The zero-emission vehicle market is about to get a big new player, as Holden readies to launch General Motors' highly successful Volt in New Zealand towards the end of the year.
It's a whole different prospect to what's currently on the market, combining petrol engines and electric motors in a way that doesn't sacrifice range and still manages to run on almost nothing.
It appeared on American and European roads to great fanfare last year wearing Chevrolet Volt and Opel/Vauxhall Ampera badging respectively and has proven a huge success, garnering more than a few shiny accolades for the corporate trophy cabinet and selling in good numbers.
This adulation was a far cry from the brutal skewering that its electric reputation got following Chris Payne's documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? The film details how GM systematically destroyed its lease fleet of EV1 electric cars after removing them from owners. So the company needed to get its next foray into the future right first time.
It has certainly done that - mainly because the Volt is something a bit different - it's not a hybrid, which still needs filling up, albeit not that often; and it's not a traditional electric car either, with their generally terrible range.
The Volt has both an electric motor and a petrol engine, like a hybrid, but unlike one it uses the 1.4l to charge the battery. It can be charged at home through an ordinary 10amp powerpoint in five to six hours or fast with an optional heavy duty charger.
Petrol is essentially only used to feed the back up generator, so theoretically with low mileage and the benefit of a regenerative braking system also topping up the 200kg battery, you could go without fossil fuel for quite some time. Even if you never engage the range extender at all the car will still use fuel, as it starts its own engine every 42 days for self-maintenance, getting up to normal running temperature and staying there for ten minutes before switching off again.
Jay Leno reported last November that the Volt he drives around Los Angeles is still on the original tank of gas, and had so far done 11,000 miles on the 36L tank. Leno might be an extreme case, but the EU puts its combined consumption at an impressive 1.2L/100km. What that means in real world terms, on New Zealand roads, will be revealed when it's officially launches here.
Holden's engineers are putting a couple of Volts through their paces around New Zealand, doing final evaluations, set-ups and electrical testing before its release.
This is a reasonably complicated car underneath it all, with several different operation modes, as well as a rarely engaged "last resort" mode that allows the engine to drive the wheels. GM initially denied the Volt was even capable of this while it battled to have the car recognised as electric, rather than hybrid as it was classified by default be cause of the petrol engine.
After all, it was taking on two different markets, the Prius and Lexus hybrids from Toyota, and full-electrics like the Tesla roadster and Nissan Leaf.
One of Holden's big sell is that there's no range anxiety - it uses less fuel than a hybrid and has a massive 600km range using a whole tank of fuel smaller than in most passenger cars.
Driven had the chance to sample a left-hand, ever-so-slightly preproduction Volt recently at Lang Lang, Holden's vehicle proving ground in Victoria. The R&D facility is massive, and features every type of surface that you could reasonably expect a vehicle to encounter, including a banked oval around the whole thing that must have seen some absolutely lunatic speeds over the years, but wasn't expected to the day we were there.
Security is tight there with clipboard-toting guards quick to tape over mobile phone cameras, take note of other camera equipment and then do a quick search of the car. Needless to say, efforts to smuggle out any GM skunkworks goodies that happened to be left were abandoned. Getting through the gates at Lang Lang is still a far less harrowing experience than air travel - but a very small price to pay to get an early chance to drive America's answer to Japan's future fuel offerings on a variety of roads.
Navigating through the proving grounds' labyrinth of roads after a briefing on the car and its variety of drive combinations and modes by ex-Aussie army infantryman Dion Schulz, Volt quickly exceed expectations.
Its secret lies in the fact it's actually pretty cool, is fun at the wheel and doesn't take itself all too seriously - you monitor how economically you're driving with a bouncing green ball on one of the two dash displays.
Obviously trying hard to be different, the design both outside and in feel like it's aiming at early adopter who are on a pretty good wicket and either want to show a bit of love for the planet, or consider it like any other must-have gadget, but quite an expensive one.
The Volt bridges a gap between hybrid and EV, and does it cleverly. We don't travel particularly far anyway, really - Kiwi drivers average only 27.7km each day - and its electric-only range will cover between 60 and 80km. This means that rather than using both electric and petrol power, it will run battery-only and still cover the needs of most city dwellers. Those generally nervy about cellphone batteries and fuel gauge accuracy are likely to get home most days.
