Hot Topic Reporting season
Hot Topic Reporting season
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Why techie millennials hate cars so much

MOTORING On Holden's new electric car, the Volt.

David Linklater
Fri, 28 Sep 2012


Holden Volt

What exactly is it? A different kind of hybrid. In fact, Holden would prefer you to call it a “long-range electric vehicle”. Although Volt has a petrol engine and electric motor, the former only acts a generator when needed. The wheels are always driven by electricity.

Powertrain: Electric motor producing 111kW/370Nm, lithium-ion battery pack with multiple storage modules. 1.4-litre generator-motor producing 63kW. Front-drive. Electric-only range: 87km (based on ADR 81/02 fuel economy cycle).

Range on full battery charge and full tank of fuel: at least 600km. Charge time ranges from four hours (15A dedicated charge spot) to 10 hours (15A household socket).

Anything interesting in the equipment list? Aside from the high-tech powertrain, the Volt features some equipment firsts for Holden, including forward collision avoidance and lane departure warning.

Price: $85,000 

"Trending” is a ghastly but fashionable internet term which I have no choice but to use here.

There is something trending among American car companies which is quite unsettling. Understandably for an industry that barely scraped through the global financial crisis, the US automotive world is concerned about future business. Specifically, future customers.

Allow me to paraphrase the problem. Once upon a time, cars represented freedom to young people: a new vehicle was an aspirational thing and an important purchase. Circa 2012, “millennials” – that crucial stratum of present/future buyers aged 18-24 – equate freedom not with motoring but any time access to the internet.

They would rather spend money on annual upgrades of their fast-depreciating high-end smartphones and tablets than a fast-depreciating new car. They like touch screens more than steering feel. On this point, American carmakers seem to agree.

To millennials, cars no longer represent freedom. In fact, they have become an obstacle to living their real lives on the internet.

As we all know, it’s now perfectly socially acceptable to be glued to your smartphone while you’re at dinner with friends or in bed with your partner, so one of few times in life you are not free to check your newsfeed or Twitter yourself silly is when you’re driving.

American carmakers have become obsessed with breaking down the barriers between driving and online access. That means more high-end active safety technology that will allow people to drive less attentively – ultimately autonomously – and comprehensive integration between portable media devices and the car’s infotainment systems.

You see, millennials have an “always on” attitude. Which is another ghastly but appropriate internet phrase.

Swipe to turn on

I heard a lot about millennial-inspired technology at a recent media event in Sydney for Holden’s new electric car, the Volt. There were specialists on hand from General Motors to key us into future developments.

It was interesting and well-presented stuff, although nothing that was a great departure from what I’ve heard at similar conferences with other companies. Ford in Detroit last year, for example. Yes, all of these carmakers are on the same page. A digital page on a Samsung Galaxy Note, perhaps.

To summarise: long-term, the US car industry is developing new models based on the priorities and tastes of a specific socio-economic group of young people who do not really like cars at all.

Ultimately, it’s about selling cars to annoying people who can’t put their cellphones down.

Plug and play

But if smartphones-on-wheels are the future, we’re not there yet. Although Holden was keen to plug the idea of all this future technology into the concept of the Volt, it’s just that at this stage: conceptual.

Volt has plenty of high-tech equipment on board but, in terms of driver assistance and infotainment, there is nothing that isn’t available in countless other premium models.

Volt is a premium model, by the way. It will cost $85,000 when it is launched here in November through three Holden dealerships in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. However, any Holden dealer in the country can refer a potential Volt buyer to head office.

Here’s the thing: I’m glad Volt doesn’t embrace as much of GM’s millennial vision as it would like you to think it does. Because as it stands, Volt is fun to drive and impressively put together.

The powertrain technology and driving experience are still the main selling propositions for this car and that’s how it should be. At least if you’re a car enthusiast older than 24.

I won’t bore you too much with the Volt basics: they’ve been covered at length in these pages before. It’s an electric car that you can plug into your home power socket and drive nearly 90km, purely on battery.

When the electric power runs out there’s no range anxiety because a petrol generator (a Cruze 1.4-litre engine) fires up and runs the electric motor.

The Sydney event was my first chance to drive the Volt on public roads. I loved it. Sometimes with a hybrid like a Toyota Prius I get geeky and try to drive on silent battery power alone, which requires gentle throttle application.

With Volt, you can plant your right foot and the car whooshes forward in a most satisfying way. It’s not super-fast – acceleration is equivalent to a 2-litre family car – but with an electric motor you get instant torque. So it feels really fast.

The only discordant element is the petrol generator: when it’s running, the engine speed bears no relation to how fast you’re actually going. Indeed, you might be sitting stationary at the traffic lights with the 1.4-litre powerplant revving at 3000rpm.

Of course, if you commute less than 90km a day and recharge overnight, the generator might never fire up. It costs about $2.75 for a full charge on off-peak rates. Holden NZ has struck a deal with Genesis Energy for Volt customers to power their cars on completely renewable electricity if they so choose.

Despite the paltry recharging cost, the Volt still won’t please the corporate accountant. It would need to cost half its price to appeal to the wallet as much as it does to the early-adopting, environmentally-concerned psyche.

Some international commentators have suggested Volt should cost twice as much as it does to actually make a profit for GM.

But it’s pretty appealing to think you’re on the cutting edge, especially when the car looks and feels this good. Those who do buy a Volt can leave their smartphones at home and still enjoy high technology that really works and an engaging driving experience.

Personally, I can’t wait for a longer drive on local roads. Facebook me, Holden.



David Linklater
Fri, 28 Sep 2012
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Why techie millennials hate cars so much