Holden Volt: our silent fu­ture

Central Otago Mirror - - FEATURES -

For­get about what drives this car, treat it like any other ve­hi­cle and just re­mem­ber to plug it in ev­ery day, and at work if you have ac­cess to charg­ing dur­ing the day. If you have a short enough com­muter route and 95 per cent of us do, ac­cord­ing to re­search, then un­less you go be­yond the pure elec­tric range of Holden’s Volt – about 50 to 80 kilo­me­tres – you could own the car for months be­tween re­fills for its Cruze-based 1.4-litre petrol sup­port engine. In fact you may not even use the aux­il­iary mo­tor at all. It never ac­tu­ally drives the car di­rectly – un­l­like with most other hy­brids – but is em­ployed to pro­vide charg­ing for the Volt’s bat­tery packs and elec­tric mo­tor be­tween plug-ins. This can mean up to about 600km be­tween re­fills of the car’s tiny 35 litre petrol tank. The Volt is a pure bat­tery elec­tric ve­hi­cle un­til the bat­tery charge falls to a spe­cific level. Only then does the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine power its elec­tric gen­er­a­tor to ex­tend the ve­hi­cle’s range. The Volt’s re­gen­er­a­tive brak­ing also con­trib­utes to the on­board elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion. I worked out that if we fac­tored-in all the fam­ily’s driv­ing, we might need to re­fill about ev­ery sixweeks, un­less we took the car on hol­i­day. So for work and rea­son­able leisure driv­ing and a nightly plug-in for com­mut­ing, the cost in terms of petrol would be about $45-50 a month and no more than $25 for charg­ing. In fact, if we didn’t go to our reg­u­lar week­end haunts, there’s no rea­son why we should ever hear the buzz of the petrol range­ex­ten­der at all. Which brings us to the only real draw­back to the whole Volt ex­pe­ri­ence. The sigh­ing whirr of nor­mal elec­tric progress is so calm­ing and pleas­ant – with plenty of punch and power by the way – that the dis­tinct sound and feel of the engine when it does need to cut-in, is an in­tru­sion. While the 1.4-litre engine works well enough with a tur­bocharger added to it in Holden’s Cruze, do­ing its aux­il­liary du­ties in the Volt – mi­nus the turbo – it feels al­most crude. Mind you the Volt’s Gen­eral Mo­tors in­sti­ga­tors have recog­nised this and there’s a smaller, lighter, but just as pow­er­ful three-cylin­der unit on its way to pro­vide the car with its range ex­ten­sion or petrol-pow­ered sup­port. The Chevro­let-sourced, but Holden-badged Volt is one of only two range-ex­ten­der cars do­ing se­ri­ous busi­ness world­wide, with Tesla oc­ca­sion­ally draw­ing ahead on sales head de­spite its even stiffer ask­ing price. Most other mass-pro­duc­ers are adopt­ing back-room de­vel­op­ments for sim­i­lar cars and a look-see at­ti­tude to theGM­ef­fort, which in the car’s two and a half years on the world mar­ket, has sold just un­der 50,000 units, which is way ahead of the mere sev­eral score of sales en­joyed by other mak­ers. Like theGMVolt ef­fort, pro­posed ex­tended-range cars from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Fiat/ Chrysler, Jaguar/LandRover and oth­ers, are stick­ing with con­ven­tional in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines for sup­port, al­beit much smaller ones than the con­ven­tional ver­sions of their cars may use. How­ever, Mazda and Audi have both recog­nised the pos­si­bil­ity of us­ing Wankel or ro­tary en­gines to pro­vide con­stant speed charg­ing for their own range ex­ten­sion ex­per­i­ments, us­ing the Mazda2 and Audi A3 and R8 plat­forms. The ad­van­tage here is that small­for­mat ro­taries can be made to op­er­ate in al­most vi­bra­tion-free si­lence while be­ing a frac­tion of the size and weight of four and three cylin­der pis­ton en­gines. It’s easy to crit­i­cise the first ef­fort by a maker in a genre that no-one else has made a de­cent fist of in pro­duc­tion terms. But apart from a buzzy range-ex­ten­der engine, a broad cen­tre tun­nel in the car from its elec­tri­cal gub­bins which makes it a four in­stead of fiveseater, and rather naff black paint be­low the Volt’s side-glasses to make the win­dows look deeper, I find it dif­fi­cult to find fault with this sur­pris­ingly com­pe­tent car. Un­like the mak­ers of most con­ven­tional hy­brids, GM ap­pears to think that some po­ten­tial Volt own­ers might ac­tu­ally en­joy driv­ing. Noth­ing was more dis­ap­point­ing