Holden's electric Commodore
It steers like a McLaren, rides like a Brazilian tank, houses a kettle under the hood and is built using a bit of big bang theory.
No, we're not talking about the latest exotic sports coupe from some niche European car maker. Instead, it's the Australian-made electric Holden Commodore.
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EV Engineering, the Port Melbourne based start-up that has taken nine Commodore family cars, gutted them of their V6 and V8 petrol drivetrains and replaced them with swappable batteries, a recharging cord and a powerful electric motor, is finally ready to trial its technology. Where it could, the project has borrowed the bits it needs.
With no petrol engine to work the power steering unit, EV Engineering looked to the company supplying British sports car maker McLaren for its MP4-12C supercar, and the battery-powered Commodore uses the same unit to turn its front wheels.
The electric Holden weighs about 140kg more than the conventional car, so it uses higher rated springs borrowed from the version of the Commodore exported to Brazil, where suspension systems need to be a bit tougher because owners like to add a bit more weight by armouring their vehicles.
Under the bonnet is an electric air conditioner the same as the one used in the US-market Escape Hybrid soft-roader, and because there's no source of heat under the bonnet, EV Engineering has had to add the equivalent of a ''glorified'' electric kettle that circulates water heated to 70 degrees to provide the much-needed winter warmth through the cabin's heater vents.
And where it couldn't find the technology, EV Engineering has invented it.
The bank of 202 batteries used in the battery-swap Commodore has aluminium terminals, and engineers had to mate it to the copper used for the car's electrical network.
Their solution was to use ammonium nitrate - the same stuff used in high explosives - to create a small explosion over a sheet of copper placed over the aluminium, and blow it up in a controlled explosion.
The heat and force of the blast successfully fused the metals together, and EV Engineering has now patented the process.
Two of the cars used for engineering evaluation will remain at the Port Melbourne workshop, along with a Ford Territory that served as a test bed for much of the technology used in the Commodores, while the other mix of seven sedans, wagons and a Caprice long-wheelbase sedan will head off on real-world trials expected to take two years.
Other than removing 300kg of conventional drivetrain and adding 450kg of electronics, not much else is different about the battery-powered Commodore.
Standing still, it looks like a conventional car, apart from the green sticker on the numberplate showing it is electric, and on some of the cars, the missing exhaust pipes that once filled the cut-outs in the rear diffuser.
Inside, it is just a little different. You still need a key to start it, but instead of the hum of a V6 or V8 engine, there's relative silence and the odd electrical groan from somewhere deep in the car.
Apart from a big dash-mounted electrical cut-off switch - after all, these are still experimental cars - the instrument cluster is the only obvious change.
Components maker Continental has crafted a unique cluster for the car, ditching the tachometer and instead providing a torque meter that shows if the car is operating in its regenerative, economical or power zone.
Similar to other electric vehicles, the only indication the car is right to roll is a small green icon lit up on the dash. Creeping forward, the car makes little noise, although for safety reasons engineers have built a steady ''beep-beep'' into the system to alert people when the Commodore is reversing.
We're not allowed to drive the EV Engineering Commodore – only engineers are authorised to get behind the wheel - so instead the company's chief executive, Ian McCleave, offered to take us for a spin around the block.
Even from the passenger seat, you can feel the battery-pack Commodore rides harder than the conventional version.
McCleave says EV Engineering will continue to make running changes to the cars, which will include plans to replace the electric kettle with a reverse-cycle air-conditioning system to cut down on power use, and possibly a multi-speed gearbox rather than the single-speed version used now.
The performance of the electric motor mounted in between the rear wheels was carefully selected to initially match the 3.0-litre V6 engine, but in reality its performance is closer to Holden's locally made 3.6-litre version.
On paper, the EV Engineering Commodore produces 140kW of power and an impressive 400Nm of torque almost as soon as you squeeze the throttle.
Engineers wanted to match the regular Commodore's 8.7-second sprint from rest to 100kmh, but the way the battery-powered car builds speed means it can gather the same speed within 8.5.
Acceleration is strong and linear, accompanied by noises you'd never normally notice in a regular Commodore, such as gravel crunching under the tyres at low speed, tyre roar at higher speeds and the wind as it folds around the wing mirrors.
''There's even a sports mode,'' McCleave says as he pushes the conventional-look gear lever sideways and punches the accelerator pedal.
There's an instant, high-pitched whine from the rear of the car as the electric motor draws the maximum amount of power and transfers it to the wheels.
A conventional Commodore will pitch and buck a bit as the torque rolls like a wave through the chassis and the rear end squats, but wind up the EV Engineering version and the car remains strangely flat and composed, with only a slight pitch rearward as the speed quickly builds.
The engineering group's aim was to get at least 160km from the $15,000 battery pack that can change over in five to six minutes if you don't want to wait up to eight hours to recharge it using the conventional wall plug.
In real-world tests, they've run the car to a maximum of 157km, but in reality by the time you factor in lights, air-conditioning and heating the range is about 130km, which is still useful for a daily commute.
Running costs, at the moment, are low, with EV Engineering calculating the rate at 2.2 cents per kilometre compared with about 12 to 13 cents a kilometre for a conventionally-engined car.
EV Engineering will allow companies to test the electric Commodores over the next two years, working out usage patterns and evaluating how they perform over the 20,000 to 50,000km of distance they will cover.
At any time, too, the drivers will be able to call in to the EV Engineering headquarters in Port Melbourne and swap an expired battery for a new one.
EV Engineering's aim is to work out if an electric version of a large car is a viable thing. By the end of its two-year field study, it hopes that it will have a viable case for the electric large car so that owners can convert them to battery power in much the same way as they re-plumb a car to run on LPG today.
Sydney Morning Herald