Volt reinforces view that cars are not bound for extinction

By David Thomson on Sat, 1 Dec 2012

As test drives go it was an awfully brief affair: 10 minutes tootling around the streets of South Dunedin, during which Drivesouth added less than five kilometres to the more than 3000 the new Holden Volt has covered in a widely publicised trip from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

Aptly named "Charge Around the Country", in recognition of the Volt's status as a plug-in electric-petrol car, the 10-day trip was completed late last week.

Although Holden doesn't especially like using the term, the new Volt is actually a plug-in hybrid; along with the 111kW electric motor, it is fitted with a small 55kW petrol engine.

Unlike a "conventional" hybrid, such as the Prius, it is first and foremost an electric car, with a useful range on battery power alone of around 80km. This, along with its ability to recharge from a regular power point, means that a Volt used for short hops (as, say, a commuter car) could spend days on end consuming absolutely no petrol.

While alternative-energy purists may sniff at the inclusion of the supplementary petrol engine, it's this feature that allows the Volt to overcome the biggest weakness of all-electric cars; this being the fear of potential owners that some day, sometime, their car will run out of power, and leave them stranded for (typically) the several hours it takes to complete a battery recharge.

Instead, with the Volt, when battery power gets low (or when the driver chooses), the petrol engine kicks in to drive the electric generator; range is extended to over 600km (more than double that of the best pure electrics), and when the need arises one can simply refuel in the conventional and quick way, rather than take a lengthy forced pause for recharging.

Over the course of its road trip, the Volt covered 3313km, comprising 906km running purely on electric power, and 2407km during which the car's small petrol generator assisted the electrics in propelling the car. Fuel consumption averaged 4.3 litres per 100km, with some legs of the trip completed at averages as low as 3.2l/100km.

To be fair, 4.3 litres per 100km is similar to the return I would expect of a sensibly driven conventional hybrid or modern diesel car of similar size over a trip like this; what neither of those vehicles can manage, though, is the ability to combine this level of long-trip economy with the ability to operate as a zero-emissions, zero-petrol user during the daily urban commute.

With just a few minutes to enjoy my Volt experience, I focused on driving in the full electric mode that one would for everyday urban driving. In this mode, the Volt proved disconcertingly silent as well as surprisingly responsive to the accelerator. Mind you, with peak torque (something around 300Nm) available instantly, the Volt should be a decent performer off the mark.

Despite a futuristic, technology-laden interior to match its advanced propulsion system, the other key point about the Volt is that it is essentially the same to drive as any modern small to medium-sized car. That was probably what intrigued me most about the Volt, and reinforced my view that cars are not - as some would have it - bound for extinction as a primary means of transport in the near future.

Changing tack rather, Sam Stevens' piece below provides a timely reminder that high-adrenalin action is coming to Dunedin in the new year in the form of Nitro Circus. I went on a father-and-son trip to the Nitro extravaganza last time it was here, and we had a ball.

It seems to me that if you are after a Christmas gift that would go down well with a fan or two of motoring related thrills and spills, some tickets to the Nitro Circus should hit the spot.

David Thomson