Published on June 13th, 2020 | by Jesper Berggreen0
Volvo 240 vs Tesla Model 3 — The Ultimate Daily Drivers Of Past & Present
June 13th, 2020 by Jesper Berggreen
When I placed my reservation for the Tesla Model 3 back in April 2016, I had not imagined I would have to wait that long for the car. During the wait, after having leased a few other EVs, I happened to buy an old bricked (as in, dead engine) and brick-shaped Volvo 240 out of sheer desperation. The idea was to ditch the internal combustion engine that had stalled back in 2012 due to a faulty thermostat and left to rot, and replace it with a nice electric kit. That turned out to be a pipe dream, and it was actually easier to fix the old engine, mainly using tools like a steel brush and a sledge hammer.
To be brutally honest, I was a bit ashamed of actually succeeding in making the old fossil fuel slurping monster run again. Or rather, I felt bad about feeling so damn good about it! Here I was telling all my friends and family about the imminent EV revolution pushed mainly by Tesla, and at the same time I drove an old soot-stinking Volvo?
It was indeed a long wait for the Model 3, and it was tempting to click the buy-button in December 2018 when the expensive AWD high-end versions where unleashed all over Europe. Lucky for me, I absolutely could not afford these models, and what helped me stick to my guns was the fact that I enjoyed driving the Volvo while waiting.
Eventually, I managed to get my hands on one of the few long-range versions with only rear-wheel drive that were made for Europe, and I realized this particular version of the Model 3 and the 30 year older Volvo 240 GL had a lot in common: Similarly priced. Similar size. Same type sedan. Safest car of their time. Relatively same level of performance of their time. Rear-wheel drive. Relatively equal comfort of their time. Even similar range!
So, I felt that I just had to do a comparison. It just so happens that I drove 30,000 km (18,640 miles) in the Volvo in the last year of waiting for my Tesla, in which I have now driven +30,000 km in exactly one year. I have used the cars for the exact same purposes, like commuting to work and going on holidays in neighboring countries, so in that regard, the wear and tear is comparable, and thus the running cost would be comparable from the benchmark where the Volvo had been mechanically renovated and made road worthy.
Now, comparing these two very different family sedans is mostly just for a bit of fun for gearheads and love for cars in general, but in terms of running costs, I thought it would be interesting beyond technical specifications to compare them. Imagine someone in the market for an above average quality and midsize family sedan. They would be looking at the Volvo 240 series back in 1987 for many of the same reasons someone would be looking at a Tesla Model 3 series today, mainly safety and reliability, but also comfort and styling.
At first glance these to cars would seem similarly priced in terms of purchase and ownership, but are they? In other words: Is someone buying a Tesla Model 3 RWD Long Range in 2020 going to save money relatively to someone buying a Volvo 240 GL in 1987? That’s one thing I’m curious to find out.
By the way, I should mention that since the Volvo was actually brought back from the dead (the engine had water in its cylinders for 6 years!), and I couldn’t be bothered replacing pistons and such, it has some excruciating wear in the inner workings of the engine which results in it refusing to achieve the normal top revs of 6,000 rpm when flooring it. At first, after fixing it, it would lose its breath at about 4,000 rpm, and now, after 30,000 km, it can achieve 5,000 rpm as a result of cylinder walls and gears getting smoother after grinding off rust and deposits and changing oil and filter a few times.
It’s true what they say about these old Volvo engines, that they are tougher than most. So, comparing it to the battery electric vehicle is kind of counterintuitive in this case, because it is believed that batteries lose capacity over time. My Volvo now has 20% less of its original performance capacity, but it keeps getting better, inching back to its original stamina. Never tried that with an ICE before! But hey, in 30 years time, I expect to be able to replace a somewhat degraded battery in the Model 3 with a brand new one with at least double the capacity.
