REAL SPARK

GM’S elec­tric car kick-starts the cause of af­ford­able, petrol-free driv­ing

Herald Sun - Motoring - - News - JOSHUA DOWLING joshua.dowling@news.com.au

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.

VALUE

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.

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.

DE­SIGN

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.

SAFETY

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.

DRIV­ING

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.

VER­DICT

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

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