Why Holden's new $60,000, tech-laden Volt, could be a game changer for electric cars.
Finally, Australians can buy a sensible electric car - it's called the Holden Volt and comes without the worry of running out of juice and heading home on a tow truck.
That’s because the Holden Volt is a stepping-stone to the full electric car. You can drive it for about 90km on electricity alone before the battery runs down. But instead of just cutting-out and leaving you stranded, a petrol engine kicks in and acts as a generator that feeds electricity into the battery pack to keep you going for as long as it has petrol. This equates to a combined range of around 600km.
That’s the key to the Volt’s appeal. It’s a real car that you can take anywhere, and if your daily drive is less than the official EV range of 87km, it can run as a pure electric vehicle.
As with all ground-breaking technology, the Holden Volt is expensive, starting at $59,990.
Holden Australia president Mike Devereux says the kind of people who will buy the Volt are “the early adopters, the people that bought a plasma TV when they were $8000”.
He adds that the Holden Volt is not just going to appeal to environmentalists, but also people who just love new technology.
Holden knows it has a big job ahead of it to convince Australians to consider an electric vehicle, but if a customer is not repelled by the $60,000 price tag, there is a good chance they will be impressed enough with the car to sign on the bottom line.
It’s a very good car, regardless of its environmental credentials.
The national launch was held in and around Sydney, which meant we drove the Holden Volt in city traffic for some time before heading out to the hills in a 300km-odd round trip.
What strikes you first is how well it drives in electric mode. It’s more than fast enough to keep up with traffic, and handles 110km/h freeway speeds without a problem. The relative serenity, though, can take a while to get used to.
Accelerate up a hill and instead of hearing a labouring engine, there is nothing but the usual tyre noise and a little wind noise. At low speed, the near silence is also appreciated along with the stepless transmission (it’s like a CVT but uses planetary gears and a complicated three-clutch system). You could probably never be relaxed in Sydney traffic, but this is as close as you are going to get.
Our battery pack ran out of juice after 67km on the highway and you couldn’t actually feel the 1.4-litre petrol four-cylinder engine/generator kick in. We only heard it when starting to accelerate.
Driving the Volt in extended-range mode - with the petrol engine running - is also a strange experience.
The engine doesn’t respond directly to the accelerator pedal like a regular car. This 67kW unit is designed to run at the speed that best tops up the battery in response to your demands.
So, you might be 20 metres up a hill before the engine starts increasing its revs to generate the extra power. The engine might also continue at a higher rpm after you have crested the hill as well.
For a lot of the time, the driver can’t hear the engine, but when you do it’s not particularly loud, coarse or intrusive, it just stands out because it’s not working in direct response to your right foot.
The engine usually generates enough power so that when you slow down the car can revert to electric-only mode for short periods, allowing you to find a parking spot in relative silence.
The battery is rated at 16.5kW hours and is made up of 288 lithium ion cells, which are thin rectangular shapes and sit in a water-cooled pack.
The 0-100km/h acceleration time for the Holden Volt is about 9.0 seconds, so it isn’t going to win anything off the line but it doesn’t come across as that slow when you’re driving it, especially as the electric motor delivers instant torque.
There are two electric motors that manage a combined total of 114kW and one of those also acts as a generator when the car is decelerating.
Weight is what really slows it down.
General Motors engineers went on a weight-loss crusade, using lightweight materials such as aluminium for several panels and components and scrounging a few grams here and there, but batteries and electric motors are heavy. In all, the Holden Volt weighs 1721kg - very heavy for a small car. For comparison, a Holden Commodore Omega weighs 1663kg.
Thankfully, most of the extra weight is set down low in the car because the battery pack is set out in a T-shape with the top of the ‘T’ sitting below the rear seats. Ironically, that’s part of the reason why the Volt handles so well.
That’s not to say that it is a front-drive sports car, but you can run through a set of bends at a reasonable pace. Holden has done a great job with the Australian suspension settings it devised for the Volt.
Braking is a bit strange because it has an electronic braking system, so you miss the feedback of a regular hydraulic system. The best bet when you are wanting to brake a lot, or are heading downhill, is to put the transmission into ‘Low’ allowing it to simulate aggressive engine braking. This not only slows the car quickly but also scavenges lots of energy to send back to top up the battery.
It is a comfortable car, with a forgiving ride that doesn’t crash and bash over bumps. While the dial is pointing more towards comfort than sport, the body control is still good and there’s no wallowing or any such carry on.
