Published on Sunday 20 April 2014 16:51
Ten Second Review
With a 1.4-litre 'range extender' petrol engine to call upon as backup for when the batteries 50-odd mile range is depleted, the Chevrolet Volt gives you the zero emission ability of a pure electric vehicle with the peace of mind of a normal car. It is a quite amazing piece of technology.
Much as vested interests will attempt to convince you that pure electric vehicles (EVs) are the way forward, right now they're not a viable solution for the majority of the population. Yes, many of us could probably get away with a car with a 100 mile range between plug-ins during the week, but what of the weekend or the family holiday? You'd need another car, which rather undermines the green credo, not to mention the inconvenience.
Chevrolet believes you can have your cake and eat it in the form of its futuristic-looking Volt. Having driven it, I'm minded to agree. Via some quite brain-bakingly clever technology, the Volt will run on a battery pack that can be recharged through a mains socket. When that battery runs out, a 1.4-litre petrol engine kicks in. If you thought that was the sum of the Volt's party tricks, however, you're very much mistaken.
Were the Chevrolet to be an electric car until the batteries run out, at which point it became a conventional petrol-powered vehicle, that would be pretty smart. Where the genius lies is that only under extreme demand, such as when accelerating at very high speed up a steep incline, does the petrol engine have anything to do with driving the wheels. The rest of the time, it's either dormant or driving an electric motor. Therefore, when the Volt 'runs out' of battery, it still drives like an electric car with that trademark surge of torque.
With all of the weight packed low in the car, the Volt handles reasonably crisply, although you'll need to watch the tarmac-skimming front end over speed humps. Performance is very crisp, with 60mph arriving in 8.5 seconds, and refinement is predictably excellent in EV mode, with just some wind rustle around the A-pillars and door mirrors. Because the engine doesn't drive the wheels, the revs don't rise and fall with your throttle application, the engine's software keeping it at one of three preset outputs to drive the larger of the two electric motors. The brakes take a bit of getting used to as well. Light applications of the brake pedal don't actually bring the pads in contact with the disc, instead merely upping the amount of regenerative force running back to the battery pack. Only when you really tread on the pedal do the brake calipers spring into life.
Design and Build
As you might well appreciate, a Bugatti Veyron and a Fiat Panda are conceptually more alike than the Volt and a normal hybrid or pure electric car. While it's incredibly easy to operate, it's not an easy car to fully understand. The styling is busy with many design influences going on at once, but the overall effect works and works well. Why should the Volt look like any other car (sister vehicle Vauxhall Ampera excepted) when it isn't like any other car? The coupe-like styling disguises the fact that you get four doors and a big boot. Because of the T-shaped arrangement of the battery pack, which runs down the centre of the passenger compartment and then behind the rear seats, there isn't space in the middle for a fifth berth.
The fascia features two seven-inch screens, the one in the centre console offering touch-screen control and beneath that display is a myriad of 'buttons' that are touch sensitive zones on the glossy centre stack. All manner of screens will display how economically you are driving and it's even possible to get tips on improving your eco driving style. Build quality is on a par with other upper-level General Motors products which means it's very solidly put together.
Market and Model
For a vehicle that, when all the technological conjuring tricks are set aside, is no more practical than a Vauxhall Astra, Chevrolet will charge you £28,545 after you've taken advantage of the government's plug in car grant. That is not an inconsequential sum of money, with a BMW 520d costing only slightly more. That will be enough to scrub the Volt from the wish lists of some buyers but there will be those for whom the Volt keeps paying back.
The ideal Volt customer has a garage in which they can charge the car securely at home and then has a commuting round trip of not more than 45 miles, some of it in the urban environment. If this sounds like you, the Volt could make a lot of sense.
Cost of Ownership
You'll pay around £1 to charge it up, so the £90 fill in a diesel car that'll take you 900 miles would cost £20 in electricity bills in the Volt. This would mean savings of around £100 per month in fuel bills alone. Think what it'll do to your waistline if you remove the temptation to pick up a Mars bar every time you'd normally fill up too. When the internal combustion engine is running, the Volt returns a combined fuel figure approaching 40mpg.
Part of Chevrolet's difficulty is communicating to buyers quite what the Volt is. It's not a hybrid per se, nor is it a pure EV. General Motors holds a number of patents on the technology underlying this vehicle, so it's unlikely we'll see copycat cars appearing soon either, which might help to cement the concept in the public consciousness. Even as it stands, there will always be those who want something as smart as the Chevrolet and residual figures should hold up very well. Green legislation is only going in one direction and that's to the advantage of the Volt. At present you pay no vehicle excise duty, have 100 per cent exemption from the London congestion charge and can park for free in certain metropolitan areas.
Motoring journalists are guiltier than most of bandying terms like 'game changer' but the Chevrolet Volt is exactly that. While manufacturers of pure electric vehicles may bleat that if you use the Volt as intended, you're hauling around the unnecessary ballast of an internal combustion engine, most of us will be prepared to do that for the sheer convenience it offers the rest of the time. Green motoring needs to be about mobility rather than restriction and the Volt is a pragmatic solution that leaves many rivals looking decidedly underwhelming.
With the Volt you won't have to drive with one panicked eye on the battery level, wondering when you're going to be left stranded. With a bit of juice in the petrol tank you've always got that get out of jail free card. This unlikely vehicle has changed the complexion of green motoring.