace Scotland’s charging hubs before leaving the country. Here there were a mixture of charging point brands but there must have been close to 100 points to charge at different speeds. Only being able to charge at 7kWh meant we wouldn’t be getting much battery before we needed to get back on the road again. 

The Yorkshire Dales is an ideal place for conserving battery though, as speeds slow down to cruise over the rolling hills and through picturesque villages. We arrived in plenty of time at our hotel to plug-in overnight but using a new brand of charger did mean the usual fun of downloading an app, adding my payment details and trying to make it work while standing in a car park. 

So is it worth driving a hybrid car on a road trip?

This hotel looked to be the saviour of our journey but the charger failed to work overnight. That might make you think it was a total waste of time but the gains we did make proved what a money saver the Volvo XC60 Recharge can be. 

Sadly for the Volvo, it was let down by the charging network and some factors out of our control, but particularly if we’d been covering shorter distances each day, rather than spending all day on the road, and been able to charge at each stop then we would have seen a lot more benefit. 

On our best days we were getting around 43mpg but overall we averaged around 37mpg.

That said, even the battery we managed to gain just by using the car was enough to drive us around for miles each day on electric power. By putting the car into battery hold mode, you can easily see how fast it can charge up and save that battery for when you need it.