It sits low to the ground and has a front lip that hangs down perilously close to the ground. It is so close that it actually scrapes on driveways, speed humps and even steep and tight corners. Some customers will be freaked-out by this, but it is soft and is designed to flex. General Motors says the aerodynamic benefit is greater than the inconvenience.
The Holden Volt is a four-door, four-seater but it has a coupe-like roof profile for ultimate efficiency.
So, how much headroom is there in the back? An average bloke (5ft 11in) can sit in the back with a decent gap between the top of his head and the glass of the rear lift-gate. That’s great, but this has been achieved by tilting back the rear seats at an angle you would expect to see in a pimped-out Commodore on Melbourne’s Chapel St. It seemed odd, but comfortable enough and with ample legroom.
That said, it would be interesting to see how it feels on a long trip (which is something the Holden Volt is capable of, unlike other electric cars).
The C-pillar is very close to the rear passenger’s head and could make you feel a little snug or hemmed-in.
Unlike a traditional hatch, there is no cargo cover for the boot. The rear seats finish and boot starts and your gear is there for all to see. Small and shallow, we’re tipping the boot will still take the weekly shopping without fuss.
The Volt’s interior is both a high and a low point.
Holden took all the options and threw them into one highly specified car. It has white interior plastic trim for the doors and dashboard centre stack (with metallic flecks) adding a Gold Coast-style bling look. This contrasts with the black leather used for the seats (which also have white highlights).
It’s clear GM is tapping into the white iPod theme (maybe Apple will sue them after they are done with Samsung) and the result looks cool and modern.
The traditional push-style ‘buttons’ located on the dashboard centre stack have been replaced with new-age touch operated items you simply make contact with. It does make you feel like you’re in the future. There is also a touch-screen system and a few buttons near the digital instrument cluster.
The centre screen and instrument cluster screen is a haven for nerds. There are so many different items of information, rendered in hi-res graphics with vivid colours, that it can be overwhelming if you are not so technically minded.
Of course, you can just come up with a configuration that works for you and set it and forget it. Alternatively, you can scroll through and look at all the different diagrams showing things like how much power is coming from which source and how much is being regenerated.
For all this hi-tech wizardry, there are some cheap elements in the cabin too. Your eye can’t help but notice some shabby plastic elements that might be ok in a Barina but not a $60,000 car. An optional centre console bin, between the back seats, also came off in my hand when I tried to open the lid.
This probably isn’t going to be a sales stopper, but Holden says it thinks many of its owners will come from prestige cars like the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and that kind of thing doesn’t help.
Ultimately, the main drawcard of the Holden Volt is that it is hi-tech and green. But how green is it?
In Australia much of our electricity comes from inefficient brown coal plants that generate plenty of CO2 in the process. Holden’s green technology chief Richard Marshall concedes that when using electricity generated by brown coal, the Volt, in full electric mode, could be contributing as much if not more CO2 than a comparable petrol car.
That sounds bad, but coal-burning plants generate heaps of excess electricity at night, generating lots of CO2 regardless of how much electricity is being used. So, Marshall says that plugging in your Volt at night means it is not generating an extra CO2 as it is using excess supply.
Then there is the argument that cars like the Volt will encourage society as a whole to push for greener electricity generation, something that is going to take a massive shift in the way our country operates.
Customers do have the option of purchasing ‘green’ energy from their provider (which gives you the same electricity as your neighbours but buys real green energy on your behalf) and also the option of fitting household solar panels to offset the Volt’s consumption (a 2kW system should cover a single charge on a sunny day).
Regardless of the whole green electricity question, the Volt is still quite efficient when the petrol engine switches on.
The combined fuel consumption of our test car for the launch trip was 4.2L/100km, including the 67km of electric driving. On several sections when the car was operating with the petrol engine running, the consumption varied from 4.8L/100km to 6.0L/100km, which is still respectable although not as good as some super-lean diesels. But this is a far more refined machine and it offers up to 87km in electric mode, which will do for many commuters.
Charging the Volt is easy: it plugs into your standard household plug (240v) and takes six hours to charge with a 10a system or 10 hours with a 6a system. Installing a different type of plug through Better Place can reduce this to four hours.
The Volt comes loaded with the kind of gear you would expect for the money, including a collision warning system, lane departure warning, rear view camera, heated seats, keyless entry and start, premium sound system with Bluetooth phone connectivity (although there is no Bluetooth audio streaming), eight airbags and electronic stability control. It also has a five star ANCAP safety rating.
All up, it is a remarkably impressive car. General Motors has made an electric car that we would be happy to drive every day and that is quite something.
The price, unfortunately, will mean the car will struggle to attract anyone but early adopters and greenies in the first few years. But just like those plasma TVs, the prices will come down.