than the poor chas­sis, han­dling and ride dis­played by the early Prius and Civic hy­brids. Their mak­ers seemed to think that greener driv­ers didn’t need de­cent hand­ing and good re­fine­ment lev­els and could make do with thin tyres and coarse chas­sis as the rea­son they wanted a car of those types was merely to get from A toB. The Volt will hang-on like dirt to a blan­ket in cor­ners and com­pared with the above cars, its ride qual­ity is delightful and en­tirely wor­thy of its (petrol ex­cepted) gen­er­ally re­fined progress. Also, be­cause the petrol engine is rarely part of the driv­ing process, you don’t get that thrashy clam­our as the Miller-cy­cle en­gines used in most con­ven­tional hy­brids con­spire with their elec­tric mo­tors to carve out a de­cent zero to 100kmh time or a brisk over­tak­ing ma­noeu­vre. The dif­fer­ence is that in the Volt, the petrol power unit is there to help oc­ca­sion­ally, while in a se­ries or par­al­lel hy­brid, the petrol donk is the main provider and the elec­tric bit the part that helps out. The Volt gets off the mark with real alacrity, demon­strat­ing how the elec­tric mo­tor’s 368 New­ton­metres of torque come into play from rev­o­lu­tion one. There’s no wait­ing and that sigh­ing whirr we men­tioned be­fore is a won­der­fully Star Trekk­ish ac­com­pa­ni­ment as it leaves most com­ers in its su­per­clean wake. If you’re used to the push-but­ton start­ing that’s sneak­ing into all car types th­ese days, then op­er­at­ing the Volt is pretty straight for­ward. A rod of the square blue ‘Start’ but­ton il­lu­mi­nates the dash and is ac­com­pa­nied by a noise like a Star Wars light sabre. Un­nec­es­sary, maybe, but we loved it. Both the Volt’s in­stru­ment panel and cen­tre screen of­fer up all man­ner of in­for­ma­tion to the driver and the graph­ics are neat, telling you were the power is go­ing and where it’s com­ing from, how the re­gen­er­a­tive brak­ing is con­tribut­ing and also what drive mode you’re in. But the only time you re­ally need all this info is when you’re run­ning out of charge and likely to en­gage the petrol power unit. All the rest of the time, as long as you en­gage in a reg­u­lar charg­ing regime – like you prob­a­bly do with your in­creas­ingly en­ergy de­pen­dent smart­phone – you won’t need much more in­for­ma­tion than speed and per­haps the sat-nav sys­tem. The lat­ter is stan­dard fare in the Volt, along with an ear-bleed­ing sound sys­tem, all the cruise con­trol, con­nec­tiv­ity so­lu­tions, cli­mate air conditioning and safety equip­ment you’d ex­pect from a mod­ern car. It also gets nice al­loy wheels, a nar­row but very deep load area un­der its fifth door and a four-seat cabin re­plete in leather and mod­ern white-fin­ished iPod­like plas­tics that fit per­fectly with the car’s func­tion and, dare we say it, funky drive sys­tem. If some­one said that Steve Jobs cre­ated it, I’d be­lieve them. The car only has four seats be­cause of the ex­is­tence of a wide cen­tre tun­nel, which con­tains all sorts of elec­trick­ery for the Volt’s bat­tery and drive sys­tem. How­ever, each of the four chairs is sup­port­ive and well-shaped and pro­vides its oc­cu­pant with big-car legroom and though it might be twenty per cent short of the pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity of con­ven­tional cars in its $85,000 price bracket, the more I drove and used the car, the more it looked like de­cent value. Look, it’s ex­pen­sive and we don’t have sub­si­dies like other coun­tries have which brings the car up $22,500 closer to bud­get for hy­brid and plug-in as­pi­rants lucky enough to live there, but I can see a mar­ket for the car. The Volt is close to the price of a loaded Holden Calais or a bot­tomend HSV Clubs­port, nei­ther of which gain quite the ku­dos of hav­ing the ex­tended-range car in the CEO’s car park in­stead. We were pre­pared to hold the Volt’s price against it un­til we drove it. The fact is that if you went the way of the more con­ven­tional Ger­mans and even the big­ger Hold­ens for the same money or more, you wouldn’t get the re­fine­ment lev­els of this car and dare we say the won­der­ful smug­ness of driv­ing this near­si­lent achiever.

Looks nor­mal enough: Which is prob­a­bly why Holden slapped an ugly great ‘VOLT’ de­cal on its sides.

In­for­ma­tion: Easy to read and as­sim­i­late.

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