In the spec sheet below, you will find something I call cost/range, which is an attempt to figure out joule to joule and dollar to dollar how much it costs to drive these cars. After all, it all comes down to energy, how much we use, and what we pay for it. However, one must not think that you save the world just by driving an electric car. We must all get used to thinking about every single unit of energy being converted from a higher (valuable) state to a lower (less valuable) state, usually heat. When you think in these terms, it becomes painfully obvious which system is most efficient when you compare them. In the case of electric vs internal combustion powertrains, it becomes clear that not only is the internal combustion engine ridiculously inferior in efficiency, but the fossil fuel that it uses to produce mostly heat is way too cheap in relation to its environmental impact. Not even trying to be all greenish here, it’s just a fact.
Fun fact to consider when reading the efficiency figures below: The average person will metabolize 1 megajoule (MJ) of energy from a stored biofuel like 2 tablespoons of butter (30 grams) or 4 tablespoons of sugar (60 grams) in order to walk a distance of 4 km (2.5 miles). Yes! Go for a walk, you’ll get good mileage.
The 1987 Volvo 240 GL
I wholeheartedly love my Volvo. I love both cars, but for very different reasons, as the following will illustrate. Volvo is in the blood of my family, and I cannot get into this car without sending a warm thought to my late grandfather who worked all his life at the Volvo factories in Torslanda outside Gothenburg, Sweden. When I got my driver’s license in the late 1980s, I rushed to show him my first car, a knackered 1976 Volvo 242 DL. He was a proud and diligent man who knew he was dealing with quality products. He was on the team that built wood and clay prototypes, and in his free time he built his own boats, in which I have happy childhood fishing memories.
You love it or you hate it. I love it. I can’t actually understand why, though. It must have something to do with the long horizontal lines that make it look slick despite its brick shape. Volvo sold 2.7 million of the 240 series from 1974 to 1993 and before that almost 1 million of the 140 series from 1966, which shares this boxy design that boldly parted from the earlier 120-series (The Amazon — uh, I would love to electrify an old Amazon! My grandfather was involved in the production of this stunningly beautiful car through the 1960s and I was 6 years old when my uncle let me shift gears from the passenger seat.)
You could argue that Volvo did with this radical shift in design what Tesla is doing with the Cybertruck now, and got away with it! The interior design is nice and straightforward. Headrests all around makes it look more up to date than models without headrests. With the final versions of the 240 series, Volvo really managed to integrate safety details into a pleasant interior.
From the outside, this car radiates confidence, and from the inside, it calls on you for a relaxed ride.
Somehow, the 240 just oozes quality build at first sight, and there is small confirmation of this mindset every time you touch it. Handles and knobs are strong. The doors feels like bank vault doors. The panel gaps are consistent all around. The original paintwork on this particular and rare blue metallic is exceptionally strong. The steel panels are thick and do not bend or buckle easily. Not too shabby plastic materials both on the outside and inside. A very nice upholstery on the seats, which feels almost new. The interior trim on doors, headliner, and floor is also of exceptionally high standard, and I find it hard to understand that this particular car is as old as it is. There is no apparent wear. No rattles. Amazing!
All these things combined result in a unique subtle feeling of durability and ruggedness that is almost impossible to explain. It just makes you feel good, and you just want to keep on driving.
My first car was a 1976 Volvo 242 DL that I bought back in 1989 with a 100 horse power B21 engine, and it felt quicker than this 1987 240 GL, but as I said, the engine was a wreck and I fixed it with a sledge hammer, so it’s no wonder if only 80 or 90 of the original 115 horses are working properly in the old B230K block. Still, if I send my mind back to the 1980s, this version of the 240 was in the club of decent performance sedans, like the Ford Sierra, Mercedes 190, Audi 100, and BMW 320. Top speeds of +100 mph was more than enough when the family drove south on holiday in Europe. Mind you, in Europe back then small cars with less than 50-horsepower engines where normal! Like the very popular Renault 4 my parents had multiple iterations of, which was built in over 8 million units.
A high torque engine is not all about speed though, it’s also what makes a car comfortable as a daily driver. It’s quiet and low pitched, delivering the needed power effortlessly. Almost like an electric motor would. … Well, not quite.
