Meet the cheapest mass-produced electric car on the road today, the US version of the Holden Barina Spark. When it goes on sale next year it’s expected to cost less than $30,000.
But with the US government’s $7500 incentive for electric vehicles and the Californian government’s $3500 rebate, the price will likely dip under $20,000. That’s Toyota Corolla money.
The Spark EV’s nose is covered in checkered camouflage because we had a sneak-preview drive ahead of its unveiling at next week’s Los Angeles motor show. But if you imagine the shiny grille treatment of the Holden Volt grafted onto the front of this hatchback you’ll have a pretty good mental picture of how it will look.
This is General Motors’ first all-electric car since the ill-fated EV1; the company accused of killing the electric car in a documentary movie has re-invented it. The Spark EV might have cutesy looks but it is the fastest electric hatchback on the road to date.
Engineers have also given it sports suspension and wider tyres – the opposite of the skinny rubber favoured by eco cars. It will be built in South Korea and sold in North America at first but Australia is on the distribution “wish list”.
“With the Volt, we’ve introduced the notion of electric Holdens [to the Australian public]. We’re well positioned to take advantage of other GM global EV projects should the right level of market demand become apparent,” says Holden director of external communications, Craig Cheetham.
Electric cars still don’t make economic sense, but the Spark EV puts the technology within reach of mass-market buyers for the first time. The petrol-powered Holden Barina Spark starts at $13,990 – so it would take decades to recoup the $15,000 or so price difference in fuel savings from the $30,000 fully electric model.
But that’s still a much lower price premium compared to other electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMiev which each cost about $50,000 – or about $30,000 more than similarly-sized petrol cars. The cost of electric cars aren’t expected to make another large step down for another five years, the estimate the industry gives for the next change in battery technology.
The Spark EV has an electric motor under the bonnet and a 255kg lithium-ion battery pack under the back seats, straddled over the rear wheels. Both are elegant installations. The technologies are borrowed from the Holden Volt plug-in hybrid but are different in design and capacity.
The Spark EV’s electric motor has about 100kW of power and a phenomenal 542Nm of torque – just 8Nm less than the V8 in the Holden Special Vehicles GTS sports sedan. And all this in a car that weighs 1346kg – 500kg less than the HSV. By comparison the bigger and heavier Volt has a 111kW and 500Nm electric motor, which makes the Spark EV quicker from 0 to 100km/h (less than 8 seconds).
Press the “power” button to start the car and the computer does 1400 diagnostics checks in the time it takes the instruments to light up. Recharging time is 8 hours from empty, but a fast charger can bring the battery pack to 80 per cent full in 20 minutes.
General Motors wouldn’t reveal driving range until next week (it said the battery had a capacity of “at least 20kWh”). If it had a 24kWh battery pack a driving range of 100 miles or 160 kilometres would be possible. Most motorists drive less than 80 kilometres to and from work daily.
Below the shiny Volt-like grille and hidden behind the bumper are “shutters” that close at high speeds to improve airflow around the front of the car, and open at low speeds to improve cooling.
The underbody is almost completely flat to allow it to better slip through the air; even the rear spoiler and side moulds have subtle curves in them to make a clean “break” with the air to reduce turbulence.
The interior is largely unchanged from the regular Spark, but the instrument cluster has been replaced with the digital display from the Volt. It looks small (the Spark competes in the city-car segment) and has seatbelts for five – but it can fit four adults in relative comfort.
It is yet to be independently tested but there’s no reason to suggest the Spark EV would not get the same 4-star ANCAP safety rating as the petrol-powered model. Six airbags are standard.
Last year a Volt battery pack caught fire weeks after a US government crash test because it was not drained properly. But before and since that incident the Volt battery packs have been tested in severe impacts – mounted in cars as well as standalone in laboratory conditions – and none have caught fire on impact.
Emergency services are also trained on how to deal with electric car battery packs after a crash. Following cyclone Sandy in New York, 16 electric sedans made by Fisker caught fire – after one became submerged in salt floodwaters for hours and then wind carried flames to 15 others parked alongside on the shipping dock.
But the company said it was the Fisker’s 12V battery that caused the initial spark, not the lithium-ion battery pack, when it fed power into the circuit. However a Fisker car’s lithium-ion battery pack did catch fire earlier in the year after the supplier installed faulty cells.
Here’s the big surprise. The Spark EV is awesome to drive. It shouldn’t be a surprise, though. This little car has more torque than a Holden Commodore V8 – and only 1.4 per cent less torque than the almighty HSV GTS sports sedan.
General Motors has tweaked the electric motor gearing slightly to make peak power arrive at 65km/h – the speed at which most other electric cars tend to taper off -- on the way to a top-speed in excess of the speed limit.
It also steers well and handles bumps much better than the regular petrol-powered Spark. That’s because engineers gave the Spark EV a wider “footprint” – by pushing the wheels further out to the extremities of the car. And then they fit wider rubber (15 x 6-inch up front and 15 x 6.5-inch at the rear).
You read that right. The rear has wider rubber than the front (just like HSV performance cars do) to handle the weight of the big battery pack in the rear floor. Now, if only Holden could make the regular Spark handle like this.
Less than a month after the world’s biggest car makers all but wrote off electric cars – at the Paris motor show Toyota, GM and Volkswagen declared their preference for plug-in hybrids – the Spark EV breathes new hope into the fun and affordability of petrol-free driving.
Holden Barina Spark EV
Price: From $30,000 (estimated)
Vehicle warranty: Three years/100,000km
Battery warranty: Eight years/160,000km
Safety: Six airbags
Engine: Electric motor (100kW/542Nm)
Transmission: Single ratio electric drive motor, max 4800rpm
Body L/W/H: 3595/1597/1522mm
Range: 160km (estimated)