In the early 1990s economic depression, combined with the growing public consciousness of holes in the ozone layer and global warming, created a lingering hangover from the excesses and prosperity of the 1980s. A more caring, sharing society was appearing and, with it, voters ushered in more liberal, left-wing governments in many of the world’s most-powerful nations.
In 1993, new US President Bill Clinton created the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) – a research project between the US government and the American Big Three carmakers. The aim was to develop extremely fuel-efficient cars, capable of up to 80mpg, to be available to the public by 2003.
Although not involved in the initiative, Volvo beat them all to it in 1992 with its ECC – Environmental Concept Car. Developed at Volvo’s Monitoring and Concept Centre in California, it was a typically pragmatic solution to the West Coast’s pollution issues, as well as a statement of how the company’s design was on the verge of a rapid evolution under new design director Peter Horbury.
And it was indeed unlike any Volvo before; soft transitions where brutal junctions once ruled and an emphasis on aerodynamics rather than stolid safety. Familiar elements remained though – the V-shaped hood feature, strong shoulders and six-light DLO – but each was amplified and composed in a way that made its forebears appear rather uncouth.
The stark white body was inspired by the purity of Swedish winters. While made of aluminium, it had the appearance of injection-moulded product design that would become so popular during the decade and encapsulated by the 1998 iMac G3. But the most radical aspect was its tail.
Its very high central volume that grew from its glasshouse, contrasting with the low-set shoulders and rear lamps, created a shocking first impression that would be later adopted by Renault with its 1995 Initiale and, of course, Adrian van Hooydonk’s BMW 7 Series of 2001. The advantages of this solution were both aesthetic – the ability to combine a low beltline offering good visibility with a shallow rear screen for a more coupe profile – and aerodynamic. The result was a drag co-efficient of just 0.23 Cd.
This, alongside that lightweight body, allowed Volvo to use a very efficient powertrain and its solution was a unexpected as the car’s design. A gas turbine that can run on virtually any fuel forms the central part of its series hybrid system. Performance was modest with 0-60mph taking a leisurely 22 seconds in EV mode but a more reasonable 12.5 with the turbine spinning at 90,000rpm. However even with the turbine running it still easily met California’s tough Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle requirements.
Three modes – Electric (battery power only); Hybrid (combination of battery and turbine on-demand); and Turbine Power (everything working) – were selected via the almost toy-like controls on the centre stack. It was a priority to make every element communicate its function as clearly as possible, hence the first appearance of Volvo’s famous HCAV direction controller. A screen on top of the IP displayed live traffic updates, allowing drivers to dodge those infamous LA freeway tailbacks.
The materials used throughout the interior were chosen for their environmental attributes, most interestingly the natural cork used in the door cards and seat centres. The result is a warm, earthy cabin that contrasts with the stark white exterior.
While the ECC would be evolved into the mechanically more mundane S80 of 1998, the decline in oil prices and a new President meant that by 2001 the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles was canned by George W Bush.