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Chevrolet Volt 2011 Review

The car of the (near) future is up and running in the USA, and heading for Australian showrooms early in 2012. The Chevrolet Volt is the world's first workable electric car, and one that ends the new-age fear of 'range anxiety' with a hybrid system that turns the Prius world upside-down.

The Volt runs on battery power but has an onboard petrol engine that works as a generator, providing a potential range of more than 600 kilometres and ending the fear of a running 'dry' beyond a plug-in socket.

Holden is an early adopter and plans to have the Volt in its range as soon as possible, although a pricetag estimated in the $60,000 range means it will not be for everyone.

But 'range extender' technology could be a widespread hit, providing plug-in city driving and the chance for long-distance trips using gasoline top-ups along the way. "The Volt can be your one car, your only car," says Mark Reuss, former head of Holden and now leading Chevrolet in the USA.

The Volt is only a Corolla-sized, four-seater small car but it is packed with technology and GM's engineers have even done an impressive job on driving dynamics. It's not a sports car but it's not as dull as a Prius. The Volt has gone from a great idea to a potential game-changer car in less than 18 months, with the first production cars about to be delivered in the USA.

VALUE

It is impossible to rate the Volt without a showroom sticker. The price is likely to be around $60,000 in Australia and that will be costly by any measure. But more and more people are turning to green power and an electric car that can also take a Sydney-to-Melbourne run makes a solid case, with the Prius now priced from $39,990.

The Volt comes with a bundle of value-added stuff in the 'states, including roadside assistance and satnav, as well as a 160,000- kilometre, eight-year warranty on its lithium-ion battery pack.

TECHNOLOGY

There is a vast amount of technology in the Volt but its foundations are all Cruze. The GM compact car provides the foundation and the engineers and futurists do the rest.

The heart of the Volt is its heated-and-cooled, 198kg battery pack. It's so big that it's shaped in a tee and steals space between and around the cramped back seat. There is also a 1.4-litre petrol engine in the nose that's responsible for charging duties any time the battery gets severely depleted, or when there is a need for sustained heavy pulling power.

GM originally denied the car ran on anything but electric power but now concedes there is one situation - overtaking under full power beyond 110km/h - when petrol power can briefly turn one wheel. A lot of work has gone into tiny details in the Volt, from its lightweight entertainment system to a horn that gives a polite 'toot- toot' if you nudge the turn indicator stalk.

It's intended for warning work in parking lots and should be fitted to every car. The outcome is simple: GM says the Volt can hit 160km/h and has a 0-100km/h sprint time of less than 9.0 seconds, while happily running with similar range to a petrol-powered car.

DESIGN

The Volt is designed for minimum drag and that means a relatively sharp-edged body that's not unlike a Prius. Stylists have tried to dress the shape but it's still no beauty.

The interior is semi-futurist with a range of digital dash displays, including one that shows how you're driving on an efficiency scale, but with a conventional T-bar shifter to select forwards and reverse. The cabin also has some bright colour trim pieces and leather trim is available, but it is very cramped in the back seat and the hatchback roof glass needs a lot of sun protection to shield people in the rear.

GM has two frontal treatments for the Volt - the Chevrolet corporate look and a much more adventurous design for the Volts sold as an Ampera in Europe - but otherwise it is fairly bland and sensible.

SAFETY

The Volt comes with the usual stuff, including eight airbags, ABS brakes and stability control. GM says the location of the battery pack provides the best possible protection in a collision, with systems to prevent anything nasty escaping or causing a problem in a crash.

In America the car is also protected by OnStar, which uses a back-to- base alarm system in the event of a crash, although this is not currently available through Holden in Australia.

DRIVING

My first drive in the Volt was exactly a year ago, and it was effectively just a lap of the block at GM's technical centre in Detroit. This time there is more than 90 minutes of driving, on freeways and city streets, with a much better chance to know the car. The Volt fires up easily and, despite an icy winter chill in Detroit, the cabin is soon warm without stealing much battery power.

Heated seats help. Pulling into traffic the response is seamless and acceleration is good. The car easily matches or betters other cars in city conditions, and pulls out swiftly to merge onto a freeway.

Cruising at 110km/h is easy and the car is quiet and relaxed. But the lack of engine and driveline noise means you hear other things, like squeaking trim pieces and some thumping and crashing from the rear suspension. The Volt rides as you would expect for a car in the Mazda3-Corolla class, although it takes time to adjust to the artificial brake feel and the steering is a bit over-keen at times.

Generally, the car matches expectations or does a bit better. There are a number of different driving modes and switching to 'sport' sharpens things, as well as providing more regenerative braking. So you only have to lift the accelerator to get a significant slowing.

To check the cut-in for the petrol generator engine I deliberately drain the battery by flicking to the 'mountain' mode, which boosts battery reserves. The cut-in is noticeable but the small four is quiet and there is far less noise than a normal car.

All-in-all, the Volt makes a strong second impression. It drives nicely, delivers on its electric promises, and is far more than just a science experiment. When Holden gets the Volt it is going to change the hybrid game and make life very, very difficult for Toyota with its Prius and Camry. It also promises the sort of range and peace of mind that electric car shoppers already crave.

VERDICT

A hybrid hero that's surprisingly good to drive. 9/10

WE LIKE: Electric drive, sporty(ish) handling, engine response WE DON'T LIKE: Cramped back seat, likely price, delivery delay

CHEVROLET VOLT

PRICE: Estimated $60,000
ENGINE: Electric motor with 1.4-litre petrol generator engine
OUTPUT: 111kW RANGE: 40-80km (electric), 600km (range extended)
EMISSIONS: Zero (electric drive)

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