HOLDEN VOLT REVIEW
Vehicle Style: Midsize EV hatch
Price: Australian pricing TBA (US price USD$39,145)
Power (electric motor): 111kW
Torque (electric motor): 368Nm
Fuel Economy (all electric use): 0 l/100km
Fuel Economy (using petrol engine for recharge): 3.8-4.8 l/100km estimated (based on US test results)
Recharge cost at household power-point: $2.50 estimated
Recharge time using household power-point: Six hours approx.
We have driven the Volt - in left-hand-drive configuration and for just two laps inside Sydney's cavernous Australian Technology Park.
It was the barest of introductions and, beyond whetting the appetite, we could draw little real information from those two laps about how it performs at the wheel.
We have of course driven other electric cars (Leaf, i-Miev), but, despite the brief encounter, none has inspired quite like the Volt - it is the most intriguing car to be headed to these shores in decades.
We can't wait to drive it again. That unfortunately won't happen for a while; it's not going to be street ready with a Holden badge on the nose until late 2012. But this in an electric car you too will want to drive.
"(The Volt) is going to fundamentally change the way people think about the Holden brand," GM Holden Chairman and Managing Director Mike Devereux said at its media launch.
He's right. The GM Volt is quite possibly a watershed in modern car design and engineering.
Voltec electric drive system
Where hybrids have always seemed a transitional technology, the Volt, and the logic of its unique Voltec electric drive system, may be the future.
It's electric, but no other electric car operates in the way the Volt does. And it has a petrol engine, but it is not really a hybrid.
Where hybrids mate a conventional engine to an electric motor and utilise both - either individually or paired - to drive the wheels, the function of the petrol engine in the Volt is to drive the generator which recharges the battery pack. At high speeds, however, or under heavy load, the generator also provides additional drive through the planetary gears - a system not dissimilar to the way KERS works.
It is impossible not to be impressed. Because if you peer beneath the layers of complex technologies and electronics that manage the system, you find a simple - and proven - engineering solution to greener motoring.
At its simplest: the Volt has a 111kW and 368Nm high-torque electric motor that drives the wheels; a lithium-ion battery pack that powers the electric motor, and a small 1.4 litre 63kW petrol engine that drives a generator to charge the battery pack. But it can also be recharged via a home powerpoint.
This is the Volt's brilliance - it is just like an old fashioned diesel-electric train. It's range is in fact unlimited - you need never recharge it from a powerpoint if you choose not to, as the petrol engine is capable of keeping it fully charged - the only range limitation is when the petrol engine runs out of fuel (a 36 litre tank).
It's this unique system that gives the Volt a range of 500km before recharging or refuelling. And, unlike any other EV, you don't need to then find a powerpoint (and wait hours for a recharge) before continuing the journey, you only need find a petrol station.
At the wheel, it feels 'right': it feels like a car. And it looks like a car; GM has thankfully resisted the temptation to make it look like some sort of futuristic 'thang'. Inside and out, it looks like a stylish, robust modern family-sized hatch.
Externally, it's the size of the Vectra; the Volt in fact sits on GM's Delta platform (which the Cruze also shares).
For you and I then, Volt offers the promise of green motoring without compromise and will redefine current notions about what it means to own an electric car.
This car removes altogether the one big 'blocker' to battery-powered transport: it removes "range anxiety" - will it get me there and back?
The Volt has, in effect, the same unlimited range of a conventional car. It could be driven to Darwin and back without once having to plug in to recharge. A notion unthinkable in any other electric car.
The Volt can do it because it carries its own means to recharge - that small petrol engine that drives the generator that replaces the charge.
And if you do choose to recharge by plugging into the grid, it plugs straight into a conventional 10amp power-point, recharging in four to six hours. The cost? About $2.50... less than one cappuccino.
Keep it charged, and the Volt can operate continuously in full-electric mode for shorter trips without the petrol engine ever being needed. (It will briefly kick into life however every 48 days to lubricate itself.)
The lithium-ion battery pack, with thermal protection to prevent heat build-up, comes with an eight-year warranty.
Click here (PDF file) for Holden's technical breakdown on how the Voltec system works.
A driving impression
Slide in behind the wheel and things are both familiar and very new. There are two seven-inch screens: one directly ahead of the driver carrying the charge, range, speed and other driving information; the other above the pearlescent gloss-white centre-stack (with classy touch-sensitive controls) for sat-nav, audio and other system information.
The seats are deeply contoured and nicely trimmed in thick leather, front and back. It's a four seater only, the battery running through the tunnel and under the rear seats makes it a two-plus-two seating configuration.
With gloss-white and satin metal highlights, and that super centre-stack, it is a thoroughly modern, edgy and quite unique interior.
Start up, a simple press of a button, requires a foot on the brake. The dashboard immediately lights up, displaying the range remaining on the batteries, plus the extended range achievable with the engagement of the petrol engine.
Engaging drive via the shifter in the console is the same action as in a modern auto. At this point the Volt is completely soundless.
There are three drive modes: Normal, Sport and Mountain mode (the latter for steep alpine driving). Squeeze the accelerator and it moves away from the line like any automatic, but accompanied by a faint electric whirring.
Electric motors of course, unlike internal combustion engines, do not require kinetic energy to produce torque. Torque is instantaneous.
But so that you don't shred the tyres or over-stress the mechanical components on take-off, torque output is electronically damped to 320Nm at zero rpm, rising to 368Nm once underway.
That's a hefty torque figure. Give the accelerator a firm prod, and the Volt leaps ahead eagerly. It does not appear to want for power.
The brakes feel a tad strange at first, because it also regenerates charge when coasting and braking.
Cornering? Well, we couldn't get a feel for that on a concrete surface inside a warehouse, but, because the battery pack sits amidships, GM reports a 52/48 weight distribution.
At this point, we have no verdict to give. The Volt though has scooped a swag of US technology and industry awards since release in North America just on 12 months ago, including MotorTrend's Car of the Year for 2011.
It is, as we noted at the outset, an intriguing car. Importantly for Australian motorists, its Voltec electric system with on-board recharging, makes it one of few electric cars suitable for Australian motoring distances.
There is a premium feel to the Volt we sampled; it retails at an entry level of around $40k in the US.
Because it provides solutions for a greener planet and reduced motoring costs, we would hope that Holden can get it on the road here for under $50k.
We would like to see this car in reach of middle Australia.
At its media launch, Mike Devereux also said, "Volt will make driving more economical, more environmentally-friendly and will fundamentally change the way Australia thinks about alternative transport solutions. This is the start of something big for Holden and Australia.”
He's probably right about that, too.
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