Volt is Holden's technology leader

Holden Volt
Holden Volt

If this is the future of motoring, then I'm all for it.

I've just been driving a new Holden sedan that is a medium- sized four seater, rides and performs just like any other car, has a range of around 600 kilometres - but has an average fuel consumption of as low as 1.2 litres per 100 kilometres.

That's better than 217 miles per gallon in the old imperial measurement.

And that's if you need to use any petrol at all to run this car; most of the time you don't. Normally all you need to do is plug it in to an ordinary household power outlet and charge a battery pack that powers the car's two electric motors.

That battery pack will in turn give you a range of about 87 km, which under normal circumstances is easily enough for the daily commute.

So here's the potential daily use of this car. Charge it up overnight at a cost about the equivalent of running your average household refrigerator (a full charge from empty costs about $2.75), use it during the day in a totally normal way, then plug it in to charge up again at the end of the day.

But what about the weekends when you want to travel further?

Well, here's the good news. This car also has a 1.4-litre petrol engine on board that operates as a generator to maintain a charge in the battery pack.

That way the car's range is restricted only by the amount of fuel in the car's petrol tank.

This new-age car is the Holden Volt, which enters the New Zealand new car market in November, and which initially will be sold through three specially certified Holden dealerships in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

This doesn't mean to say that people in other parts of New Zealand can't buy this car, however. All Holden dealers will be able to sell the Volt via a referral process in which they will receive "spotter" fees .

But the Volts will only be able to be serviced at the three dealerships. And if this means a customer is required to drive more than 25o km to have a vehicle serviced, then Holden New Zealand will provide overnight accommodation plus a free loan vehicle.

A Volt technology workshop for Australasian media was held in Sydney last week, where journalists were told the vehicle has already been sold for some time in the USA and Europe - as a Chevrolet and Opel/Vauxhall - and that in USA alone the Volts have been driven a combined total of 200 million kilometres, two- thirds of that distance on electricity.

So there is obvious potential for this car to do exactly the same thing in New Zealand and Australia, making it a very viable alternative to the conventional petrol/electric hybrid vehicles already on offer here.

As I said at the start, if this is the future of motoring, then I'm all for it.

Any vehicle that can use such small amounts of petrol for daily operation, and in doing so have average exhaust emissions of just 27g of CO2 per kilometre, has to receive the fullest praise.

There are downsides to this car however, not the least being that Volt enters the New Zealand new car market priced at a whopping $85,000.

Another downside is that the sheer size of its battery pack means that not only does it weigh 200 kg, but it also runs through the middle of the vehicle and acts as a centre console, which means the Volt can only be a four-seater.

But Volt represents the beginning of General Motors' journey into the world of the extended range electric vehicle, not the end. You can guarantee that as the years rolls over, the development costs of this vehicle will be amortised downwards and such product will become less expensive.

Battery sizes and weights will reduce too, just as they have with the conventional hybrids, making vehicles even more appropriate for everyday use than the Volt is now.

At last week's media event General Motors-Holden managing director Mike Devereux described the Volt as a new type of flagship for the brand.

"It's not the biggest or the most luxurious vehicle in the Holden fleet, but it certainly is the technology leader," he said.

There was certainly plenty of information available to back that up. For example, whereas a little over a decade ago the average vehicle carried 20 electronic control units (ECUs) and one million lines of software code, the Volt has 75 ECUs and 100 million lines of software code.

Holden's director of electrical engineering Paul Gibson described Volt as a vehicle that marks the end of the biggest issue with electric cars: range.

"This is a no-compromises electric car that spells the end to range anxiety," he said.

Central to how this car works is a T-shaped 16.5 kWh battery pack that is made up of 288 lithium-ion cells, each about the size of a 5x7 picture frame, about 1cm thick, and weighing 500g.

They're all combined into a total of nine linked battery modules that are contained in a tunnel that is protected by ultra-high strength steel. Sit in the Volt and the battery pack is right beside you, doubling as a centre console.

The batteries supply power to a 111kW electric drive unit that comprises two electric motors and a multi-mode planetary transmission. At lower speeds, just one of the motors operates, but at higher vehicle speeds the second motor kicks to add efficiency.

It all works extremely well. The system offers 370 Newton metres of torque, all of which is instantly available at the wheels, which means Volt offers very good acceleration.

As part of last week's media function, I headed out into the streets and freeways of urban Sydney and found this Holden to be an easy car to drive, with the biggest difference between Volt and conventional vehicles being the absolute lack of engine noise.

Volt offers three drive modes, too.

A Normal mode is a default setting and designed to be used most of the time, while a Sport mode changes accelerator response for more enthusiastic driving. There's also a Hold mode which allows the driver to order the petrol generator to operate, thus saving the battery charge for electric-only operation in the city.

That petrol generator is a detuned and non-turbocharged version of the 1.4-litre engine that powers the Holden Cruze. In this application, it develops 63 kilowatts of power, and when the battery gets towards the end of its charge the petrol engine automatically kicks into life to provide more power to the electric motors.

A major feature of the Volt's interior is that almost everything is touch-control.

The vehicle has two full-colour LCD screens that display key information as well as house touch screen controls for everything from infotainment and climate control, to driver and energy information.

It also boasts a very high level of safety specification, including forward collision alert and a lane departure warning system, voice control for some phone, audio and navigation functions, rear-view camera, a full suite of electronic ride and handling aids, and a pedestrian alert system.

All this has allowed the Volt to earn a five-star ANCAP safety rating, in addition to the five-star Green Vehicle Guide rating it has been given in recognition of its environmental friendliness.

This is leading Holden New Zealand to believe that despite the Volt's high price, it will sell at least 150 of the cars in its first 12 months on the Kiwi market.

"Volt is a premium vehicle with great driving dynamics and a first- class cabin on top of the driver comforts," said HNZ managing director Jeff Murray.

"This provides a compelling option for drivers who are keen to get behind the wheel of a new generation of electric vehicles."

In USA, the car has attracted new customers to the Chevrolet brand for the first time, with nearly seven in every 10 Volt buyers completely new to the brand, Murray added. He forecast the same will happen here.

Taranaki Daily News