Holden VoltGM losing $49,000 on every Volt
It’s 5.30 on a Sunday morning in the laid-back mining town of Broken Hill. I’m trying to sneak the world’s first plug-in hybrid car out of the driveway of our quaint cottage so I can take advantage of the soft morning light for photography. I’m expecting the task to be made considerably easier because the Holden Volt can drive for up to a claimed 87 kilometres on electricity alone. No noisy engines or clunky starter motors. Just a hushed electric whir as I quietly sneak down the street.
At least that was the theory. Unplugging the charging cord was the last piece of my early morning puzzle – and the thing that undid all my vigilant tippy-toeing to ensure my newborn kept sleeping.
Within seconds there was an alarm I swear my cat would have heard from 1000 kilometres away. Horns and sirens bleated with ambulance-like intensity as the Volt’s programmable ”charging-cord theft alert” – designed to stop passers-by pinching the industrial-strength customised extension plug – kicked in.
Ahh, the wonders of silent electric motoring …
Rewind two days and our journey began in Sydney, where the Volt’s 111kW electric motor and 288 lithium-ion cells can have you zipping around town on increasingly expensive (but still cheaper than petrol) electricity.
Holden labels the Volt a long-range electric car, refusing to call it a hybrid, a term Toyota unofficially owns. But the addition of a petrol engine that acts as a generator for the batteries cements its inclusion in the ”H” team.
Unlike the petrol-fuelled Prius, though, the Volt can be recharged from a household power point, allowing that claimed EV range before the engine comes into play.
The idea is to create a best-of-both-worlds car. EV around town but long-distance tourer if you want to get out of town.
So we decided to get out of town. There aren’t many places further out of town than the Australian outback. Throw in one family, a pram, travel cot, snacks for all shapes and sizes and gear to last five days and we were off. The ultimate Aussie road trip in a car with a power cord.
It seemed simple enough. Point the Volt west and head for the outback. But even reaching the start line revealed the first challenge with electric cars. Our just-landed-in-Australia Holden Volt had come straight from the media launch where it had been driving all day, so was already relying on petrol rather than electricity.
But hey, I was at least able to drive, something that can’t be said for pure electric cars. The 32.5-litre fuel tank is claimed to extend the overall driving range to about 600 kilometres, although it quickly became clear at freeway speeds the Volt doesn’t benefit as much from its regenerative braking, which transforms braking energy into electricity by turning the motor into a generator when the car is slowing.
A petrol range of between 450 kilometres and 500 kilometres seemed more likely.
Our first overnight stop gave me the chance to recharge. The Volt is claimed to be as simple to charge as a mobile phone. It’s not.
The cable is thick and cumbersome and carefully tucked under the boot floor in a package that makes packing a two-man tent into a fist-sized ball feel like a snip. It has to be unravelled and (hopefully) reach to the nearest power point. Extension cords are not recommended, which is limiting because not many hotel rooms are within five metres of the front left fender, where the charging plug goes.
An extension cord was my only option, so I weaved the bright orange and yellow cord through the carpark of the motel into my room. Holden says the Volt costs about $2.50 to charge, and a deal it’s done with infrastructure company Better Place allows the exclusive use of green electricity. But I’m going out on a limb and guessing that the $90-a-night motel I stayed in hadn’t ticked the box for renewable energy.
The next morning we were off under pure (not so green) electric power. But not before an electric-only lap of Mount Panorama – OK, so my lap took about three times longer than the sub-two-minute, 10-second times the V8 Supercars will be doing in a few weeks at the Bathurst 1000, but I also used not a drop of fuel. V8s slurp 60L/100km
After an overnight charge the colour digital instrument read-out suggested the electric-only range would be 64 kilometres, but that quickly plummeted up the steep mountain climb. After only a few kays it dropped to 39 kilometres in the crisp, three-degree air.
By the time I reached the bottom, though, the range had climbed to 44 kilometres, reinforcing the advantages of regenerative braking.
The Bathurst track revealed another niggle, though. Cruising through Forrest’s Elbow on to the straight and the front spoiler scraped the smooth bitumen. No surprises, then, that the steep dips and gutters had it scraping in country towns, as did the washouts and undulations of outback roads.
Fortunately the black plastic is flexible and designed for the odd encounter with bitumen.
