Almost a year out from sale, Holden gave CNET Australia a chance to drive the new Volt electric car with an on-board range-extending petrol engine.
Despite its "launch", the Holden-branded Volt won't go on sale until late 2012. Although it's badged as a Holden in Australia and New Zealand, the Volt is built in Hamtramck, outside Detroit.
Unfortunately, the Volts currently in Australia are left-hand drive engineering-evaluation vehicles. So, unless you're one of the chosen few, they can't be driven out on the open road.
Instead, we were limited to a few quick laps around a squeaky concrete course at the Australian Technology Park, located at what used to be the Eveleigh rail yards in Sydney.
Under the hood, you'll find a 1.4-litre petrol engine and two electric motors. So, it's a Prius-like hybrid car, right?
Well, no. In the Prius, both the electric and petrol motors are hooked up directly to the driven wheels. In the Volt only, the electric motors reconnected to the wheels.
The T-shaped Lithium-ion battery pack is good for between 60km and 80km of pure electric driving. Once the battery begins running low, the petrol engine kicks in to start recharging the batteries. With a full battery and a tank of fuel, the Volt has a range of around 500km.
If, like talk-show host Jay Leno, you end up driving the Volt solely within its electric-only range, the petrol engine will automatically run itself every 42 days for around 10 minutes to ensure that its oil and other components don't seize up from inactivity.
The system will also ensure that the fuel in the car's tank is used up before it expires. Holden will recommend that Australian Volt owners fill up with non-ethanol-based premium unleaded fuel, as it has a longer shelf life.
Via the standard 10A 240V charging kit, the Volt takes six hours to complete a full recharge. This can be cut to four hours via a 15A charging unit that in the USA costs around US$500, excluding installation costs.
The T-shaped Lithium-ion battery pack runs down the centre of the car and behind the rear seats, helping, it's claimed, to keep the car's centre of gravity low. Unfortunately, it also limits seating to four people.
As the electric engine runs almost silently, when you press the start button, the Volt plays a bunch of electronic whooshing sounds to indicate that it's ready to go.
As mentioned previously, there are two electric motors. Below 80km/h, the 111kW/370Nm traction motor does all the work driving the wheels. Above 80 clicks, the secondary 55kW motor kicks in, switching between its usual role as a generator, and helping to drive the front wheels.
Unlike a petrol or diesel engine, an electric motor can provide maximum torque from zero revs. This means that the Volt has a surprisingly large amount of urge, with absolutely no noise; apart, of course, from the tyres on the test track's squeaky concrete flooring.
There aren't any numbered gears to choose between; just park, reverse, neutral, drive and low range, which ups the level of engine braking and regenerative braking.
Like other electric cars, and hybrids, too, the Volt features regenerative braking that recaptures some of the energy given off during deceleration, and funnels it back into the battery pack. Some systems that we've tried are set up too aggressively, with minute force on the brake pedal yielding Earth-stopping braking. Thankfully, in our brief drive, the Volt's brakes seemed almost normal.
There are two 7-inch high-resolution displays in the Volt's cabin. This one in front of the driver replaces the usual set of analog gauges. Unfortunately, its layout of icons and info seems a little too haphazardly laid out. According to Holden engineers, future iterations of the Volt interface will allow drivers a great deal of customisation, including, hopefully, the ability to eliminate clutter.
The climate control, entertainment and nav systems are operated by capacitive buttons on the centre console. They sound fantastic in theory, but given how important we find the sense of touch in operating car functions whilst driving, we'll reserve judgment until we spend some serious time with the Volt.
This flexible rubber strip is said to aid aerodynamic efficiency.
There's quite a bit of stuff hiding underneath the boot floor. Firstly, there's the standard charger that works just fine with a household electrical socket.
Beside that is a re-inflation kit. In the case of a flat tyre, fill that tyre with the supplied can of sealant, re-inflate it and then drive off to the nearest tyre store.
Beneath the plastic shroud is a standard 12V car battery, which powers the car's on-board accessories, such as the entertainment and navigation system.
Like the Prius and the Insight, the Volt's rear windscreen is split into two portions.
According to Holden, recharging the Volt should only cost AU$2.50. You can, however, cut this down further by choosing to charge the car during off-peak times, and/or based on when you regularly head off from home.
The other benefit of charging while off peak is that it reduces the strain on the electricity grid. A large quantity of electric cars attempting to charge during peak periods could, potentially, stretch our electricity infrastructure to breaking point.
A green light on the dash indicates that the Volt is plugged in and charging.
An amber light informs you that the Volt is plugged in, but that it's waiting for a better time to draw from the grid.