What do you call a car that has a bank of batteries, a plug, two electric motors and a petrol engine? Well most of us would call it a plug-in hybrid. But not Holden.
It says the new Volt is a "long-range electric car", in that you can take the car away for the weekend and not have to worry about running out of charge just a hundred kilometres down the road. The catch is that the long range comes courtesy of petrol rather than electricity.
You can still plug the car in at a regular powerpoint to recharge the batteries in between six and 10 hours from a standard powerpoint, but on longer journeys, the petrol engine under the bonnet kicks in to as a "generator" for the batteries, meaning it can run until you're out of both battery charge and petrol – which is after about 600 kilometres, according to the brand.
And after 300 kilometres behind the wheel of the Volt, 60km of which didn't use a drop of fuel, we'd suggest that it indeed offers the best of both worlds. Unfortunately it comes at a price - $85,990 is the recommended retail price in New Zealand.
Holden says that with the majority of New Zealanders living in main centres and commuting less than 60 kilometres in a single day, Volt drivers could achieve their weekly commute on electric charges only, yet still head up north or down south on the weekend, avoiding the range anxiety caused by traditional electric cars.
Holden New Zealand managing director, Jeff Murray said this kind of flexibility provides a great option for Kiwi drivers.
"New Zealanders like to head out of the cities over the weekend and with Volt they can drive to almost any destination they want. That’s just not possible in a pure electric vehicle due to range restrictions."
Price:In New Zealand, $85,000.
On sale in NZ: early November 2012
Drivetrain: Two electric motors linked to a 1.4-litre petrol engine that acts as a generator
Power: 111kW/370Nm for electric drive unit, petrol engine produces 63kW
Batteries: A 200 kilogram, 288 cell 16.5kWh T-shaped lithium-ion stack under the floor of the car
Charging times: Six hours for a "normal" 10 amp powerpoint. Fast charge points (15 amp): less than four hours
Range: 87 kilometres on EV only, 600km on "range extender" mode (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 1.2 litres per 100km (on the official fuel cycle)
Transmission: Single speed planetary gearset, FWD
0 to 100km/h: estimated at 9.1 seconds
Warranty: Three years/100,000 km with roadside assistance on vehicle, 8 years/160,000km on batteries and electric drive components
Safety: Eight airbags (dual front, front side, curtain and driver and passenger knee), lane departure warning, forward collision alert, five-star ANCAP crash rating.
Push the start button and you're greeted by an artificial, almost cartoonish sound that lets you know the electric motor is up and running – that chime is a good thing, because you wouldn't otherwise be able to tell that the virtually-silent car is ready to roll.
Holden describes the Volt as a "technological tour de force", and sitting behind wheel certainly gives that impression.
There are two iPad-like display screens. One sits behind the steering wheel rather than a set of dials. It offers the usual information you'd expect such as a digital speedometer and trip computer, as well as technical stuff like a range meter for the battery and petrol "generator". It also acts as a menu screen for driving modes.
The second screen sits atop a centre stack that doesn't have the usual array of push buttons, but rather has a touch-pad-style feel to it. It looks very modern, and the screen acts as a display for those touch-controls, including a high-tech single zone climate control system with three distinct modes available - one for full power, one for less power, one for ultimate fuel saving. You can also preset the car's heating and cooling when it's charging, so the temperature is right when you leave home.
The centre screen also controls the stereo, which includes a 30-gigabyte hard drive, iPod connectivity and USB input, all of which is fed through a specifically designed Bose stereo system with six speakers and a sub-woofer that uses 50 per cent less power than a standard equivalent stereo.
The centre screen also controls the satnav system which, surprisingly for a car as high-tech as this, doesn't look as slick as it could.
The interior smacks of the "i-generation". Slick white glossy plastics stand out against the screens and slabs of grey, with the lighter hue strewn across the dash top, centre stack, steering wheel and in thick wedges of white on the doors. There are even matching white "U" shaped designs embossed on the dark leather seats.
Storage is good up front, with decent door pockets, good storage spaces in between the front seats, a big covered centre console and a covered dash-top tray. The smallish 300-litre load area is accessed via a very large rear hatch door. The rear space is shallow and long, meaning bulky items may not fit.
The front seats are comfortable and offer good support, but taller drivers may find it slightly too tight for head room. The story is the same in the rear, as the Volt's swoopy roofline eats into headroom. Knee room is also pretty tight, and there are only four seats.
When you shift into D, release the electric park-brake and pull away, the car is very quiet, but the silence is soon broken by the scrape of the flexible plastic lower air dam, which is designed to help the car cut through the air more efficiently, chafing against the road. If you've got a steep driveway, expect to hear a lot of that.
Some road noise does intrude into the cabin as speeds rise, but it's not uncomfortably loud.
Plant the accelerator pedal and there's a good amount of push from the 111kW/370Nm electric motor. Selecting Sport mode - even the eco-conscious like to have fun - makes the throttle more sensitive and the drivetrain's 370Nm of instantaneous torque come on more quickly. It'll sprint from 0-100km/h in a little more than nine seconds, Holden says.
For the first 60-odd kilometres of our drive loop we ran on electric power only – not too bad considering the claimed range is 87km. After that, the car used the 1.4-litre petrol engine to recharge the battery pack on the move. It whirrs away under the bonnet at up to 3500 rpm, but it is an odd sensation that the engines revs have nothing to do with the way you're driving, because the petrol engine doesn't provide drive to the wheels. Over 300km, our fuel consumption was 4.2 litres per 100km, just a fraction over the official average consumption for a Toyota Prius. If we'd travelled a shorter distance, the equation would have swung more in favour of the Volt. Had we gone longer, the Prius would have come into its own.
With 200 kilograms of batteries under the floor of the car it has a low centre of gravity, and through a mix of corners the Volt surprised in how flat it sat when pushed. The ride was comfortable at most speeds, though it was sharp at lower speeds.
The steering is light and fairly precise during cornering, and while there's not a lot of driver feedback, it would suit most of its target buyers needs.
Some electric and hybrid cars have been criticised for poor brake pedal feel, and while the Volt's brakes don't feel quite like a conventional car, they aren't quite as wooden as some rival cars.
If you shift the gear selector to "Low", the car will increase how much energy it regathers through regenerative braking. The difference is instantly noticeable - instead of coasting when not accelerating, the car instead feels as though it's braking.
The 308.3km drive loop included a mix of city, highway, freeway and back road driving, including mountain climbs and descents and several sections of enthusiastic driving.
The launch loop proved that the car offers a viable solution to those who want a car that can do the daily commute on electricity alone, but travel longer distances without inducing the range anxiety associated with other pure-plug-in vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV.
So is it an electric car or is it a plug-in hybrid? Well, Holden's chairman and managing director Mike Devereux admitted to Fairfax Media that he "doesn't really care what people call it".
The big question is whether they'll pay $85,000 for it.
If you want one in New Zealand, Volt will be sold and serviced through three Holden dealers - located in Auckland at Schofield Holden, Ebbett Holden Wellington and Blackwells in Christchurch.
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