The 240 GL even has disc brakes all around. Very unusual at the time, but an important safety feature. No, it does not have anti-lock brakes, so you actually have to learn how to emergency brake this thing, but when you get the hang of it, these brakes are of a very high standard in terms of efficiency. However, the original tire sizes are not up to the job, and a set of at least 16 inch rims with at least 205 wide tires would help reduce the stopping distance substantially.
The rugged build of the 240 came as a surprise to vehicle testing authorities. In fact, in the US, the authorities used the 240 as its new crash-test benchmark. Novel solutions like the engine being guided below the passenger cabin in case of collision was revolutionary.
At the 240 series 40 year anniversary Volvo wrote:
“The Volvo 240/260 received a number of awards for its safety. In the UK Volvo was awarded the Don Safety Trophy for its traffic safety promotion initiatives and designs above and beyond legal requirements. In 1976 the Volvo 240 was chosen as the standard for continued safety work by the USA’s Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA. For four years at the end of the 1980s, the Volvo 240 estate was the safest car of its size in the USA according to the Highway Loss Data Institute.”
With all that said, please do not test this car against any modern car, because standards change, and today the Volvo 240 would crumble and kill you if it collided with a modern Renault. …
This is what surprises me the most every time I take my old Volvo for a spin to a classic meetup. Everything works so smoothly on this machine and the ergonomics is so well thought through that it just makes you want to drive for hours. In fact, the first thing I did after fixing this car was drive it to Stockholm in Sweden and back. 1000 km of quick testing. No troubles at all. It doesn’t even have AC, but it does have heated seats, and the engine is so inefficient that a lot of those megajoules released from the carbohydrates result in heat, so in the Swedish winters this car is really comfortable.
Of all the cars of the 1980s that I have experienced, this one takes the price in comfort. It’s the combination of good materials, plenty of room, soft suspension, very well functioning clutch and gear-shift, and low torque engine that makes a smooth effortless ride, even without an automatic transmission.
If there was a price on smiles per gallon this would be a cheap car to run. These days people gaze at it and remember the somewhat recent good old days. Heck, I even experienced a Swede who walked up to me in a parking lot in Stockholm expressing his gratitude for a good job taking care of the old gem. Priceless. But it’s the miles per gallon that makes this car fall through compared to an electric vehicle. In the spec sheet, I have tried to calculate the price per mile driven. As I said, I drove 30,000 km in this car after it became roadworthy again, so things like brakes and suspension maintenance are not included in my calculations. It’s cheaper than the Tesla to insure, but more expensive in road taxes, so that evens out. So, for the sake of simplicity, I’m not taking financial payments and depreciation into account — fuel only.
One year in, this car cost me DKK 24,000 in fuel driving 30,000 km ($3,500 driving 18,640 miles). In the US, with current gasoline prices, it would be $1,500.
The 2019 Tesla Model 3 LR RWD
As mentioned, I love the Tesla for a lot of other reasons than the Volvo. First and foremost it represents the materialization of my own dream of how I think a car fundamentally and logically should be constructed. Actually, it was never a dream, I had a literal visualization of the future: When I was 11 years old, in 1980, I designed an electric vehicle that I was certain would be in production by the turn of the millenia. It documents that I’ve had EVs on my mind for as long as I can remember. Experiencing the Model 3 on a daily basis brings a smile on my face, because this is exactly what I envisioned (except mine was ugly), and thank God this dude Elon had the guts to actually build it!
I know some people would call the Model 3 boring, but it’s not by any means bad looking. I like it very much. And you must give Tesla credit for framing a design for the original 2012 Model S that is timeless. It still holds up 8 years in, and the Model 3 will hold up for years to come. Sleek lines, a bit understated, and easy on the eyes. Put a set of huge wheels on it and an orange wrap if you want to turn heads, but otherwise, just blend in without all the bells and whistles. It’s actually the interior design that make people argue. Either you want knobs, dials, sliders, and handles, or you don’t. I don’t. I absolutely love the minimalist design.
