Holden Volt 2012 Review

Holden Volt 2012 Review

Here is the bridge to the full EV (electric vehicle). It’s a sensible option that gives you up to 80km of highway cruising using fully electric motoring, but with a petrol engine that will back you up another 450-500km if you need the extended range.

200kg of batteries provides the motive urge: 114kW comes from two electric motors, one of which charges the batteries when you’re decelerating.

At the best part of 1800kg I expected the Volt to handle

like a drunk giraffe, but I was wrong. It’s far more engaging than a Prius, and with the instant acceleration it feels faster than the 9-second 0-100kph dash would suggest. The acceleration off the line is, at first, surprising because it comes with almost no noise. Cruising is the same where you’ll just experience a little road noise and a small amount of wind noise.

You can feel the weight when you try to change direction, but on my usual urban test track that includes a lot of those ‘traffic calming measures’ I managed to maintain a good speed through the chicanes.

Braking feels very different to a non-hybrid or non-EV because of the energy capture from braking. The pedal feels slightly springy and took some time to get used to feathering it just as you roll to a stop. The braking system is electronic so you don’t get the same kind of feedback that you get in a standard hydraulic system.

Before taking your first drive in the Volt it is an excellent idea to figure out the interface because it’s like learning a whole new operating system. On my first journey I gave up trying to set the air conditioning and opened the window. There are no buttons or dials as such. The dashboard is white and you push it where the text is. This usually initiates a change on the large touchscreen and you can fine tune your settings from there. This process seemed to be inordinately more difficult (and dangerous) than buttons because you actually have to take your eyes off the road to adjust anything.

Holden has gone to town with the interior spec, using glossy iPod-style white plastic with touch buttons and contrasting this with black leather seats with white inserts. On a superficial level this looks bling. It’s only when you take a closer look that you see some more standard Holden parts bin items and a couple of elements that don’t work. For example, in the rear seats there is a binnacle which I investigated (of course), and the whole thing came out in my hand. I’m not sure if this was a feature or a bug.

The binnacle in question sits between the two rear seats. It’s not a 5-seater because the batteries form a T shape and help keep the centre of gravity in a fairly sweet spot to help with the handling.

The boot is not that big and it’s missing a cargo blind. Under the boot floor is the battery charging cable. At 6m long you’ll reach anywhere in your garage. You will need a garage to charge the Volt because it’s an overnight process, taking up to 10 hours from empty. The charging lead itself isn’t particularly convenient to roll up and stow. If I owned a Volt I would not bother storing the charging lead in the car – just leave it in the garage and rely on the petrol motor if you happen to go somewhere overnight or on a longer journey. This then frees up a small hidden compartment under the boot floor which you could put valuables in, but it’s not huge – just big enough for a handbag or small laptop.

The Volt is an early adopter’s paradise. If you paid twenty grand or more for a plasma TV or queued for the first iPhone when they came out so that you could have the advantage early (and brag to your friends), then the Volt will give you that same satisfaction. The Volt, or its successors, should eventually ‘cross the chasm’ (according to Geoffrey Moore), but it will need to come down in price to appeal to a mass market; perhaps the second iteration which is not due for a couple of years.

The problem for General Motors is that they are selling the Volt at a loss in every territory. Global sales need to ramp up for the fixed costs (such as development) to be amortised quicker, but GM has had to stop production because it’s not selling well enough in the US. That leaves the Volt, at $85,000, competing with some premium diesel offerings that are also frugal and packed with similar electronics such as lane departure warning and forward collision monitoring. Also the price in New Zealand seems steep because you can pick a Volt up in the States for US$31000 due to the US government’s rebates on electric vehicles.

What could you have instead of a Volt? You could have Nissan’s Leaf, but it’s ugly, whereas the Volt looks cool. You could have Mitsubishi’s i-Miev, but you don’t want it because it’s based on the i-Car which is not very nice to start with, let alone encumbering it with batteries. You could buy one of those flash new electric bikes, but you can’t carry passengers. Or you could give up the dream of a full EV and have the benchmark in hybrids which is the Toyota Prius, but they’re not exclusive, the Prius is dull to drive and it’s not an electric vehicle unless you’re driving at jogging pace.

Much of New Zealand’s electricity is generated and delivered in a fairly environmentally friendly manner – hydro-electric, geothermal, wind, etc. Some areas will have coal-fired power plants and that’s not a particularly efficient way of generating power. The potential issue for the future is that if there are tens of thousands of electric vehicles our power grid may start to creak and groan and the savings you will gain by charging your car rather than filling it with petrol might be eroded as power companies bump up the price to pay for improved infrastructure. That’s a way off in the future, though.

Even if we take the 1.4-litre petrol engine on its own merits, the Volt is quite frugal and with sensible driving you’ll get overall fuel consumption figures in the low to mid 5l/100km range.

As with most modern cars, it has all the necessary electronics to stop you skidding, sliding or otherwise leaving the road. There’s sat nav, a reversing camera, lane departure warning system, cruise control, Bluetooth phone integration (but not Bluetooth audio streaming, as far as I could tell), plenty of air bags and keyless entry/start.

Let’s try to sum up the Volt in a balanced paragraph to give you a sense of whether you should try one. Assuming money isn’t an object for you, if 95% of your daily travel is less than 80km, you have friends that will appreciate your environmental leanings, you have a garage and you want something that is smooth, quiet, feature-packed and comes with the kind of exclusivity that makes you the centre of attention at dinner parties, try the Volt.

I personally immensely enjoyed the electric driving experience – instant acceleration with virtually no noise – but I didn’t enjoy trying to get to grips with the buttonless dashboard and the touch screen interface. Just like sequencing the genome (which used to cost $100,000,000 but now just a few thousand), the price of EVs will decrease. We just don’t know when. In the meantime, the Volt is (with the exception, perhaps of the Tesla Roadster, of which there is one in New Zealand), the most exciting general purpose electric vehicle currently available.

Price: $85,000

Pros

  • Excellent performance
  • Cheap to run
  • Interesting interior
  • A lot of spec

Cons

  • Too expensive
  • Complicated interface makes some basic operations (e.g. air conditioning) more difficult than necessary
  • Charging time is quite long (up to 10 hours), and you need a garage
  • No cargo blind
  • Boot is small


Words and photos: Darren Cottingham

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