EFTM Review: Holden Volt Hybrid Electric Car

Sitting in the Holden Volt for the first time automatically makes you feel like you’ve stepped into the future. The interior design is unique, while the combination of two...
Holden Volt - Launching this year - No Digital Radio, Nor signs of one in any other Holden

Holden Volt – Launching this year – No Digital Radio, Nor signs of one in any other Holden

Sitting in the Holden Volt for the first time automatically makes you feel like you’ve stepped into the future. The interior design is unique, while the combination of two large colour displays is straight from science fiction. But the true value of the Volt is its electric power.

At $60,000, this is more than just a motoring decision, this is a lifestyle decision. You’re paying to make a statement about the future of motoring, and also to potentially dramatically reduce your regular “fuel” bills.

 

The Interior

Leather seats make it a comfortable ride, and with just four seats in this medium sized hatchback there is a plenty of comfort in the back with bucket seats and a centre arm rest with cup holders instead of the traditional rear bench.

The front dash design includes a future-looking pearl plastic trim from the centre console right around the dash to the doors. It’s a look the designers have pulled off quite well, but only time will tell how that trim will age.

For $60,000 though, I’d expect all the bells and whistles. Despite all the high-end electronic controls in the dash, you’ll be surprised to learn that there is not a single electronic adjustment for seating available. Old-fashioned levers and dials do the job instead, which seems like a missed opportunity or cost saving to me.

 

The Tech

Keyless entry means your key can stay in your pocket or your bag. All you need to do is put your foot on the brake and press the big blue “on” button on the centre console to fire up the Volt. As with many Hybrid cars that feeling of having a running car is lost with no sound at all from the car. Even when you pull the gear lever into Drive or Reverse, the only way you know the car is on is that the car is moving. More on that soon.

The centre console touch screen is bright and colourful in all the “Drive” modes, showing you power usage, efficiency and charging options.

It also doubles and triples as the control surface for the stereo, satellite navigation and climate control. The on screen controls are mostly user-friendly, but for such a complex car you will find yourself pulling out your hair trying to delve deep into the options.

An almost unlimited number of six station preset pages are available for the stereo, storing both AM and FM stations on common pages, with a default two pages of favourites, customisable in the options menu. Sadly, there’s no digital radio on board.

An on-board hard drive allows you to rip and store your favourite CDs into the car, a system similar to the Holden IQ system in the recent generation of Holden Commodores.

All that is fancy and not too hard to come to grips with after a few days.

The driving control screen can confuse you with ease though. Designers seem to have tried to put some information in every spare pixel. You’ve got battery level, fuel level, total km range, driving efficiency, speed, seatbelt indicators and a configurable space to show different things like navigation, trip meters, energy flow and much more. It’s a very complex screen!

There is one very clear technology missing from this car. While bluetooth phone connectivity works well with excellent audio quality, there is no Bluetooth audio streaming. Wireless audio streaming is the simplest method of streaming music from a phone, especially when it can be any phone on the market, not just one manufacturer (as is the case with “iPod Connectivity”).

It’s Quiet

You tend to forget you are driving an almost silent car. Fortunately for those around you a small button on the end of the indicator stalk sounds a pedestrian alert – which is essentially a few tiny bursts of the horn – to get round the problem of no-one hearing you coming in the car park. On the roads you don’t seem to notice the difference except for the fact that noise from the tyres on the road is a more obvious sound that you may actually not be used to.

That said, the interior sound is low, keeping the outside to the outside when you are at speed or running through traffic.

Electricity Baby!

So with the basic car review stuff out of the way, how on earth does this car actually work? What makes it a Hybrid?

The Volt has a huge T-Shaped battery running over the back wheels and down the centre of the car. This battery holds enough power to keep the basic functions of the car alive, and most importantly drive the electic motor which in turn drives the wheels.

Fully charged, the Volt will tell you it has a battery powered range of around 70km. That’s enough for many people to get to and from work on the daily commute. However, with a four hour (or more) charge time, it’s not like you want to sit around at a service station charging should you encounter a delay or detour.

That’s where the fuel system comes in. Fill it with a tank of petrol and you’ll add an extra few hundred kilometeres to your range, getting 500+ kilometeres with the petrol and battery power combined.

The petrol engine does not drive the car. Instead, it acts as a generator and kicks in when your supply of driving juice is depleted (the battery is not run flat, it has a large percentage reserved for all the basic functions of the car).

When it does kick in, you dont really know it. The car drives the same, and that humming sound is still the sound of acceleration. In fact the petrol engine can be off-putting. You might hear it fire up a bit to add extra juice to the battery, while other times when you are pushing full acceleration it may not be as obvious.

It’s hard to come to terms with initially, but after a week or so it would become second nature.

Add a few errands to your trip and that battery is gone in no time. My concern for potential owners is laziness. If you forget to plug it in a few nights a week you’ll end up just filling up at the petrol station and defaulting to ‘power generation mode’ with the petrol engine running.

But, if you are vigilant and get the Volt plugged in each night you could save big bucks.

I’m not going to attempt a large range of calculations for you here and now. What I did do was some basic calculations based on peak electricity costs, and if you charge this thing during the day on peak rates you’re not going to save a huge amount of money. At 47c or so electricity can be expensive (per kW hour).  

However, if you have a Smart Meter at home which actually charges you on time of day – this is a winner. You might find rates like 19c and that could save $5,000 or more per year if you are doing a basic commute every day with the odd extra weekend trip.

The charge functions are confusing and not all that user friendly in the menus. Setting your peak and off-peak times is not the simplest thing, so a bit of time is required to really get the car setup. The centre console screen showing power use, charging options and energy use is a great gimmick but after time I think the radio or map would become the default for most owners.

One thing to note with electric cars like this, or any car which tries to recover the energy from braking, you do get an interesting braking performance and feel.

In the Volt the regenerative power works by recovering that potentially wasted energy of braking and pushing it back into the battery. That could be when you are cruising down a hill without accelerating or more obviously when you jump on the brakes.

The braking performance is most notable in the car park. You know when you are trying to park up close to a wall and you just let the power of the engine push the car while gently riding the brakes back to the wall?  With the Volt, the brake isn’t as gentle so you will need to adjust to that feeling. Fortunately reversing into spaces and up to walls is simplified with the reversing camera.

Verdict

Overall, there is no doubt this is a great car to drive, and an amazing piece of automotive technology. Personally, I can see myself driving an electric car. I’m happy to plug it in when required, but I would certainly need the peace of mind that the petrol backup power delivers.

At $60,000 you’ll struggle to find a review suggesting it’s great value. I suspect though that’s not what’s behind this for Holden.

If I had a lazy $60k lying around, I’d jump at this. If I was comparing cars looking at what to buy it’s unlikely this would figure high on the list unless you are a raving greeny looking to do your bit for the environment.

However if you’re a lover of automotive technology and enjoy a smooth ride which packs a punch off the line despite its weight, the Volt is well worth a drive, and would be a unique car to own if you have the money and like to turn heads.

Web: Holden Volt

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Motoring

Trev produces two of the most popular technology podcasts in Australia, Your Tech Life and Two Blokes Talking Tech. He hosts a nightly radio show on Talking Lifestyle, 8pm Monday to Friday in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, appears on over 50 radio stations across Australia weekly, and is the Tech Expert on Channel 9’s Today Show and A Current Affair. Father of three, he is often found down in his Man Cave. Like this post? Buy Trev a drink!
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