HOLDEN VOLT REVIEW
Vehicle style: Range-extender EV small hatch
Price: $59,990 plus on-roads
Engine: 1.4 litre 16-valve petrol 4cyl, two electric drive motors, 16.5kW/h battery.
Torque: 111kW/370Nm | Fuel consumption (listed): 6.3 l/100km
The Holden Volt is on sale from November.
It can take you from home to work and back without burning a drop of fuel. You can also use it to run between capital cities. The ideal commuter vehicle; and a defining car for the times? Perhaps. It's the Holden Volt.
Although many will consider it a hybrid, the Volt is actually a battery-electric car with an on-board generator.
It's designed to spend most of its life being propelled by battery power alone, but when the electrons run dry, the Volt's engine kicks in to generate power for the electric motors, enough for around 600km of travel.
The Volt is a neat antidote for 'range anxiety' - that affliction suffered by those who think the 180km-odd ranges of current electric vehicles will one day leave them 'powerless' by the side of the road.
It is also, however, expensive for a small car. Retailing at $59,990 the Volt is a pricey thing, but after our first decent drive we reckon it’s the best eco-friendly vehicle around.
The Volt’s interior is certainly futuristic.
A seven-inch LCD panel replaces the traditional instrument cluster, nearly every button on the centre stack is capacitive (ie, you don’t need to ‘push’ each button, but merely brush your finger against it), and shiny white plastics on the centre stack and front door trims look more “high-end appliance” than “automobile”.
Build quality is generally good, with things tightly screwed together and no rattles evident on the test. Material quality could use a lift though, with some of the hard black plastics on the centre console having roughly-finished edges.
Also, the junction between the door cards and dashboard had a few misaligned lines.
Inside, the Volt is quite confined. The front seats offer adequate leg, arm and headroom, but the back seats are bisected by a tall centre console (beneath which resides the battery pack). Leg and footroom is very tight and passenger's heads rest directly under the hatch glass, not the roof lining.
At 300 litres, the boot isn't especially big either. A retractable cargo blind also isn't fitted, however a fixed fabric blind offers some security for your belongings. Storage however is plentiful throughout the cabin, with plenty of lidded boxes, shelves and cubbies.
While it marries an internal combustion engine with electric propulsion, the Volt is otherwise quite different from the current crop of hybrid vehicles.
Under its bonnet is a 1.4 litre naturally-aspirated petrol engine, closely related to the 1.4 iTi turbo in the Cruze (which also shares the Volt's Delta platform) but with a lighter block, different head, fewer accessory drives and other efficiency-oriented measures.
It puts out a maximum of 63kW at 4800rpm, and in the Volt it never needs to rev higher than that.
In fact, a lot of the time it doesn't need to turn at all.
Most drivers will charge the car's battery at night using cheaper off-peak electricity, and commute the following day under electric power alone.
As long as the battery doesn't run out of charge (Holden says it's good for up to 87km of purely electric travel), the combustion engine stays switched off.
Contrast that with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which runs the engine until it is warm and whose battery only contains enough charge for approximately two kilometres of (very slow) EV propulsion.
In the Volt, the petrol engine only runs when the battery charge falls and more range is needed. So it can be all-electric during the daily commute, but has a petrol-powered range of over 600km for whenever you want to escape the big smoke.
In this, it offers the best of both worlds.
Better still, the 16.5kW/h lithium-ion battery pack can be charged from a regular household wall outlet - unlike the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMiEV, which require dedicated wall chargers connected to 15-amp outlets.
Charging time varies according to the type of wall outlet used, with ordinary 6-amp outlets charging the battery in 10 hours, while a 10-amp outlet drops the charge time to six hours.
Dedicated charge points can charge the Volt in as little as four hours.
At current household energy prices, the Volt can be charged for just $2.50. Better still, it can be set to charge using cheaper off-peak energy.
On The Road
So how does the Volt drive? Well, after spending time behind the wheel both in and around Sydney, we agree with Holden that it's quite different to a hybrid.
In effect, the Volt is an electric car that happens to have a petrol-powered generator aboard. The petrol engine's function is to charge a battery pack which, in turn, supplies power to the electric drive motors.
That means that the Volt's performance will remain consistent regardless of the state of charge of the batteries. And that performance is impressive.
Power is taken to the front wheels by a single 111kW electric motor initially, with a 55kW motor (which also acts as a generator) kicking in at higher speeds to supplement the main drive motor.
With 370Nm available right from idle, acceleration is brisk. The Volt might weigh just over 1700kg (200kg of which is the battery pack), but its mountain of torque allows it to shame a lot of more overtly-sporty vehicles in a stoplight drag race.
Performance drops off fairly quickly though, and while the Volt leaps off the line like a scalded cat, it runs out of puff the faster it goes. The result is a 0-100km/h sprint time of around 9.0 seconds.
But whatever it's doing it does it in sublime silence. Like most electric powertrains, the Volt's motors are smooth and spookily quiet when in operation.
The only apparent downside we found was that the car hesitated for a moment when the throttle was firewalled while cruising between 60km/h and 80km/h - almost like a traditional automatic kicking down a gear. Which is odd, considering the Volt's planetary transmission doesn't actually have "gears", but rather one continuously variable ratio.
The Volt’s brakes use both the resistance from the regenerative system and traditional friction brakes to slow the car down, with regenerative braking force increasing significantly when the transmission is place in “L” mode.
The system recoups energy that would otherwise be lost as brake heat, but pedal feel is atrocious.
The brake-by-wire pedal has a very spongy feel, making it hard to modulate the brakes properly. This is an area that could use a lot of improvement.
Dynamically, the Volt is a nimbler machine than you'd expect. It's heavy, but the battery's mass is contained within the wheelbase and is mounted very low in the chassis, which gives the Volt a very planted feel in corners.
That mass does induce quite a bit of understeer if you enter a corner too hot though, so don't mistake the Volt for a hot hatch.
Springs and dampers are quite soft and ride comfort, as a result, is excellent. Sydney’s sub-par roads can be punishing at times, but the Volt simply glides over bumps.
Comfortable it may be, but efficiency is this car's raison d'etre. When driven as it was designed, the Volt can potentially liberate its owner from the tyranny of petrol prices.
On the test route, which started with a fully-charged battery, we managed to return an average fuel consumption figure of just 4.1 l/100km.
When the petrol engine was running, fuel consumption hovered around 5.5 l/100km.
That’s about on par with many fuel-efficient small cars. But the Volt has a trick no other petrol/electric can match - the first 60-80km of driving (it varies according to driving style) can return a 0.0 l/100km consumption figure.
If your commute is around 30km each way, you theoretically need never buy petrol again.
First Drive Verdict
The Volt shows the way forward in eco-car design and engineering.
Pure EVs like the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i MiEV are fine for those who never leave the city (or who also have a petrol or diesel-powered car), but given their cost and limited range, only the most dedicated eco-motorists would buy them.
The Volt is different. Its all-electric range might be significantly less than the Nissan and Mitsubishi, but is ample for the average suburban commute.
Besides, even if you run out of battery power, the petrol generator will always get you safely home without a second thought.
In this way, the Volt is a car like no other.
And while Holden doesn’t expect to sell in great numbers, conceding that the purchase price is a daunting barrier for some, the Volt nevertheless shines a bright light on the path to truly green motoring.
We’re looking forward to putting the Volt through a much longer test and evaluating the owner experience. Stay tuned.
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