In short, from the outside, the Model 3 is a somewhat anonymous beast, and from the inside it invites you to a high-tech experience not possible in any other car on the planet, to my knowledge anyway.
I don’t know if it’s just the soft look of the car that make it seem soft. Yes, soft. As in soft to the touch. Fragile in some way. I know it’s one of the safest cars out there, but obviously safety for passengers is hidden in plain sight. It’s okay for the skin to be soft. The sheet metal feels soft. The paint feels soft. I have scratched my Model 3 a lot and even though it doesn’t bother me that much, I still believe a lot more can be done on Teslas part to make the car look and feel more sturdy from the outside. Like my old Volvo.
The interior is solid enough. I know many complain about the piano black finish getting scratched, but I think it looks great, so I just wipe it more. Remember the jet black iPhone 7? People hated it because they scratched it. I have one of those and I love that complete glossy black featureless shine all around. Yes, it gets a little scratched because it gets used. So what?
I had some issues with the turn signal stalk and dents in the headliner, but it’s all fixed under warranty and I really can’t put a finger on any problems. My Volvo is not top of the line, with genuine leather and such, and it has held up for many years. After a year in the Model 3, it seems rugged enough to do the same.
With a software update a few months ago, this RWD version of mine is supposed to have gotten an extra 15 horses installed and can now reach 60 mph in 5 seconds clean, and my handheld stopwatch measurements seem to confirm that. In my book, that’s ample performance! My doctor would certainly not recommend the real performance version of this beast. But what really stands out with the Model 3 is the handling. It’s so sharp. It obeys your slightest command, instantly. While still being comfortably balanced, in my case with the 18 inch wheels on — I fitted a bit larger tires for extra comfort — it will charge forward and round bends in such short notice from when the desire emerged in your frontal cortex that the car simply feels like an extension of your body. I think this is where the true secret of why the ultimate victory of the electric vehicle over the gas vehicle is inevitable. It’s the feeling of actually driving that gets under your skin, as opposed to the constant convincing of the old technology to do what you ask of it.
It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s sublime. It’s all I need.
Of course, the Volvo was mostly focused on passive safety, like deformation zones, seatbelts, and such, which was enough to make it one of the safest cars of its time. The ironic safety dethroning of Volvo at the Model 3 launch, showing the side impact comparison with the Volvo S60, must have been a painful wakeup call for Volvo. (Although, there is some controversy in the actual G-forces on the occupant’s head in favor of the Volvo).
What the Model 3 brings now is a full package, including all active safety features invented since then, but in a new way that is constantly improving. There is no doubt in my mind that the visual machine learning going on here will make Tesla’s cars stay on the throne as the safest on the planet for years to come. Right now, though, systems like emergency lane departure avoidance are a bit rough — as in, sometimes overly cautious. Phantom braking is also a thing, and can be tiresome, but once you realize that this system is learning in a real-world environment, you kind of get it. Crash statistics seem to show it works.
It’s just impossible to fathom that one day this system will get the ability to distinguish an empty plastic bag flying across the road from any other heavy obstacle that might do damage. For a human, this is such an easy task, but I will be blown away when I feel the car truly mastering this human-like perception of the world. This is what divides people on Tesla. Either you believe this will actually happen one day, or you don’t. I believe it. Not because Elon says so, but because the hardware and software involved is like nothing else on the planet. I sense the evolution in every software update that seamlessly flows into the car’s nervous system.
As I said, I fitted a bit larger tires on the standard 18 inch wheels, and it feels great. The car is so easy to drive in terms of the minute adjustments of acceleration, deceleration, and steering while sitting firmly in the endlessly adjustable seats that it just defines comfort. No need to mention the lack of drivetrain noise. The Volvo is more than twice as loud at highway speeds even though it’s not even that bad.
Again, the Autopilot becomes a controversy. Some think it makes you inattentive when turned on, but I think it makes me more attentive as it helps me relax my body and not use up so much energy on micro adjustments. I thinks it’s very much a matter of what you think the system is meant to achieve in the first place. My subjective observation of a safer driving experience does, however, seem to be backed by objective accident statistics.
