Volt charges in to the plug in future

PAUL OWEN
Last updated 13:51 07/01/2013

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My favourite brew, Sierra Nevada, is made with New Zealand-grown hops in Chico, California, in a huge facility covered entirely by electricity-generating solar panels.

Coupled with four huge fuel-cell generators, the expansive solar array gives the brewery enough juice to make America's finest beer by the Kenworth-load, with enough left over to power up 980 private residences surrounding it.

In the sales rep's carpark at Sierra Nevada you'll find a fleet of Chevrolet Volts, and brewery owner, Jim Grossman, recently told me that his reps haven't had to buy a single gallon of petrol ever since he invested in the plug-in hybrid Chevys more than a year ago.

Grossman's operation also has one of the lowest power bills in the entire US manufacturing sector (that is, zero dollars), despite his brewery being the fourth largest in the country.

He's perhaps the perfect customer for any electric vehicle, and he evaluated the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMiEV extensively before plonking his sack of brew-loot down on the desk of Chico's local Chevrolet dealer.

The Volt now wears the Holden badge in this market; however none of us are yet in a position to run it for nothing like my favourite brewer.

Taking advantage of night-time power rates to recharge the 200kg lithium-ion battery of the Holden will cost around $7, for which the vehicle will deliver around 90km of petrol-free travel in return.

So this compact four-door sedan would cost as much as a Vespa to run for most commuters, but the daily savings over conventional combustion-powered compacts have a long way to go before they'll overhaul the expense of the Volt's purchase price.

At $85,000, that's $10,000 more than Volts sold in Holden's home market, our Volts are the second-dearest in the world.

It's hard to consider the Volt a viable alternative to fossil fuel use when the car has virtually priced itself out of the market.

Something like the $59,990 price of the iMiEV, a not unreasonable figure when you consider that the Volt costs $31,645 greenbacks in the US, would have ensured that the much-heralded car of the future would actually have a future here.

This wouldn't be such a tragedy if the car was totally undeserving of better marketing, but the Volt is good, so good that I'd definitely buy one if I was able to pay the same cost for it here as Grossman paid for his in California.

As a plug- in hybrid, where a 1.4 litre internal combustion engine acts as an emergency generator when the battery charge is running low, driving the Volt is a lot less restricted and less anxious than when at the wheel of cars like the Leaf and iMiEV, which rely entirely on the residual energy stored in the batteries.

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The Holden also ranges a lot further and at greater speeds on electric power alone than conventional hybrids, and can therefore be used to entirely bypass petrol stations on urban roads.

It can be used as EV in the strictest sense on a trip from Auckland to Wellington all the way virtually to Huntly, where the petrol engine will suddenly cut in like a rowdy gatecrasher at a dinner party.

On a trip north from Newmarket to Russell, the Volt was able to remain a stealth car all the way to Kaiwaka, with just a barely audible hum to herald its progress up SH1.

When the little 63kW petrol four chimes in to recharge the Volt's batteries, all opportunity to beat the open-road fuel use of most compact turbodiesels is lost.

Open road-use travelling at the mean traffic speed of 100+kmh, and making the most of uphill passing lanes, will see the Volt return fuel use figures of around 5.5litres/ 100km, so I can't see it winning the Energywise Rally any time soon.

What it does do is bring a more attractive sense of style to the hybrid sector, along with the opportunity to run for longer on electric power alone.

Handling too, is a more rewarding experience than the hybrid norm, so much so I'd feel encouraged to swap the Bridgestone Ecopia tyres for sportier/safer shoes if I ever owned a Volt.

The latter scenario is unlikely to happen - not at this price anyway, and maybe not even at half the present ask.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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