It’s all about performance. We have road tested electric cars in Australia, Japan and Europe, and each time have come away with smiles on our faces. Smiles induced by effortless performance that’s not only quick but quiet – eerily quiet.
Battery range is the biggest downside of electric cars and though there have been improvements in the last decade the ever elusive ‘better battery’ is still nowhere in sight.
You can tell potential buyers that 90 per cent of people living in metropolitan areas commute fewer than 80 kilometres daily, but they still say that ‘range anxiety’ is their number one reason for not buying an electric car.
General Motors has therefore come up with an interim solution, by introducing an electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, that carries around a petrol engine to drive a generator to power the electric motor when the battery goes flat.
Volt isn’t cheap at $59,990 but think back to the days of $10,000 plasma TVs and you will understand the desire of some people to be ahead of the pack with the latest and greatest.
The infotainment system has two 7-inch colour LCD screens for satellite navigation, Bluetooth, USB with iPod connectivity, a 30GB disk drive and DVD player, many of which can be operated through voice recognition.
Bose Energy Efficient Series speakers use 50 per cent less energy than comparable Bose systems, yet sound remains crystal clear. That’s clever.
Volt is covered by a three-year / 100,000 kilometre warranty on the vehicle, while an eight-year / 160,000 kilometre transferable warranty covers battery and Voltec components, including all 161 battery components, charging and thermal-management systems and electric drive system components.
Capped price servicing of $185 is offered on Volt’s first four standard scheduled logbook services for the first three years or 60,000km, whichever comes first.
According to the Volt’s engineers, the latest in lithium-ion batteries allows the electric motor alone to drive the Volt for up to 87 kilometres. In our recent week’s extensive testing we found ourselves travelling 65 to 70 kilometres before the Volt automatically turned on the petrol engine. This engine is a 1.4-litre unit that’s related to the 1.4 in the Holden Cruze.
The lithium-ion battery gains charge from regenerative braking when the brakes are applied or when the car is running downhill. This ability to recover energy that would otherwise have been turned into heat by the brakes is a big feature of electric cars.
Holden Volt can be recharged from any standard 10-amp household outlet. A six metre charging cord is stowed under the cargo area and normal extension leads, with an appropriate safety rating, can easily extend that distance.
It’s a slow process - typically we found that it took about an hour to charge the battery for an indicated eight kilometre increase in range. As most owners would charge the car overnight at home, or all day at work, the slow charge will seldom be a problem.
Charging stations, called Charge Spots are being set up around Australia by Better Place. These are few and far between in these early days, but there are major plans for the future.
With a discharged battery and the petrol engine running, our Volt had petrol consumption in the five to six litres per 100 kilometre range. This is a very good figure for a petrol car of this size.
The touch screen above the centre console displays instant information on energy use and power flow. It also gives feedback based on driving style, climate settings and energy usage.
There is an extra level of interaction via a moving ball efficiency gauge that, if kept in the centre of the scale, shows the vehicle is being driven to optimal efficiency. But don’t become too distracted by this - because if you do optimal safety suffers...
Holden Volt is a stylish vehicle inside, looking futuristic without going over the top. We love the shape.
Occupants can settle into four leather upholstered seats with contrasting-colour panels and double stitching. There is no centre rear seat due to the space taken up by the batteries. The two rear seats have quite restricted legroom unless those people in the front are willing to give up some space.
The view out for the driver is masked by huge A-pillars that verge on being dangerous in the way they block front-three-quarter vision. The screen directly in front of the driver is used to display info on speed, battery and fuel levels, tyre pressure and trip computers. Centre stack functions are operated through touch screens.
We love the way you can drive an electric car and barely touch the brake pedal in normal traffic. The amount of braking being provided by the regenerative system is surprising at first and for most of the time the Volt can be driven as a one-pedal car.
Steering produces a positive feel at normal driving speed but is on the light side at low speeds and when parking. The suspension delivers a comfortable ride and handling stability in day-to-day usage.
We found reversing to be a scary at times because the high torque of the electric motor means the Volt wants to take off with a rush when going backwards. Those who don’t left-foot brake could find it a real hassle.
The front spoiler is extremely low and rubbed on every speed hump or platform and gutter crossing we drove over - no matter how slowly. We are assured the flexible spoiler won’t be damaged, but the one on ‘our’ car was already looking shabby. The spoiler also re-arranged the gravel on a friend’s driveway and he had to rake it back into place after the Volt left!
Drivers can use three driving modes. Sport enhances Normal mode to give a more positive driving experience through faster response times and heightened feedback. The Hold setting conserves battery power, drawing an electric charge from the petrol generator to drive the wheels.
Electronic stability and traction control combine with lane departure warnings so that inattentive drivers may be saved from themselves. Front sensors can be set to one of three distances from a vehicle ahead.
There is a driver activated horn that makes a gentle noise to warn pedestrians of the almost-silent car approaching at low speed.
The electrifying Chevrolet is now being imported to Australia rebadged as a Holden Volt and the early adopters are showing considerable interest in it.
Price: from $59,990
Warrenty: Three years/100,000km
Service intervals: Nine months/15,000km
Engine: 111kW/370Nm (drive motor); 55kW (generator motor)
Generator: 1.4-litre petrol, 63kW: 16.5kWh, eight-year warranty
Body: 4.5m (L), 1.79m (W), 1.44m (H)
Weight: 1721 kg
Spare: Inflation kit
Thirst: 1.2L/100km, 63g/km CO2
Toyota Prius V
Price: from $35,990
Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cylinder petrol/electric motor, 73kW/142Nm
Transmission: constantly variable, FWD
Thirst: 4.4L/100km, CO2 101g/km
Honda Insight VTi-L
Price: from $33,490
Engine: 1.3-litre 4-cylinder petrol/electric motor, 65kW/121Nm
Transmission: constantly variable, FWD
Thirst: 4.3L/100km, CO2 103g/km