Although it launched locally more than two years ago, the Holden Volt remains one of Australia's few alternative energy-powered cars, attempting to ease the 'range anxiety' issues of an electric vehicle by adding a petrol-engined 'generator'.
However, having shifted only a couple of hundred vehicles since going on sale locally in September 2012, the Holden Volt has struggled to find its place with the majority of Australian buyers. And – still yet to be confirmed for Oz – Holden will be hoping the recently spied second-generation Volt will be greeted with a friendlier response come 2015.
No doubt influencing consumer apprehension, the Holden Volt is offered in one trim specification, priced from an expensive $59,990. That sticker is unchanged since its launch, and if two years is a long time in the new car marketplace, it is an eternity among electric vehicles given the pace of change we've seen since then.
Australia's first electric vehicle, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV ($48,800) was lanched in 2010, and only two years later it was eclipsed by the larger, more refined Nissan Leaf, priced from $46,990 and which came with a more powerful motor and longer range. Now the Leaf is $39,990 driveaway, and Mitsubishi is back with an even closer contender for the Volt, the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV SUV that seats five to the Volt's four, gets all-wheel-drive to the Holden's front-drive, and is priced from $47,490 – a substantial $12,500 less. Then of course there's the game-changing $96,208 Tesla Model S...
So there are clearly new reasons to revisit the ageing Holden Volt.
What separates the Volt from conventional EVs, hybrids and (until the introduction of the Outlander PHEV) plug-in hybrids is its unique ‘range extender’ Voltec propulsion system.
The unit itself comprises a 63kW 1.4-litre premium 95 RON-fuelled four-cylinder engine (which acts as a generator), a 16.5kWh T-shaped lithium-ion battery pack, and two electric motors delivering 111kW and 370Nm combined.
It works by having the electric elements power the wheels up to a claimed 87km range (depending on driving conditions), until which point the petrol unit kicks in to either propel the vehicle or recharge the batteries. This team effort, therefore, makes an extended range possible.
With its compact 35-litre fuel tank brimmed, Holden claims the Volt is able to deliver a combined range of over 600km and respective fuel and CO2
averages of 1.2 litres per 100km and 27 grams per kilometre. If you don't travel more than the electric-only range between recharges, though, you may never use a drop of fuel (though the petrol engine occasionally turns itself on to keep clean and fit).
In theory, the Volt’s ability to be recharged from a regular household outlet means its charging philosophy appears sound. You get up, unplug your fully charged Volt from the wall and drive less than 87km to work where you then plug it back into the grid until it’s time to leave. You then drive home an identical distance before plugging it back in at base camp. Easy.
Charged via an included six metre-long charging cord – stowed neatly under the small, shallow and exposed 300-litre cargo area’s false floor – Holden claims the Volt can be fully charged in less than six hours from a standard 240-volt 10A household power point.
In the real world, though, things don’t quite go to plan. After running our EV 'tank' close to dry, we are left with 3km of battery range. Time for a charge. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the CarAdvice Melbourne office and all its current employees reside at properties with only on-street parking available, Holden’s idea of ‘easily’ charging the Volt overnight or while at work was a far greater challenge than first thought.
Luckily – and despite the collapse of an initial partnership between the local car maker and bankrupt Israel-based fast charging group Better Place – we locate a nearby (and free) ChargePoint charging hub. Problem solved … sort of.
We plug in to discover, according to the Volt’s own in-dash charging information, the car will be fully charged in four hours. Not bad. But despite optimistic manufacturer claims, a full charge leaves the Holden Volt with an EV range of 63km. And after driving a mere 2km, this already drops to a displayed range of 58km.
That said, this was in warm weather (with aircon on) in urban stop-start traffic. As part of our recent EV vehicle comparison, the team found the Volt's freeway range to be very stable - noting that using Sydney's ring roads and freeway network, there is no-where you cannot reach using the Volt's electric only range.
Over our 300km week with the Volt – in which we used the petrol engine/generator sporadically, but were intentionally aiming to rely more on battery power – we averaged 2.3 litres per 100km.
It's worth remembering that if you're recharging the Volt via clean energy sources - such as in the NSW snowy hydro scheme area, or Goulburn wind farm - then the electric portion of its range is genuinely Co2 emissions-free. But if electricity is sourced from Co2-rich coal like the majority of Australian power is, then emissions are simply transferred from tail-pipe to smoke stack. Keep the power source clean, though, and the remaining 2.3L/100km figure is around half what the a benchmark petrol-only vehicle or hybrid slurps and emits.
