The revolutionary Chevrolet Volt is a mainstream electric car that goes on sale in the US later this year and hits the UK in late 2011. Based on the Vauxhall Astra platform, the Volt is a four-seat hatch powered by lithium ion batteries that can be recharged by plugging into the mains, or on the go by a 1.4-litre petrol engine.
GM is confident the Volt will be capable of up to 64km range on a single charge, although accepts that heavy usage - such as climbing or high-speed running - will reduce the range further. Although unlike every other EV, fluctuations in range don’t really matter, because the Volt can fire up its petrol engine to ensure there’s always drive to the front-wheels.
The electric motor is rated at 110kW or 150bhp, and delivers a healthy 37.78kgm of max torque, about the same as a 2.0-litre diesel. The lithium ion battery pack is water-cooled and heated. Cooling is particularly important, because excess heat can kill lithium ion cells. GM is promising the battery pack will last the life of the Volt, which is interpreted as 2,41,401km.
Given the battery capacity and the Volt’s range, the engineering spec allows for 6000 full charge or discharge cycles, events that eventually will reduce the battery’s storage capacity to 70 to 80 per cent of what it was capable of when new.
The most significant point is that the Volt is just like a normal hatchback to drive, with the added significant benefit of being very quiet. We had a short drive on a simple, flat test circuit and found that the Volt steers, rides and handles in a very similar manner to the Chevy Cruze saloon.
Driving the Volt is very simple. With the ignition on, press a starter button and the dashboard lights up and bings into life, just like a PC. In the centre console there’s a PRND selector exactly where the gear-shifter is on a regular car, and in the footwell are two pedals: accelerator and brake.
Slot the shifter into D and the Volt glides away with no hint of engine or motor noise. Acceleration is similar to a 2.0-litre diesel-powered hatch, with the benefit of a linear power delivery, which builds speed very smoothly and is helped by the fact that there are no gear changes to interrupt progress.
To boost performance, there’s a sport button on the dash that increases the flow of electrons out of the battery by 20 per cent. And the effect is noticeable; if you could turn the turbo on a combustion engine on and off, it would be a bit like this.
As the speed rises, the main driver feedback comes from the tyres and suspension. With no engine noise in the background, tyre roar and bump thump from the suspension take over. Steering is linear and faithful and cornering is accompanied by body roll. The Volt is definitely focused on comfort, rather than sporty handling.
Less impressive is the cabin space. There is decent legroom both at the front and the rear, with the headroom being more like a coupe's than a saloon's. Compared with the nearest competitor, the Toyota Prius, the Volt sits a full class size below.
This largely comes from the attention GM has paid to minimising losses from aerodynamic drag. The Volt has a lower roofline and to accommodate the battery pack, the rear seats are slightly raised compared with the Cruze.
Together these force a more stretched-out seating position, which eat into legroom. And because the battery is packaged down the central tunnel, the Volt is only a two-seater in the back.
Fuel economy on our short test was a bit tricky to assess, although the dashboard told us the battery drained a little and recharged as we braked. And because the battery wasn’t close to being drained, the petrol engine didn’t cut in. In the context of the 22.73 litres of petrol, the dashboard trip meter reading of 409.41kpl was more than just a bit encouraging.
On this brief drive, the Volt appears to live up to the hype. It drives smoothly and needs no special driving techniques. Even the most novice driver will be able to jump in and drive off.
Given the growing interest in fuel economy, there’s so much technology in the Volt to keep an enthusiast fully engaged. Although the straightforward driving manners won’t engage drivers looking for the most exciting driving experience.
Test conducted by Autocar UK