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Car reviews - Holden - Volt - range

Our Opinion

We like
600km driving range, super-low fuel economy, smooth and quiet operation, high levels of safety and equipment, petrol-car performance on $2.50 of electricity a day
Room for improvement
Understeer from low-grip eco tyres, only four seats, cramped rear seat, no spare wheel, $60k price

30 Aug 2012

WE have driven the car of the future and its name is Volt.

Armed with all of the advantages of an electric car and few of the disadvantages – save a higher price tag than most people will want to afford, at $59,990 – General Motors' so-called range-extender electric hatchback, is quieter, smoother and more advanced in its technology than just about any other production car in existence.

It can't quite leap tall buildings in a single bound, but it can cruise more 600km without stopping, thanks to a petrol engine that cuts in to generate extra electricity like a personal power station after the batteries run flat at about 87km.

In a single stroke, it dispenses with the white-knuckle range anxiety experienced by the handful of pure EV early adopters who have bravely ventured into electrified motoring thus far.

While those EV owners stop for up to eight hours to re-charge (if they can find somewhere to plug in), Volt owners do not even have to pause at a phone box to change into cape and leotards, instead just pressing the pedal to the metal and heading towards distant destinations, secure in the knowledge that petrol will always get them another burst of energy while away from their electric socket.

And who can believe it – Volt wears a Holden badge.

The greatest accolade we can pay GM's engineers is that the Volt drives just like a petrol car, only better than most.

OK, this 1700kg hatch is no supercar in the traffic lights drag, but is not shamed either, sprinting more than adequately to highway speeds – faster than the Holden Cruze on which its is based, in fact.

Up hills? Ah, just feel that torque from the electric motors (it has two, in sequence).

Like most electrically powered vehicles, the Volt is satisfyingly quiet in its default electric mode, whirring along city streets and highways in glorious near-silence, with only a small amount of tyre rumble and wind noise intruding into the cabin.

In fact, such is the quietness of the electric powertrain – involving two electric motors and a set of planetary gears as a form of transmission driving the front wheels – that the GM engineers had to expend a lot of extra effort addressing noise,vibration and harshness (NVH) issues in the tyres, body and elsewhere so they would not seem magnified.

The result is a big win for peace-loving Volt owners. Unless that glovebox lid starts to squeak.

Even when the 1.4-litre petrol engine kicks in to pump up the on-board electricity supply (the Volt always runs on electric motors), the car is remarkably refined, breezing along like a compact luxury hatchback.

In fact, it does the Volt a disservice to compare it with its Cruze cousin, as it is such a different beast, with so many features and talents that it really should be compared with similar sized European luxury cars.

In that context, the $60k price tag does not seem so steep.

Most likely, Holden is losing money on every Volt it imports from the United States, even at that price, but it sees it as an investment in its future – a halo car that will lead to bigger and better things. As Holden boss Mike Devereux puts it, the Volt is 'iPhone 1', and iPhone 2, 3 and 4 will all come one day, cheaper and even better.

The promise is breathtaking, as the consensus of most of the lucky few to have experienced Volt is that it already represents a significant stride forward in motoring. The GM trophy room now has the North American and European Car of the Year award trophies as evidence.

Will it save the planet? Well, no, unless the battery charging cable is firmly hooked up to green power, such as an electrical system supported by solar cells on your roof.

And yes, Volt still burns that nasty petrol when the electrons run dry.

However, in an engineering miracle that we can't quite comprehend, the Volt burns way less less petrol in generator mode than a normal 1.4-litre petrol car – we saw 3.9 litres per 100km on our test run – even though it is some 200kg heavier than a standard car of this size.

And consider this: the Volt can be recharged for as little as $2.50 (what was your last fuel bill? $80?), taking the driver on all the usual local daily commuting, shopping and restaurant outings without burning one millilitre of fossil fuel in the engine from one week to the next, reducing toxic emissions in our city environment.

Because fuel economy is the raison d'être of the Volt, it comes with the obligatory low-rolling-resistance tyres.

These rock-hard donuts are usually notoriously flawed in many ways, lacking the sticky grip of sporting rubber and, on many cars, delivering a noisy and harsh ride.

Because of this, the Volt exhibits a little push-on understeer in tight corners, as we expected. It's one price of green motoring.

On the bright side, the Michelin and GM engineers have done a sterling job of off-setting the hard tyres with a comfy and muted ride quality delivered by clever suspension tuning and body design.

On balance, Volt performs way better than we expected, exhibiting ride, handling and acceleration levels that we would be happy to live with any day of the week.

Even the electric power steering (no old-school hydraulic stuff here) is concise and precise, erring on the light side – something that the city slickers who own these cars will appreciate.

Inside, the Volt is geek heaven on wheels. Two big LCD screens – one in the console and the other directly in front of the driver – deliver so much information, advice, driving mode announcements, alternatives and green/safety stuff that it would take weeks for non-16-year-olds to grasp.

A couple of items we did manage to master, however, were the driving modes. Cruising at 110km/h (effortlessly) on electric power down a freeway near Sydney, we elected to manually switch on the 'hold' mode that starts the petrol engine for long trips and conserves the remaining battery charge.

We felt so guilty at this rash act of environmental vandalism, polluting the air of south-west Sydney with our waste products, that we switched it off again and drove the rest of the way to our first stop on comforting battery power.

For the record, we made it to the 71km mark before we exhausted the lithium-ion batteries under the back seat and 'transmission' tunnel – less than the claimed 87km but great considering that we had not spared the horses.

When the engine kicked in, the transition was so smooth we did not even notice until glancing at the seven-inch screen in front where a petrol bowser icon replaced the battery display.

A feature that technocrats will love is the touch console with about 20 switches to control a range of audio, air-conditioning and sat-nav functions. No – not touch screen, the whole console is alive.

However, beware the errant touch – we managed to clear one of the LCD screens and it took our Holden passenger to retrieve it.

That console, by the way, is a pearlescent gloss white – the only choice for Australia – and we worried about its potential for scratching and chipping.

The leather seats are heated in the front row, which is interesting, considering the potential for draining the battery.

However, we are assured that the seat heaters use less juice than the car heater. Better still, the owner can pre-heat or cool the car while they are having their morning muesli by clicking a special button on the key fob in the general direction of the garage where their pride and joy is suckling 240 volts from the wall socket (it takes about four hours to charge when completely drained).

This pre-conditioning, we are reliably informed, saves about 5km worth of electricity on the morning commute. It all counts in EV land, where sane people suddenly find the urge to eke out every extra watt-metre.

Within the Holden range, the Volt breaks new ground in safety, offering Euro-style items such as forward collision warning and lane-departure warning.

Sat-nav, rear-view camera, keyless entry and start – the Volt ticks almost all the boxes for those who want to save the environment in comfort and five-star safety.

For some reason, the rear seat – perched high on the battery – accommodates only two people, like a luxury sports car, and it is a fairly tight squeeze for adult knees.

Those rear passengers also need to bring a hat while seated under the big glass hatch on hot summer days, and watch your head on the door frame of this low-roofed liftback when getting out of the car lest one's toupe be dislodged.

The boot is adequate for a weekend away, and the rear seats can be folded individually to create extra space.

The charging cable and plug resides under the boot floor, along with the ordinary 12-volt battery used for all the conventional electrics, banished to the back of the car like a poor relative.

We spent the best part of a day driving the Volt, covering more than 300km of city, highway and hilly country roads, first on electricity and then with the petrol engine ticking away.

Try doing that in your ordinary EV. Or try doing it your fossil-fuelled jalopy on $2.50 of electricity and $14 of petrol.

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