Sharing the Cruze platform, the Volt uses a normally aspirated version of its 1400cc engine. But with a big 16kWh, 288 prismatic cell, lithium ion battery on board it weighs in at 1696kg, nearly 250kg more than the Cruise SRiV although the battery's position along the car's spine, with the centre of gravity 30mm lower than the Cruze, makes it feels more planted in corners.
The petrol engine puts out a meagre 63kW at its 4800 redline, but as it's only pumping power to the battery in order to keep the charge in its optimal "standard operating range", its output is largely irrelevant. The 111kW electric traction motor and the 55kW assisting generator is where the real action is - making it capable of accelerating to the 160km/h governed top speed without touching the reserves, and will hit the legal limit in a respectable 9.2 seconds. With 320Nm of torque delivered from a standstill, it feels rapid off the line, especially with the barely audible gentle whine that replaces engine noise.
The design is unique, with a polarising interior that makes heavy use of shiny white plastics with glowing lights and serves up endless pages of highly informative graphics in bold green and blue. It feels geeky and hip at the same time, and is built to be a usable spectacle. The two front displays dominate the all-digital dash, feeding a continuous fanfare of customisable graphic readouts of everything from audio and climate functions to detailed analysis of driving economy and the car's power reserves.
Seats are black faux leather, but don't feel tacky and provide reasonable support for a capable hatchback. It's a well laid out cabin that proved quite capable of hauling four adults with very little compromise to the rear seat passengers' seating positions. There's an impressive list of safety features, with eight airbags, forward collision alert, lane departure warning, stability control, brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.
It feels very solid and stable on the road, with extremely accurate steering and good balance, helped by that big heavy battery. The main stage for the short test at Lang Lang was a long winding loop that featured almost every surface and road hazard that you could expect to find. From smooth seal to coarse heavy chip, railway lines crossing the road on a diagonal, bizarre camber on the odd corner and even potholes. Everything was absorbed with a minimum of fuss, apart with only one hole giving a sickening smack as the car hit.
Could the frugal whisper of the Volt be the option that zero emission car buyers needed in New Zealand. This type of technology is only just starting its development cycle, but the Volt is still an excellent package with a very high specification and feature list that - depending on the price - will certainly take the fight to Holden's competitors.
Pricing is the next big question - a guesstimate based on some overseas pricing would be in the region of $85,000 - a big jump from a Prius and nearly $20,000 more than the Leaf.
However you define a hybrid, one thing is certain - petrol power, whether it's driving wheels or a generator is not going to satisfy its core market for much longer.
The Volt is on the cutting edge - but promising new materials like the nanotech graphene may unlock the secret to a far more acceptable battery versus distance equation than under 100kms, and GM says its modular Voltec powertrain could be easily re-jigged to keep pace with the always rapidly-changing technology. More details on the release of Volt in New Zealand will be available in the coming weeks, but as it stands, the car will be on sale by the beginning of December at three Holden dealers.
Inside the volt
Electric: The 111kW drive unit powers the front wheels full-time. It uses two electric motors and a continuously variable multi-mode transaxle, but has no step gears or linkage through the drive unit to the front wheels. Through the unit, one or both motors drives to optimize efficiency unless set otherwise by the driver.
One motor either assist in driving the wheels or pushes power to the battery to keep it within its pre-set capacities. In more demanding situations, the Voltec system optimizer calculates efficiency hundreds of times each minute, and switches between one and two -motor operation to suit. The switching is absolutely undetectable, although when the range extending petrol engine kicks in, it is noticeable, but not overly invasive.
Petrol: The 63kW 1.4 litre four-cylinder engine is used purely to top up charge on the car's lithium-ion battery pack when it becomes too low. It is possible, although unlikely, that a car can run for months without using a drop of the premium petrol it requires.
Volt's Drive Mode button on the centre console radically change how the LREV (long range electric vehicle) behaves, from how heavily you need to push the brake pedal to engage regenerative braking to how responsive the accelerator is and, of course, how economical it is.
Normal: The default mode and the most efficient, this engages extended range and automatically uses the petrol engine to repower the battery.
Sport: Quicker accelerator response and matching torque delivery for more spirited driving, this will drain the battery more quickly than other modes.
Mountain: Suited for environments with lots of elevation changes this tops up the battery to allow full capability and then limits electric range to ensure maximum output power.