GM’S electric car kick-starts the cause of affordable, petrol-free driving
The entry level Holden, the Barina was nothing special — until GM took out the engine and dropped in a battery
MEET the cheapest massproduced electric car on the road today— the US version of the Holden Barina Spark.
When it goes on sale next year, it’s expected to cost less than $30,000.
But with the US government’s $7500 incentive for electric vehicles and the Californian government’s $3500 rebate, the price will probably dip under $20,000. That’s the equivalent of Toyota Corolla money here.
The Spark EV’s nose is covered in chequered camouflage because we had a sneak-preview drive before its unveiling at next week’s Los Angeles motor show.
But if you imagine the shiny grille treatment of the Holden Volt grafted on to the front of this hatchback, you’ll have a pretty good mental picture of how it will look.
This is General Motors’ first all-electric car since the ill-fated EV1 was axed in 1999— the company accused in a 2006 documentary of killing the electric car has reinvented it.
The Spark EV might have cutesy looks but it is the fastest electric hatch on the road.
Engineers have also given it sports suspension and wider tyres – a major departure from the skinny rubber previously used on eco cars.
It will be built in South Korea and sold in North America at first but Australia is on the distribution ‘‘ wish list’’.
‘‘ With the Volt, we’ve introduced the notion of electric Holdens (to the Australian public). We’re well positioned to take advantage of other GM global EV projects should the right level of market demand become apparent,’’ Holden director of external communications, Craig Cheetham said.
Electric cars still don’t make economic sense but the Spark EV puts the technology within reach of mass-market buyers for the first time.
The petrol Holden Barina Spark starts at $13,990 so it would take decades to recoup the $15,000 or so price difference in fuel savings from the $30,000 fully electric model.
But that’s still a much lower price premium compared to other electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which each cost about $50,000, or about $30,000 more than similarly sized petrol cars.
The cost of electric cars is not expected to take another large reduction for five years, when the industry anticipated the next development in battery technology.
The Spark EV has an electric motor under the bonnet and a 255kg lithium-ion battery pack under the rear seats, straddled over the rear wheels. Both are elegant installations.
The technologies are borrowed from the Holden Volt plug-in hybrid but are different in design and capacity.
The Spark EV’s electric motor has about 100kW of power and a phenomenal 542Nm of torque— just 8Nm less than the V8 in the Holden Special Vehicles GTS sports sedan. And all this in a car that weighs 1346kg, or 500kg less than the HSV.
By comparison, the bigger and heavier Volt has a 111kW and 500Nm electric motor, which makes the Spark EV quicker from 0-100km/h (less than eight seconds).
Press the power button to start the car and the computer does 1400 diagnostics checks in the time it takes the instruments to light up.
Recharging time is eight hours from empty but a fast charger can bring the battery pack to 80 per cent full in 20 minutes.
General Motors won’t reveal driving range until next week (it says the battery has a capacity of ‘‘ at least 20kWh’’).
If it had a 24kWh battery pack, a driving range of 160km would be possible. Most motorists drive fewer than 80km to and from work daily.
Below the shiny Volt-like grille and hidden behind the bumper are ‘‘ shutters’’ that close at high speeds to improve airflow around the car and open at low speeds to improve cooling.
The underbody is almost completely flat to allow it to better slip through the air. Even the rear spoiler and side moulds have subtle curves to make a clean break with the air and reduce turbulence.
The interior is largely unchanged from the regular Spark but the instrument cluster is replaced by the digital
display from the Volt. It looks small (the Spark competes in the city-car segment) and has seat belts for five but it can fit four adults in relative comfort.
It is yet to be independently tested but there’s no reason to suggest the Spark EV would not get the same four-star ANCAP safety rating as the petrol-powered model. Six airbags are standard.
Last year, a Volt battery pack caught fire weeks after a US government crash test because it was not drained properly.
But before and since that incident, the Volt battery packs have been tested in severe impacts mounted in cars as well as stand-alone in laboratory conditions and none have caught fire on impact.
Emergency services are also trained to deal with electric car battery packs after a crash.
Following Cyclone Sandy in New York, 16 electric sedans made by Fisker caught fire after one became submerged in salt floodwaters for hours— then wind carried flames to 15 others parked alongside on the shipping dock.
But the company says it was the Fisker’s 12V battery that caused the initial spark, not the lithium-ion battery pack, when it fed power into the circuit.
But a Fisker car’s lithiumion battery pack did catch fire earlier in the year after the supplier installed faulty cells.
Here’s the big surprise. The Spark EV is awesome to drive.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though. This little car has more torque than a Commodore V8 and— just to reiterate— nearly matches the 550Nm of the almighty HSV GTS sports sedan.
General Motors has tweaked the gearing of the electric motor slightly to make peak power arrive at 65km/h— the speed at which most other electric cars tend to taper off— on the way to a top-speed in excess of the speed limit.
The EV also steers well and handles bumps much better than the regular petrolpowered Spark.
Engineers gave the Spark EV a wider ‘‘ footprint’’, by pushing the wheels further out to the corners of the car.
And then they fitted wider rubber (15 x 6-inch up front and 15 x 6.5-inch at the rear). You read that right. The rear has wider rubber than the front (just like HSV performance cars do) to handle the weight of the big battery pack in the rear floor.
Now, if only Holden could make the regular Spark handle like this.
Less than a month after the world’s biggest car makers all but wrote off electric cars— at the Paris motor show Toyota, GMand Volkswagen declared their preference for plug-in hybrids— the Spark EV breathes new hope into the potential for fun, affordable petrol-free driving.
Checkered out: The Spark EV is unveiled next week