Holden Volt: our silent future
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.