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First drive: GM's Volt shockingly good

Right on: Our first drive of the production Volt shows GM has hit the mark - but at a price.

Expectations exceeded as Chevy’s game-changing Volt ramps up the fun factor

12 Jan 2011


FURTHER details are surfacing for what will undoubtedly be the most radical Holden in history, the Chevrolet-based Volt.

Due for release in Australia before the end of next year, the electric vehicle with a range-extender petrol engine will most probably arrive in a single, high-specification luxury model to take on the top-line $53,500 Toyota Prius i-Tech.

Holden will not say how much the five-door, four-seat Volt will cost, but the final price could push past $60,000 – a far cry from the low-$40,000 predictions of just a year ago.

But it will be in good company since the Mitsubishi i-MiEV’s $1740 monthly leasing plan equates to nearly the same amount, while the Nissan Leaf – another pure EV with no internal combustion engine – will not cost much less.

Built in Hamtramck, Michigan, off GM’s Delta platform (which also underpins the Holden Cruze and upcoming Opel Astra J), the Volt took 29 months to come to market in North America – where it has been on staggered release since November.

Volt is roughly the size of the second-generation Prius (2003-2009), being 4498mm long, 1788mm wide, 1430mm high and with a 2685mm wheelbase.

Cargo volume comes in at 300 litres, while the Chevy tips the scales at a fairly hefty 1715kg. About 80 per cent of the body-in-white structure consists of high, advanced, and ultra-high-strength steels.

13 center imageLeft: Chevrolet Volt.

Touted as the world’s first mass-produced range-extender EV, Volt can deliver between 40km and 80km in pure electric mode, increasing to 610km when the petrol engine kicks in.

Importantly, the engine never actually drives the wheels directly, but simply charges the T-shaped 16kW/h lithium-ion battery pack that resides directly beneath the passenger compartment.

Thermally managed for a long life, the battery pack – containing 288 prismatic cells and weighing almost 200kg – comes with an eight-year/160,000km warranty, although GM says it is tested for 10 years and 180,000km.

Full charge time is four hours using Australia’s 240V outlets (or 10 hours using a 120V system in the US and Canada).

While the Volt can be driven without ever manually charging the battery pack since the petrol engine is there specifically to do just that, the car cannot be driven if the electric drivetrain is removed since there are no driveshafts or transmission leading from the engine.

The petrol engine is GM’s tried and proven 62kW 1.4-litre four-cylinder unit, which runs at wide-open throttle most of the time to minimise pumping losses and maximise efficiency.

Together with a 55kW generator, and using one planetary gear, this Voltec drive system with its two electric motors delivers 111kW and 273Nm through the front wheels – but top speed is limited to 160km/h.

The 0-100km/h sprint time takes less than nine seconds.

A conventional 12V battery lives in the back to help power the ancillaries, acting as a solid state alternator.

Aided by a slippery 0.28 Coefficient of drag, the Volt’s fuel consumption figure varies between 2.5 and 3.9 litres per 100km in the US EPA city/highway estimates.

The fuel tank holds 35 litres of premium unleaded petrol.

There are three modes of automated driving available – Normal, Sport and Mountain (which reserves electric power for steep climbing).

The battery pack is never fully drained of charge, and nor is it at full charge capacity, to help promote longevity. Complex computers turn on the engine at varying points to replenish it with electricity so drivers will never be left stranded.

Among its many innovations, the Volt includes an engine management mode that senses if the petrol engine has not been running for a long time since a short-trip Volt driver can run purely on EV for months on end. It then asks for permission so that the engine can be started to keep everything ready and in order.

Despite such complex and sophisticated technology, GM has tried to keep costs down by using many Astra/Cruze chassis components such as the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam/coil spring rear suspensions.

The rack-and-pinion steering system is electric, with 2.8 turns lock-to-lock, the four-wheel disc brakes have ABS with brake assist, the lightweight alloys are shod with Goodyear low-rolling-resistance tyres, and ESC is fitted.

Holden has not confirmed local specifications or equipment levels, but all Volts include information screens showing charge states, range, speedometer, fuel level, driving efficiency, trip computer data, tyre pressure, oil life and vehicle state-of-health messages.

There’s also a touch-sensitive centre screen that controls the climate, satellite and audio controls, among a myriad of other car-related systems, while a special Bose audio set-up is used to minimise power consumption.

