Conventional wisdom has it that electric vehicles are impractical, their limited range precluding their use as a ‘proper’ family car. This is, it has to be said, an argument that is hard to refute. The Renault Fluence Z.E. that I drove recently is a terrific family car within its own (somewhat limited) environment – but you couldn’t take it on holiday with you.
Enter, stage left, the Chevrolet Volt, already named the 2012 Car of the Year in spite of the fact that is was only released in the UK this week. It takes an unusual approach to all-electric-motoring, being fitted with both an engine and an electric motor, but it isn’t, you understand, a hybrid. No, the nice folk at Chevrolet were very insistent on this, telling anyone who would listen that it is an all-electric car that has been fitted with a petrol engine as a range extender. Confused? Let me explain.
The Volt (and it’s Euro-cousin, the Vauxhall Ampera, which is built on the same American assembly line) has a range of around 40 miles using the on-board battery to power the electric motor. Driven like this it is silent, swift, and extraordinarily civilised; in a few years these characteristics will be commonplace but for the time being it is still a novelty to watch an electric car surge away in a blaze of, er, silence. It’s a novelty to drive too, having an instantaneous and completely linear torque delivery; think of a jet on take-off but without the noise.
After 40-or-so miles you’ll see the remaining range figure drop steadily until it runs out completely, at which point the engine cuts in. I say ‘cuts in’, but that implies noise and vibration, of which there is none. It simply fires up and idles away, generating enough electricity to drive the Volt’s electric motor. It feels exactly the same as it does when battery-powered, which is immensely reassuring and allows a relaxed approach to your journey that simply isn’t possible with any other all-electric car. No matter how many times we are told that the average journey is well within an EV’s range you can’t help but feel anxious when you drive one, keeping a constant watch as the range ticks down (often, it has to be said, in a very non-linear fashion) wondering whether you’ll make it home. The Volt comprehensively demolishes this problem.
Our overall fuel consumption for the test period was the equivalent of 76.3mpg as we used both battery and engine to provide the electricity needed. If you use the Volt for short journeys (and so only used the battery) this figure would, of course, be higher. Conversely if you are regularly travelling further than 38-40 miles then this will drop. Still unimpressed? Well, you shouldn’t be because to rely on fuel consumption figures alone is a folly.
The majority of power stations in the UK rely on fossil fuels so even if you never used the engine you are still pumping out carbon dioxide, albeit remotely. This is still a Good Thing because you are moving the pollution from the point of use to the point of production, which is generally preferable.
And for keen drivers the biggest benefit of using electricity to propel your car – regardless of how it is generated – isn’t your purse, or even your conscience, but the manner in which it does so. It’s a quiet, refined, urgent, and smooth way to move you from point A to point B; no internal combustion engine, no matter how many cylinders it has, feels so linear, so torquey, so immediate.
Is the Volt just a one-trick-pony though? After all, if it’s a lemon it doesn’t matter what powers it, does it? Well, potential customers can rest assured; the Volt is a very capable car in its own right. It drives beautifully with an honesty to its controls that is hugely refreshing. It is (and there is no escaping the fact that it is an EV, no matter how hard we try) the most civilised and refined hatchback on sale today, with an efficacy that allows you to surge and plunge through traffic with a care-free abandon. Mash the throttle and every last lb ft of torque (all 273 of ’em) is there for the asking. It also steers accurately, handles neatly, and brakes efficiently. It is, in short, a Good Car.
The interior is just as thoughtfully designed, making intelligent use of low-cost materials. The dashboard, console, and doors are trimmed with bright white plastic and the boot cover is suspended using bungees; both are beautifully done and prove that budget cars don’t have to feel cheap.
The rear seats are twin singles rather than a bench to provide space for the batteries; they recall the Reliant Scimitar of old and make the Volt feel more like a sporting coupe than a hatchback and are another example of necessity being the mother of a interesting engineering solution.
Should you buy one? Hell yes. If you are looking at EVs then you already know that they’re expensive, so your only possible objection can be the range and this simply isn’t an issue with the Volt. You get in and drive. If you run low on energy, then you pull into a petrol station and top up the tank; you’re on your way again in minutes.
I used to be an EV-sceptic, but time spent in a Renault Fluence Z.E., Nissan LEAF and now the Chevrolet Volt has converted me. Sure, I still like a V8 up front and a dab of opposite lock – but even I have to admit that whilst an electric car’s charms are more subtle, they can be just as compelling.
Price: from £34,995 OTR (minus £5,000 grant in the UK)
Maximum power: electric motor 149hp (equivalent)
Peak torque: 273lb ft
0-62mph: 9.0 seconds
Top speed: 99mph
Fuel consumption: official: hugely variable and will depend entirely on the sort of journeys you use it for
CO2 emissions: 27 g/km
Images: ©2012 Carlton Boyce
Article by Carlton Boyce