2012 Holden Volt review

My mental list of Holdens that attract attention used to have one entry: any HSV. The Holden Volt -- it's sold as a Chevrolet elsewhere -- is the electric car General Motors wouldn't kill for quids because it tells the world, and the Republicans, that of course it cares about the planet and it can do tech wizardry when it wants to.

But that was before the Volt, which goes on sale this month as a US-built import and threatens to tilt the brand's entire demographic. Some of the oglers were not wearing blue singlets.

VALUE

However, the threat is more apparent than real. Conversations with the curious go well until you reveal the price: sixty large. “Tell 'em they're dreaming,” sums up the average response. Holden's Volt is expensive but it is the only electric car available here that can recharge itself on the move.

TECHNOLOGY

As well as almost 200kg of batteries it has a little petrol engine to power a generator when they run out. That makes it a hybrid of sorts, although the engine is not connected to the wheels.

GM says it only ever runs on electric power. The reason for the engine is something EV proponents prefer not to call “range anxiety''. That's the fear that you're going to get stranded, and from my experience, it starts the moment you disconnect the recharger.

The Volt has a tiny electric-only range -- compared to other EVs -- of about 80km. But you'll get another 500km once the engine fires up, so it's about the same as a standard car. 

Under the boot floor is a special connector that you won't want to handle every night when you plug in. It needs to be fixed to a wall. Which means you probably need two of them -- one for home and one to carry.

DESIGN

The exterior is a bit more Toyota Prius-shaped than Holden would care to admit, but that's essential in a small hatchback to achieve aerodynamic efficiency. But the cabin presents as modern and premium, with an unusual overlapping dash design capping a centre console housing a large screen and lots of rather randomly scattered touch-sensitive buttons.

Distinctive white plastic trim, here and elsewhere, is me-too Apple, and durability might be an issue. In some lights, the button labels can be invisible, and there's a mine's-bigger-than-yours gearshifter. But the Volt gets away with it. The materials are soft where they should be, there are chrome highlights, quality wands and a great wheel.

And a blue pulsing power button. Press it, and Star Trek sound effects tell you it's coming to life. The centre console screen plus another in front of the driver become a Times Square of tiny, attention-seeking neon. There's an awful lot going on and the organisation does not lend itself to clarity. But it's mostly useful stuff, with the usual ability to monitor power and fuel use to the ninth degree.

However, there are practical limitations including just four seats, with the rear occupants seated under (darkened) glass and nothing between them and a cargo area of modest (300 litre) capacity. The rear glass could do with a wiper and the design compromises rear vision a bit too. The hatch itself is long and heavy.

SAFETY

The centre console screen is also helpful because lit screens tell you it's on, and like other EVs it's so quiet it's possible to forget. There's even a special horn with a non-threatening warble to alert sleepy pedestrians. The premium appearance is backed up by a mountain of features, including a lane departure warning system and forward collision alert. You don't have to option this car up.

DRIVING

Driving on batteries alone, it's pleasantly quiet and comfortable. Electric motors have plenty of torque so throttle response is immediate and ample for city traffic. On highways it's better than other EVs until the petrol engine starts. Then there's the sound of an angry four-cylinder operating within a narrow rev range. Volume doesn't even move in concert with your right foot. It just drones unpredictably.

Its dynamics are not ideal for country roads either -- it's tall, just 4.5m long and a whopping 1721kg. But if short city trips are your thing and you recharge -- from a standard powerpoint -- every night, you might hardly hear the engine. It can be quite a positive experience.

VERDICT

If you could run it mainly as an EV, you'd pay $2.50 a night and come out ahead financially compared with a similar diesel hatch sometime in the next millennium. If you don't, tell 'em they're dreaming.

Holden Volt
Price: from $59,990 
Engine: electric motor, plus generator powered by 1.4-litre 4-cylinder petrol 
Motor: 111kW/370Nm (generator 55kW, petrol engine 63kW)
Transmission: auto, FWD
Thirst: 1.2 litres per 100km combined

SPECIFICATIONS

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