Testing was undertaken in parts of North America and Europe, in temperatures exceeding minus-40 degrees Celsius and plus-50 degrees Celsius, while over 1.5 million actual road miles of development have been clocked so far.

Drive impressions:THE Volt is the most convincing real-world eco mass-production passenger car we have ever driven.

It makes you forget about all the other vehicles out there with radical engineering and new-world technology, yet is as familiar and comfortable to be with as your best friend.

Clothing the whiz-bang stuff with modern packaging and interfacing stimulates and reassures in equal measure.

GM has chosen the modern small-car template – and a versatile hatchback one at that – for everybody to understand and relate to.

The Volt is compact enough for urbanites to enjoy and large enough for four adults to go on a long journey. In shape and functionality, it is almost as normal as a Corolla.

Being based on the German-engineered Delta II platform that also underpins the Opel Astra means the doors open with a certain heft and shut with a reassuring thud. Just like a Golf.

Once inside, at first glance this could be an up-spec Astra/Cruze, with everything exactly where you expect it to be – a blank instrument fascia right ahead, a console in the middle, and controls that even a blindfolded novice could locate and use.

But push the button beside the jet-age T-bar lever and the Tomorrow’s World fun bits begin to appear.

The instrument binnacle is computerised, offering stylish if initially a tad daunting information where in the old days a big speedo and minor fuel gauges would reside. Take a few moments to familiarise, though, and you soon feel at home.

Only the whirring of electrics give away the fact that the Volt is ready to bolt. And bolt it does, for the instant torque of the electric motors launches the hefty four-seater, accompanied only by a turbine whoosh as you seamlessly muscle along the road.

No GM small car has ever felt this refined.

It’s an eerie feeling driving an EV, for you are far more conscious of all the wind and road noises that a regular engine drowns out, but the Chevy is still impressively quiet. With strong mid-range acceleration and smooth off-throttle coasting, we’re very happy.

Tap the brakes and there’s an odd heaviness to the pedal, but the stoppers themselves work well and the car tracked true even on icy roads in sub-zero suburban Detroit.

The steering has a satisfying weight to it and offers flat, neutral handling to match the impressive roadholding.

After driving the Honda Insight, we were expecting overly light and lifeless steering, but instead enjoyed a linear, informative steer. We hardly knew it was electric.

The Volt just doesn’t drive the way you might expect an eco weenie to, and it certainly feels far more dynamic than any other American car of this size we’ve sampled.

What is obvious, however, is the sheer mass of this relatively small vehicle. Maybe that’s why the suspension thumps over some road irregularities. There’s a firmness to the suspension that really is German in character.

After about 30km of sometimes spirited driving, the petrol engine kicked in. And you really notice it after the tranquility of the EV mode, especially when sitting silently at traffic lights.

The 1.4-litre engine only recharges the batteries, so it runs permanently at full throttle, which actually sounds like a half-throttle setting – like you’ve left the choke out on an old car for too long. It isn’t disruptive or loud, just there.

It became clear that the Chevy’s combination of refinement, performance and dynamicism is a league ahead of the pioneering Toyota Prius, and in another world compared to the patchy Insight.

There are plenty of other positive points, too – like the good rear vision afforded by the deep tailgate window, a well-executed driving position, comfortable seats and styling that is much more interesting in the flesh than in photos.

Of course, the Volt isn’t perfect. Our car had a rattle emanating from a misaligned overhead light console, there’s a fair amount of cheap plastic trim scattered around the interior, rear headroom is a bit limited, only four people fit in a package most people associate as a five-seater and the rear cargo area is not deep enough.

But out-of-reach pricing and possibly low supply due to unprecedented demand may be the Volt’s biggest problems.

Holden hasn’t yet announced pricing, but we fear that it may exceed $60,000 – greatly eliminating a vast audience who would relish the Volt’s simplicity and satisfaction of operation.

On the other hand, there is enough turbine-smooth drivability, high-tech frugality and envelope-pushing eco philosophy going on here to somehow make that asking price not seem so steep.

Indeed, the genii at General Motors have created a car of genuine substance and unexpected charm. It is as if the spirit and sweat of the hundreds of engineers, technicians and designers that helped create this car live on within this glorious, optimistic machine.

High price aside, if there’s any EV that can convince Australians that it is cool as well as fun to go green, then surely this is it.

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