By any standard, this is by far the most comfortable car I have ever experienced — from a driver’s perspective, that is. From a passenger’s perspective, the Model S and X are obviously superior, in my experience. Even the Volvo has more legroom back there. …
By now, I have passed the 30,000 km mark, so it seemed like a good time to compare my Model 3 with my old Volvo. Again, we won’t bother with maintenance this time around, since the Volvo is such a reliable car and nothing has needed replacement on the Tesla yet. The Model 3 is more expensive to insure, but in Denmark it’s very cheap in terms of taxes, so that evens out, since the Volvo is the opposite. Also, I will pretend I have no solar panels and no free Supercharger miles, just calculating from basic electricity tariffs.
One year in, this car would have cost me DKK 9,000 in electricity driving 30,000 km ($1,300 driving 18,640 miles). In the US, with current average electricity prices, it would be $560.
So, Which Is Cheaper?
This is not the full blown cost-of-ownership analysis you would expect, because really, these cars are 30 years apart, so we’re just doing this as a fun time-travel analysis. If I wind back the clock 30 years and imagine the offerings in the midsize luxury sedan segment, I would find the Volvo 240 very attractive and updated — albeit, not being brand new due to the even boxier 740 that came in 1984. In fact, the 740 was supposed to replace the 240, but ended up being discontinued before the 240! That’s how popular the 240 series was.
Let’s say you have $9,000 a year to pay off your car, but you subtract the amount (mainly fuel) you use to drive 30,000 km (18,640 miles). When would you have paid for the car? The prices for the old Volvo in this graph are corrected for inflation, and as you can see, for the Model 3, that’s a full 2 years earlier you can trade in your car for a new model!
Who knew that someone buying the Volvo 240 GL back in 1987 would be paying relatively more than someone buying a Tesla Model 3 today? And the difference in technology, performance, and comfort is astonishing. Modern electric vehicles are cheaper, cleaner, faster, and more fun than anything that came before them. Period.
Equal Love for the Old & New
Why am I not comparing an old Volvo with a new Volvo, or a new Volvo with the Tesla? Well, obviously, there is no mainstream fully electric Volvo available yet, and I find myself beyond the point of ever again buying a new fossil-fueled vehicle, but apart from that, I really do think the Tesla Model 3 might have more in common with the Volvo 240 than, say, the upcoming Volvo XC40 Recharge. What? No, really, stay with my line of thought here. You cannot underestimate the impact the ideas baked into the Volvo 240 has had on the midsize family sedan market. In terms of safety, comfort, and simplicity, it was very forward thinking, an absolutely no-nonsense piece of equipment. That’s not easy to build, but that’s what Tesla has done with the Model 3: making the seemingly complicated very simple to use. If you build a brand new EV today and scatter buttons and dials all over the dashboard, you missed the point and you are stuck in the past. …
Do not underestimate the impact of the Model 3, especially as a precursor to the Model Y. These cars will go down in history as the consolidation of new automotive technology that changed the world forever. However, I cannot hate my old Volvo. The people who built that car did not mean any harm to humanity when they fitted those millions of internal combustion engines into the sturdy frame. We know better now, and I will not drive thousands of miles in my Volvo any more, but I will enjoy every single mile in it. Hopefully I will soon be able to buy some high-octane synthetic fuel for it.
The Volvo 240 was a proper sensible purchase 30 years ago, as is the Tesla Model 3 today. Some might label me as a Tesla fanboy, but let me be crystal clear: To me these two cars represent common sense more than ungrounded hype in their respective time in history, and I often find myself rambling on for hours about both of them and their engineering excellences. People working tirelessly to bring forward ground-breaking products, and continuously better and better iterations of them, should be applauded, regardless of brand. These two cars keep me sober in that regard.
Side by side, these two cars seems to accept each other. However, the old will never admit it envies the new, and the new will never admit it respects the old. But I love them both.
All photos by Jesper Berggreen. If you choose to buy a Tesla, feel free to use my referral link to get lots of free miles: https://ts.la/jesper18367