A vehicle that is so radically different to the everyday petrol powered mid-size town car has no right to be so easy to live with, or so good looking to boot. But that’s the case with the Holden Volt electric car.
There is little difference, apart from super fuel efficiency and, for the most part, absence of engine noise, to a conventional car.
On sale for $59,990, 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 log book services for the first three years or 60,000km, whichever comes first. 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.
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 to distracted by this – or optimal safety suffers...
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.
The latest in lithium-ion batteries allows an electric motor alone to drive the car up to 87 kilometres and a petrol generator that can produce electricity to keep the vehicle moving for up to 600 kilometres on a single charge and a full tank (35.2 litres) of premium (95 RON) fuel.
The latter, a 1.4-litre petrol motor, extends the range by maintaining a charge in the battery to power the wheels until the battery can be externally charged. Different to most electric cars, Volt can be recharged from a regular household outlet via a six metre charging cord, stowed in the cargo area, for as little as $2.50, or through charging stations (charge spots) being set up around Australia by Better Place.
Research has shown around 80 per cent of Australians living in major capital cities commute fewer than 80 kilometres daily and, therefore, could travel petrol-free. The lithium-ion battery can also gain charge from regenerative braking in which energy lost while the brakes are applied or when the car is running downhill is converted to electricity stored in the battery.
Real freedom could come for the Volt and its follow-up vehicles with the take-up of induction charging; wireless connectivity between an electromagnetic source buried underground and the vehicle on top.
These stations could be placed at strategic points such as loading docks for delivery vans, taxi ranks, or supermarket parking spots where electric vehicles spend short periods of time not in use.
The Volt can call on a wide range of hi-tech safety systems to take care of people both inside and outside the vehicle. Occupants are protected in the event of a crash by high-strength steel body crush zones and eight airbags.
Electronic stability and traction control look to preventing these events together with the latest technology such as lane departure warnings which alert the driver to wandering out of a lane without signalling. Front sensors can be set to one of three distances from a vehicle ahead. If the Volt edges too close, an alarm will sound. There is also a driver activated alert that warns pedestrians of the almost-silent car approaching at low speed.
Volt is built by Chevrolet in the United States and based on the Chevrolet / Holden Cruze platform. Fit and finish are very good. It features 17-inch alloy wheels, projector headlamps, LED daytime running lights and an integrated rear spoiler.
A striking interior is lined with lightweight plastic, while Bose Energy Efficient Series speakers use 50 per cent less energy than comparable Bose systems, yet sound remains crystal clear. That’s clever. Occupants can settle into four leather upholstered seats (heated at the front) with contrasting-colour panels and double stitching and benefit from electric air-conditioning. There is no centre rear seat due to the space taken up by the batteries under the car and the rear seats have pretty restricted legroom unless those in the front are willing to give up space.
Centre stack functions are easily operated by touch, while the screen directly in front of the driver is used to display info on speed, battery and fuel levels, tyre pressure and trip computers.
Drivers can take advantage of three driving modes – Normal, Sport and Hold – at the press of a steering wheel-mounted button. Sport enhances Normal mode to give a more positive driving experience through faster response times and heightened feedback.
‘Hold’ conserves battery power, drawing an electric charge from the petrol generator to drive the wheels. Electric propulsion delivered to the front wheels, gives the Volt instant maximum torque off the mark in immediate reaction to accelerator pedal pressure.
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. With a discharged battery and the petrol engine running at maximum need, the Volt test car, in a 70 kilometre-plus run in a mix of rush hour city traffic and motorway cruising, signalled frugal fuel consumption of 4.1 litres per 100 kilometres.
In use, with the whole drive system in action there’s little noise, though the air-conditioning system sounds pretty noisy under those conditions.
Volt would best suit an owner with an ordered life; someone who has regular blocks of downtime for the car to be plugged in to power to keep the battery fully charged. While this is happening the car is going nowhere. More haphazard usage could present charging problems.
Holden Volt 5-door hatch
Price: From $59,990
Engine: 1.4-litre-4-cyl, 63kW/370Nm
Trans: Automatic, FWD
Thirst: 1.2/100km, 27g/km CO2