On the road, the Holden Volt defies its 8.9-sec 0-100km/h time by being punchy off the line without the lag and hesitation common to a number of models powered by small capacity turbocharged petrol and diesel engines. Somewhat impressively, too, this is despite the 1721kg Volt outweighing a VF Commodore Sportwagon (1717kg).
In full EV mode the Volt is super quiet – bar a Jetsons-style electric whirr – with in-cabin NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) levels a standout, alongside with a flat-sitting smooth-road ride. This is of course until you reach a speed hump or driveway of any incline and the calm is broken by the scrape of the low front under-spoiler that GM says is crucial to the model achieving its aerodynamic 0.28 drag coefficient figure. Still, ride and refinement is closer to a similarly priced Audi A4 petrol, rather than the humble $40K-cheaper Holden Cruze with which the Volt shares its platform.
Seamless gear change-free acceleration comes from a tri-clutch planetary gear-based step-less transmission (essentially a single-gear CVT-style unit), though the gear selector itself is very stiff and clunky to use. The brakes (used to capture braking energy and recharge the batteries each time you press the pedal) too are a sore point, providing odd feedback and a strange feel. And although suffering from a similar disconnect between car and driver, the variable assist electric power steering is pleasantly light and consistently weighted.
Once battery life is depleted and the petrol engine assumes its role, drivers are noticeably joined in the cabin by engine noise and vibrations, which – in an odd sensation that requires some adjusting to – rev up and down without being directly linked to how much throttle you press. It really is an independent generator, sounding like one used to inflate a jumping castle...
The Volt’s aggressive roofline and expansive C-pillar restrict rear occupant headroom and make ingress and egress a cautious affair – particularly for those six-foot and above – as well as inhibit rear and over shoulder vision respectively. Comfort in the back for shorter passengers, however, is reasonable, provided no objects manage to free themselves from the cargo blind-free boot (a standard item missing from our test car) via the large gap between the two slightly narrow rear seats. In this respect, though, the Outlander PHEV five-seat SUV now trumps the Volt, and for less.
Up front, the heated leather-trimmed front seats are comfortable and supportive when stationary, however they struggle to keep drivers and front passengers snug when corner speeds increase. Other standard cabin equipment equipment includes a six-speaker Bose audio system with 30Gb hard drive (though only Bluetooth phone, not audio connectivity is standard, a glaring omission and a reminder of the Volt's age), cruise control, satellite navigation, parking sensors, a rear-view camera, heated power mirrors, and a button for a highly amusing, and potentially helpful, pedestrian alert chirp (just in case a pedestrian doesn't hear the sound of EV silence).
Safety is also well accounted for with eight airbags (including front, side, curtain and knee airbags), stability control, tyre pressure monitoring and – marking firsts for Holden – forward collision and lane departure warnings.
While the design of the interior is quite funky, there are hard plastic dash and trim inserts (the driver’s side of which was loose in our test car) that betray the Volt's pricetag. The 36-button (and two rotary dials) centre console unit home to the Volt’s central touchscreen is also fiddly and complicated, though the reconfigurable in-dash seven-inch LCD ‘Driver Information Centre’ offers a high-resolution display, and shows the following: fuel range; battery range; combined range; gear options; speed; trip kilometres; fuel consumed; average fuel consumption; the odometer; alternative menu display items; and the Volt’s efficiency-measuring 'eco-ball'. All of which is cool, but it is a bit crowded.
Perhaps surprising given the high initial cost, servicing for the Holden Volt is cheaper than many petrol-only passenger cars. With services capped at $185, the Volt will cost you $740 for the first three years of ownership or 60,000km. Accompanied by a three-year/100,000km warranty and an eight-year/160,000km transferrable warranty on its battery and 161 Voltec components, the Volt works out to be up to $780 more affordable to service than the Leaf and i-MiEV. And while the Prius’ equivalent total is only $40 dearer, servicing the Outlander PHEV will set you back an additional $1030.
So while four-seat practicality and usability issues are only highlighted by the practical new Outlander PHEV, the biggest issues for the Holden Volt remains cost and where you charge it. In the former regard, the sticker needs to fall, and in the latter, it only makes sense if you're charging it via a clean power source. Accept those issues, and the uniquely styled, smooth and quiet Volt remains a model representation of a niche, intelligently efficient and advanced segment.