It’s difficult to think about cars without thinking petrol, diesel and LPG. Although electric cars have also been with us for a long time, going back to the late 1800s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_electric_vehicle) their application was limited although popularity was high. That began to diminish once the American road system improved and greater disances were offered, thereby igniting the rise of petroleum fuelled vehicles.
Over the last 25 years, as the recognition of dwindling resources and carbon emissions came to the fore, hybrid technology was, once again, investigated. Of more recent times, purely battery powered vehicles, relying on a recharge system, have come back into the thoughts of car builders. Here in Australia we have the Holden Volt; based on the small car Cruze platform, the electric motor is backed by a 1.4L petrol powered engine, there to top up the battery once its range (approx 65 kilometres, from full charge) has been depleted. A Wheel Thing spent a week with this intriguing, potential game changing vehicle and came away mostly impressed.
Seeing the vehicle in the flesh, for the first time, elicted a “gee, whiz” style response. It’s certainly not an unhandsome vehicle, with a longish nose, smoothly integrated headlights, a short overhang for the rear, a venturi styled rear bar and…..a rather noticeable rubber/plastic sheet underhang on the front. For “aero”, apparently….oh, well….
The inside is eyecatching, striking; vivid V shaped inserts into the four (yes, four) seats whilst scalloped white metallic plastic inserts also adorn the doors. Of note is the touchpad control setup constructed of the same material, for the centre dash, complemented by a centrally mounted touchscreen plus the LCD display for the driver. The centre console shows items such as battery usage and recharge (from the regeneration system in the brakes), the satnav display or radio, whilst the driver’s display shows a list of options including tyre pressure. Oddly, pressures would vary by a few kilopascals for the front whereas the rears always seemed to be the same. Front collision alert and lane changing warning chimes are operative and switchable via buttons on the steering wheel, itself a generic looking GM product. The displays are in full colour and come on when the driver enters the Volt. These would be accompanied by a start up tone plus the Start button would flash blue. Foot on the brake, press the start and……nothing. No indication that the car is ready to go. Slide the “gear” lever backwards and and hit the go pedal. With barely a whirr, the Volt slides backwards and shows you on the centre dash your rear view, complete with bent lines if you’re turning. Slide back to D or L (extra regenerative ability) and go…….rapidly……eerily quietly. The acceleration isn’t neck snapping (0-100 is supposedly 9 seconds or so), however it’s incredibly linear, building and building and building until indecent speeds arrive indecently quickly, thanks to the immense torque available from almost zero (370 torques from 250 rpm). It’s reasonably light on its feet, changing direction as asked, despite its mass (1700-ish kg) and responds eagerly when required (111 kilo Watts). Riding on stylish 17 inch alloys, shod in 215/55 low resistance tyres, it’s compliant, isn’t hard on bumps nor is it floaty when the road exhibits a series of dips. There is some squeal and a little understeer when pushed into turns (roundabouts, for example) whilst the rear rarely feels disconcerted.
The seating is, by design and therefore neccesity, a four seater; a comfortable, leather engaged four seater with the rear open to the hatchback’s cargo area, as there is no bulkhead. The T shaped, 5.5 feet long lithium-iron battery, encased in a glass filled, polyester composite structure, runs through the centre of the Volt with the T underneath the rear seats. The door trims are black with the same white plastic trim; looks nice enough and is not consciously noticeable after a while. The front seats are heated as part of a package designed to provide a lot of kit whilst attempting to offset the cost ($59,990 + ORCs)of the Volt. A thumping Bose sound system is also attractive, bearing in mind that the car is sold at a loss. There’s interior switches for both the petrol and charging flaps, whilst ergonomics are mostly up to par, with the internal rear vision mirror not quite adjustable enough for a totally clear view.
As mentioned, the centre console is made of a metallic look white plastic operated by touch, with brilliant blue backlighting. It’s largely user friendly, providing access to the satnav, 30 gigabyte hard drive, dvd player and aircon…which proved somewhat difficult to access for the major settings. There is separate fan controls, however to actually find how to turn on the climate control was befuddling. Having said that, it affects the range noticeably and the cold….wasn’t. It immediately points out a major shortcoming, in the right sense of the word, of a purely electric vehicle trying to deal with the varying weather environment. The sizeable glasshouse admits enough heat to make the cabin noticeably uneasy to deal with and with the airconditioning on, saps the battery quicker, thereby needing the 1.4L petrol engine’s backup charging facility earlier. At night, you’d have a similar problem. Although the car is both seemingly expensive and effectively under cost price, tinted and heat reflective glass and/or a solar panel/photovoltaic glass wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider. Similarly, the rubber chin is regarded as not detachable othewise would interfere with the deliberate aerodynamic flow designed in. The electrical charging port is mounted on the left hand front guard, an indication of its American left hand drive origin whilst overnight it’s recommended to leave the charger plugged in, to keep the battery at optimum warmth (batteries are affected by temperature variance) and certainly a vital component in colder climes. From “empty” to “full” can take around six hours and the computer must be told which amperage is plugged in (Australian electricity is ten amps) to ensure optimal charging time. The charger cable itself is about four metres long and terminates in what looks like a petrol pump handle mated with a three phase outlet. With a smallish fuel tank for the generator engine, at around 35 litres, it helps cut back on weight and somewhat restricts the top up range, which is around the 600 km mark. As this depends on driving style, which of the three driving modes engaged are used and which electrical items are used, fuel economy can vary but shouldn’t be worse than 4.0L per 100 klicks.
The Volt (or Ampera for the Euro market) has immense potential. There’s little doubt there’s a marketplace for it however it appears that its intended market locations are too large for the populace, the intended market, to feel comfortable enough about the battery range. It’ll need better marketing, education for those that struggle with digital tv as a delivery platform, for the Volt to properly find its place.