The 2012 Holden Volt electric car has made its debut in Australia a year ahead of its showroom launch as the local car maker begins the hype for a vehicle it calls an industry ‘game changer’.
Holden unveiled the Volt to the Australian media in Sydney today, though the vehicles were actually rebadged left-hand-drive Chevrolet versions of the car.
The cars can only be driven legally on Australian roads by Holden employees so media and politicians invited to the launch – the latter comprising Federal Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Anthony Albanese and Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore MP - were restricted to trying the Volt in the confines of a warehouse.
The local car maker is only likely to sell a few hundred units annually, but says the Volt, which will still look similar to the design of the Chevrolet version, is more about changing perceptions of the brand to closer associate Holden with cutting-edge technology.
“The notion of making early-term profits on massive capital investments like Volt … I think GM is on record that isn’t about making near-term or short-term profits,” says Holden boss Mike Devereux. “This is a long-term investment by the company in what we think will become one of the pathways to the future of motoring.
“It’s a precursor to [hydrogen] fuel cells, but that doesn’t’ mean that LPG [liquefied petroleum gas], diesel, ethanol aren’t [alternative fuels] people don’t want to buy because it will be a cost-value equation.”
Devereux says “other launch markets provide a good directional guide to what [the Holden Volt] will cost in Australia”, though it's expected that the local pricing will be closer to the circa-$58,000 of the Opel version in Europe (called Ampera) rather than the Chevrolet-badged Volt sold in the US for about $40,000, and an expected similar price for the UK market.
General Motors, Holden’s parent company, says the Volt is the world’s first Extended Range Electric Vehicle (EREV).
The Volt differentiates itself from other battery electric vehicles by employing a 1.4-litre petrol engine to power the electric drivetrain once the charge of the lithium-ion battery pack has reached a minimum state of charge.
Holden – and GM - continue to insist the Volt is an electrically driven vehicle, although some quarters in the industry have argued it’s a hybrid because at times it combines up to three motors – a generator, the petrol engine, and a traction motor.
Regardless of which side of the argument people sit, Holden says the Volt can travel between 60 and 80km before the petrol engine will kick in to charge the battery pack and ensure the small car can achieve a total range in excess of 500km.
The car maker says the Volt therefore removes one of the critical barriers to consumer acceptance of electric vehicles: the so-called ‘range anxiety’ where motorists imagine being stranded with no battery power to get them home.
The Holden Volt media event took place at a time when the vehicle is creating controversy in North America where it is already on sale as a Chevrolet.
The vehicle is the subject of a safety probe in North America after a series of Volts caught fire weeks after being subjected to independent crash tests. It’s a matter that has been compounded by accusations that GM was aware of a potential issue some months earlier.
Holden says it not concerned the incidents or safety investigation will affect Australian buyers’ confidence in the Volt.
“I don’t’ think [even] consumers in US are necessarily worried about it,” says Devereux. “The incident that happened in Wisconsin was a purposeful catastrophic intrusion to the battery pack in a side impact crash. That was the purpose of test.
“And then I think having left the car for three weeks in an unattended parking lot with power still on in the battery … you know
“I think what it highlights is that the eco system for first responders, for fire departmernts, for insurance companies, for tow trucks, you have to learn to deal with new technology.
“It isn’t just a GM problem. This is an industry eco system issue that is specific to this lithium-ion [battery] technology that we have to learn and deal with. It affects all [car] companies.”