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First drive: A Volt into the future

Quiet achiever: Volt surprises with crisp handling and brisk performance.

General Motors' plug-in Volt quietly goes where no car has been before

19 Jan 2010

By JAMES STANFORD in DETROIT

SAYING that driving the Chevrolet Volt is an odd experience is an understatement.

Not bad – just different to anything else on the road today.

Our drive of a prototype Volt at General Motors’ technical centre in Warren, a suburb of Detroit, was limited to a few laps around the grounds, but was still sufficient to give us an exciting taste of what GM thinks the future will be.

This plug-in electric vehicle with a range-extending petrol engine cost $US700 million ($A758m) to develop, and officially can run for up to 64km on the electricity from its LG Chem lithium-ion batteries before the 1.4-litre petrol engine kicks in to generate more electricity for greater range.

In Australia, where it will be sold under Holden badges from 2012, the batteries can be fully charged in three to four hours on our regular household 240-volt electricity. That’s half as long as in the US, with its 110-volt power.

Sliding into the Volt, the driver is greeted with a high-tech, high-resolution screen that is a must-have for vehicles appealing to the ultimate early-adopters.

It features a cool animated energy gauge that shows green leaves when cruising and a yellow symbol when pushing hard. Naturally, there is a lot of green.

The dashboard looks modern, but not wild, presenting a stylish white dashboard centre with another high-res screen on top of the centre stack. It is contemporary rather than spaced-out science-fiction.

Like regular hybrids, no welcoming start-up sound is forthcoming when the ignition button is pressed.

When selecting Drive with the gearshift’s chunky, rectangular knob, the driver needs to glance at the screen to see if it is engaged, as there are no gear markings on the centre console.

We were the last group to drive the cars and they had already been driven 64km, so most of the battery power had been used. We will have to wait a while to test how the Volt drives in pure electric mode.

To start, the Volt accelerates using just the electric motor, with a whirring noise under hard acceleration. Sensing the strain on the depleted battery, the petrol engine kicks in and works to keep the battery at least 30 per cent full.

Because the wheels are driven directly by electric motor at all times – not the petrol engine – the engine does not respond directly to pedal input.

13 center imageIt does rev more if the Volt is pushed hard, to make the necessary power for the battery, but the throttle actuation is responding to the batteries’ needs and not directly to the right foot.

It was disconcerting at first, but we soon got used to it.

The 55kW ‘Family 0’ petrol engine revs between 1000rpm and 4000rpm, and has a different spark and valve program to the regular version.

It also stops every time the vehicle does. It is not overly intrusive when it kicks back in, and should not make much noise at highway speeds.

The range, which GM says is at least 300 miles (483km), is down on the 965km range of the original concept, which had two petrol tanks.

GM has deleted one for the production version on packaging grounds, while also minimising potential problems from stale fuel in cars driven primarily on electricity.

Acceleration from the 110kW electric drive unit is adequate, and the Volt could easily keep up with - and often out-run - traffic, thanks to its on-tap torque.

A GM engineer said the Volt would hit 100km/h in nine seconds, which seems about right, if not a little pessimistic.

While we had only a few corners to throw the Volt around, the handling seemed sharp, perhaps shading Toyota’s Prius in this regard.

But the Volt feels heavy under brakes, which are adequate, but it pays to remember that while it is a small car, the Volt – loaded with its 200kg, 300-cell battery pack – weighs as much as a large one at around 1800kg.

However, GM says it worked hard to delete mass in the design phase, using composites and different grades of steel to the Cruze, which rides on the same Delta II platform. The battery is less than half the weight of the 540kg unit that powered GM’s EV concept car of 1998.

The regenerative braking system, which returns electricity to the batteries under braking, has two modes – one providing the feel of traditional engine braking.

The ride on the Cruze-style MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion beam rear-end is a bit crashy, sending jolts through the cabin, but the roads for our test were simply terrible, like those in the surrounding areas of Detroit.

It is impossible to predict how the vehicle will ride on Australian roads, but it is likely to be better.

The cabin seems to be fairly quiet, despite the interruption of the petrol engine, so it will probably be reasonably quiet in all-electric mode.

We also had the chance to ride in the back, where there is more than enough legroom but not all that much spare headroom for a tall adult.

My head did not touch the roof, but it felt close to the rear glass that extends well into the roof.

This is far from ideal for Australia, where a passenger could bake on a hot day. GoAuto was told this was a design-motivated change to optimise fuel economy.

The cargo area behind the two rear seats appears adequate for smaller loads, and there is a pump-up tyre repair kit rather than a spare below the floor.

The only negative here is that there is no luggage cover behind the seats, so everyone can see what you are carrying.

While the concept car had a nifty narrow charger concealed on the front left wing, the production car has a larger (five-pin) plug-in point located behind a more traditional fuel ‘flap’.

In the US, GM hints the Volt will cost less than $US40,000 ($A43,290) when it goes on sale in November. There is no word on the price of the Holden version, which is now just over two years away.

Our test was far from in-depth and we would need to take the car home, charge it up and drive it routinely to really see what it is like as a daily driver, but our drive was sufficient to see that the Volt is real, practical and attractive.

It travels way further in electric mode than any hybrid, as the third-generation Prius only makes it a couple of kilometres before the petrol engine kicks in.

In certain parts of Australia, using electricity generated from dirty coal to run a car like the Volt would not cut many, if any, emissions. But that’s a problem for the government and society as a whole, not car-makers.

For many owners, the Volt will make sense because of its capability to run on electricity alone for up to 60-odd kilometres a day, but it can also make it all the way across the country.

The Volt is not fully electric, but it eliminates range anxiety – the fear of running out power on a trip – which is likely to plague those vehicles for some time.

The technology is yet to be proven in the field, but it looks like GM could have something special with the Volt, which might just be about to convince a lot of people, especially in the US, to give it another go.

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