Plug-in Volt the latest poster child for green cars
What exactly is it? Technically, an extended range electric vehicle. Emotionally, a poster child for the green vehicle movement: a plug-in car that is still capable of long-distance travel.
Powertrain: Voltec electric drive system with linked lithium-ion battery modules producing 111kW/370Nm, 1.4-litre petrol generator producing 63kW. Combined fuel economy 1.2 litres per 100km (based on ADR test cycle), electric-only range 87km.
Anything interesting in the equipment list? Unlike the powertrain technology, there’s really nothing remarkable in Volt’s cabin equipment by modern standards. But it looks high-tech and it is the first Holden to feature forward collision avoidance and lane departure warning.
I don’t know whether the plug-in electric vehicle (EV) is the future of private motoring or merely a signpost on the way to some other place.
It’s true that EVs have not yet achieved the global sales expected of them by makers and politicians. Toyota, a company that knows a thing or two about selling cars and balancing books, abandoned plans for a pure EV based on the iQ city car last year, admitting it had misjudged the market.
The eQ was production-ready but at the 11th hour the company said it did not see enough sales potential, with customers still hesitant about the initial cost, limited range, long charging times and incomplete infrastructure for electric vehicles. Toyota is happy with its hybrids for now.
Consider the Nissan Leaf, very much the EV of the moment. This month Nissan cracked open the Ginjo sake because it hit 50,000 global sales of the car since 2010.
In reality, the company had expected to sell 40,000 in 2012 alone, with production in Japan back to full capacity after 2011’s tsunami and flood damage. Even chief executive Carlos Ghosn described the 2012 result as disappointing.
But it’s early days and it’s not all bad: a report released this year from American consultancy Pike Research forecasts global annual growth of 40% for electric vehicles over the next decade, compared with just 2% for whole the car industry.
But even sales of 3.8 million a year by 2020 will hardly register next to a global market of over 80 million vehicles. There is a long way to go.
Compromise could be the key to forward progress and that is where the Chevrolet/Holden Volt comes in. You’ll know plenty about this extended-range electric vehicle already, hopefully much of it from me.
The Volt’s wheels are only ever driven by electricity and it can do up to 87km on battery alone. Once that has gone flat you’ll get at least another 500km with the assistance of an on-board petrol generator: a 1.4-litre Cruze engine, in fact. Which is where the compromise comes in.
Up to this point I have been briefed on the brilliant technology and enjoyed driving the car but what I hadn’t done is actually live with the Volt. Living with an electric car is theoretically the hard part.
I think motoring journalists are often guilty of focusing too much on what it’s like to be an automotive writer and too little on real life.
I’m probably about to do that again but I do think it says a lot about Volt that Holden New Zealand has allowed the media to test the car in local conditions in the same way that we would a Cruze or Commodore.
I have driven the Mitsubishi iMIEV but for less than two hours and accompanied by a Mitsubishi NZ staff member. I was offered a drive in the Nissan Leaf, which never eventuated, but I understand from colleagues that it comprised a trip around the block and little more – again, with a minder.
And that’s not really where the story is with these cars, is it?
Car companies are understandably protective of their EVs and don’t want journalists revelling in writing stories about running out of charge on the motorway and needing a tow home. Machines like iMIEV and Leaf are specialised vehicles for buyers who really desire and understand then.
They are also cars for people who have the right 15-amp charge point installed at their houses and/or offices and are prepared to plan driving relatively short distances based on eight-hour charge times.
In that context, Volt is not specialised at all. I took it home and plugged it into a standard three-pin power socket in my garage. You can do the same if you’re visiting friends for the day, because you don’t need a special outlet.
You can also use every last kilometre of electric range because you don’t need to worry about running out of battery power. Premature topping-up is an issue among nervous electric-car owners for obvious reasons, which further reduces real-world range.
From zero to hero
I was keen to drive a proper zero-emissions car during my week with the Volt but determined to drive as far and fast as I needed to. I used it as a commuting vehicle, because that’s what people do with cars like these.
I loved the silent woosh of driving an electric car, not to mention the gratuitous comic sci-fi noises that come through the speakers when it starts up and shuts down.
With a wild array of digital instruments and retro-futurist cabin design, the Volt is fun. That’s assuming you can live with a brake pedal that feels like lead at low speed (a consequence of the car’s regenerative braking system) and just four seats.
Turns out I could actually drive an iMIEV or Leaf every week, because at no stage in my week with Volt did it look like running out of juice.
I charged it every night at a cost of about $3 and went about my business during the day. That fits with Holden’s assertion that electric cars meet the mileage needs of 95% of New Zealand motorists.
The difference with Volt is that you don’t have to obsess about that 5% of travel that exceeds the electric range. Nor do you have to own/rent a conventional car for the holiday season. It’s a compromised EV that takes the compromise out of owning a zero-emissions car.
In the big picture, it’s not working just yet. GM has long since abandoned its global projections of 60,000 Volt sales per year. It sold more like 30,000 in 2012, shutting down the plant briefly in March/April and again in September.
The biggest market for Volt is still California – where it is now eligible to drive in the state’s prized car-pool lanes.
As a car rather than a means to an end, the Volt is a fantastic achievement and you have to admire General Motors for taking a huge gamble on new technology that keeps truly green motoring in touch with real-world motorists. It’s brave, long-range thinking – if you will excuse the pun.
Toyota did that with something called Prius a few years ago; it was much-criticised and got off to a slow start but it has worked out rather well.
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