After our next overnight charge the Volt suggested we’d get 66 kilometres from electricity. But on these 110km/h roads and loaded with the family and luggage (with the porky 1715-kilogram car and all the gear, we were tipping the scales at more than two tonnes) the range fizzled to about 40 kilometres.
Heading into the edge of the outback, the Volt attracted plenty of attention.
It may be new but it’s well known. An amazing cross-section of the country community is aware of the Volt and its significance as a potential game-changer.
”You won’t find any charging stations around here, mate, you’ll have to fill it up with petrol,” quipped one onlooker in a servo.
Hardened country folk I’d guessed would be more interested in the price of copper or when the local bakery opened than some newfangled vehicle were keen to chat about the technology of the car they’d read about. One almost swallowed his tongue when I casually mentioned it cost $60,000, about $20,000 more than similarly equipped mid-size cars and about $40,000 dearer than the Cruze on which it is based.
At the end of the day, that’s something that will ensure the Volt remains a niche car, albeit one with the sort of technology that could eventually go mainstream.
Even truckies hauling oversize loads across the Barrier Highway managed time to joke about super-long extension cords.
While the Volt shares its underpinnings and some components (the steering wheel the most obvious to the driver) with the Cruze small car, its futuristic styling clearly distinguishes it. Inside, too, there’s some Buck Rogers to the layout, which is dominated by an Apple-inspired white fascia with touch pads in lieu of buttons. They work well enough, although, as I learned over 2700 kilometres, it’s easy to graze one of the pads and activate something such as the satnav.
Less of an issue is the performance. The 111kW/370Nm electric motor provided decent shove from a standstill and held its speed impressively on the long stretches. Overtaking was also a snip; when flooring the throttle there’s the occasional hesitation (similar to an auto transmission before downshifting) then it picks up speed strongly, easily ambling past road trains.
It’s not perfect, though. Across the challenging Blue Mountains the batteries depleted so much that the petrol engine couldn’t charge them fast enough. The car solved the problem by reducing power to the wheels – ”propulsion power is reduced” was the warning – but it lowered performance noticeably. Steeper hills had it struggling to maintain 100km/h, and overtaking was temporarily not an option.
It wasn’t the last time I’d see that warning, although it was rare and occurred only in hilly terrain at higher speeds.
Overall, though, the Volt drove just like a regular car and made light work of the vast distance between Sydney and Broken Hill.
Which brings me back to my ill-fated, alarming (sorry …) early morning photo shoot. Heading north-west towards the semi-ghost town of Silverton and the vastness of the Mundi Mundi plains (where Mad Max 2 was filmed) I’m confident the 60-kilometre round trip will be done purely on electricity. At slower speeds (there’s a 90km/h limit here) the electric power lasts noticeably longer.
Then my all-electric mission is foiled. As the cool morning temperature drops to two degrees I hear the muted rumble of the engine fire into action as I’m greeted by a warning ”engine running due to temperature”. It’s a reminder that although the Volt can be an electric car for most of its life, it also still needs petrol sometimes.
Still, it’s an impressive feat for a car that will likely spend most of its time dealing with city traffic before being recharged overnight for another round the next day.
Not that country roads are its forte. Larger bumps can have it bucking as the suspension compresses towards its limit. Cornering ability is thoroughly respectable, though, and only when pushed does the Volt begin to lose some composure.
But this trip is only halfway over. The return journey gives me time to ponder the Volt and its place in the motoring world. Yes, it’s too expensive, but the concept is brilliant and brings genuine appeal to electric motoring.
Having the ability to travel further occasionally is a win and removes one of the major drawbacks of rechargeable cars.
Albeit with some compromises. Fuel use when the engine is running, for example, is no better than a diesel-powered car or a regular hybrid. With the big load on board, higher speeds and some challenging hills, we averaged 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres over 2700 kilometres, with about 250 of them under pure electricity.
Still, it’s goal achieved for the partially electric big Australian road trip.Logbook
Total kilometres: 2702km
Electric kilometres: 250km (approximately)
Total fuel used: 188 litres
Fuel use on test: 6.9L/100km
Price: $59,990, plus costs
Electric motor: 111kW/370Nm
Battery system: 288 cells weighing 198 kilograms
Petrol engine: (used only to recharge the batteries) 63kW 1.4-litre 4-cyl
Claimed fuel use: 1.2L/100km
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