Confession time: I have never been the biggest fan of Holden, Ford or any other car that competes in a V8 supercar race. That sort of thing is all just a bit brash for my tastes. It may also surprise you to learn that I am no big fan of traditional electric cars, either. Spending $50,000 on a battery-powered hatchback with a range of 60km never sounded like much of a deal to me. Over the last week, however, I have had my mind well and truly changed, both about Holdens and about electric cars too for that matter. Turns out, you can buy an electric car in Australia that is both fun to drive, energy efficient and stylish as hell. Meet the 2012 Holden Volt.
What Is It?
The 2012 Long-Range Holden Volt -- to use its full name -- is a luxury electric-powered sedan that represents something pretty special in motoring.
It has a full electric drivetrain like a normal all-electric car would, but under the hood is a small motor which kicks in whenever the battery needs charge. As a result, it never powers the wheels, only the battery, meaning that the Volt is capable of range never before seen in an electric car.
The Holden Volt is one of the most technologically fascinating cars I have ever laid eyes on.
It is powered by a 370V (45Ah) battery, and a 1.4L direct overhead injection engine when required. The battery gives you a range of approximately 80km from a full charge -- which takes about six to nine hours, and the fuel tank adds about 515km onto that. All up, we were able to squeeze about 610km out of our Volt before needing to throw it at a petrol station/power point. To put that into perspective, that's almost the distance between Sydney and Melbourne on one tank/charge.
Not quite as efficient as a diesel hatchback, for example, but not entirely terrible when you think that this thing runs on batteries and carts its own almost two-tonne (1715kg, 200kg more than a VZ Commodore) weight around with it.
The Volt also takes you everywhere you need to go in supreme luxury. Heated leather seats encase your bottom in an incredibly luxurious fashion, an in-dash satellite navigation system tells you where you need to be, and the touchscreen infotainment system -- which supports CD/DVD/USB/HDD/AUX and Bluetooth integration -- is incredibly functional. The only issue with the system is that the keyboard shuns a QWERTY layout for an alphabetised one, making input confusing at times.
The pearlescent white centre instrument panel is bathed in a soft blue hue when the Sun goes down, and haptic-less command keys flood the array. It almost looks like a giant iPod.
The brake is also incredibly nifty. Because it doesn't stop itself like a traditional car, the brake pedal goes all the way to the floor and provides feedback to give you the impression of braking. Also, the ratchet for the handbrake has been replaced with an elegant little flip switch.
Best of all? The engine doesn't make a sound. The only sound it makes when you fly off the line at the lights is a little electronic whirring that makes you feel like you're flying a stealth drone.
Holden knows that the Volt is incredibly quiet, perhaps to the danger of pedestrians who have been taught to look and listen before crossing the road. For the safety of the pedestrians you might creep up on and flatten, Holden installed a little button on the end of the indicator stalk called a Pedestrian Awareness Alarm. Basically it fires the horn quickly to let someone know you're moments from impact. That is how quiet this thing is.
The ride is incredibly smooth -- possibly the smoothest I have ever had in a sedan -- and because there's no engine noise to contend with and the tyres are actually sensible -- not low-profile nonsense -- it's actually very quiet. We measured the cabin noise at 71dB while we travelled at 115km/h with pouring rain hitting the windscreen.
There are four driving modes in the Volt: Normal (for battery-powered driving), Sport (for harder suspension, faster off-the-line performance, battery-powered driving) Mountain (for downhill runs) and Hold (designed to hold the battery at its current level of charge with the aid of the motor), so you'll always have a mode to match the conditions.
Combined with the gearbox's L-Mode, the Volt is able to regenerate power used from braking and put it back into the battery, saving time and energy on your next charge cycle.
No matter what mode you're in, however, the excellent thing about the Volt is what it teaches you when you drive it. A 7-inch LCD panel occupies the space where you'd expect your speedometer to be in a normal car, and that panel that gives you readouts normally reserved for Mr Hikaru Sulu on the USS Enterprise.
The driver information panel lets you see the science that goes into making an electric car like the Volt run rather than just trusting that there's something technical going on when you put your foot down.
You find out how much energy you're expending from the battery, how much the motor puts back into the battery (when it's activated in Hold or L-Mode) and a little green ball which tells you just how efficiently you're using the power available to you.
That ball is perhaps the most important thing on the Volt. Accelerate too heavily and the ball jumps up into the top of your meter and turns an angry yellow colour. Brake and it puts energy back into the engine and stays green. What you want to do is find a driving style that allows you to keep the ball in the middle of the meter to indicate maximum efficiency.
It takes a little while to pick up, but getting to maximum efficiency has the side-effect of making you a politer driver. You don't race between the lights, you don't give your car the boot when a light turns orange, you don't hoon around, and you're generally polite to other motorists and your fellow passengers. I'd go as far as saying that 90 per cent of the arses on Australia's roads could do with a week in a Holden Volt so that they can get an accidental lesson in manners.
Don't be too fooled by the eco-friendly, planet-conscious stuff though. Underneath all that clever technology and polite driver training, however, lies a car that can take you from point A to point B very quickly.
Never let it be said again that electric cars can't be fun. That particular world-view has been influenced by dissatisfied owners of the pious Prius from Toyota and the lazy Leaf from Nissan. Instant torque offered by the Volt's full-electric drivetrain means it's insanely fast off the line. Because the engine doesn't have to wind up, you get maximum torque from the Volt at just 25kph. It's easy to forget the speed limit in the Volt, and coming out of a sharp bend with a smile on your speed-demon face is child's play.
This is the awkward part, and I won't sugar coat it: the Volt costs $60,000.
The price makes a great deal of sense when you put your foot down and see the amazing things Holden has done to make ecodriving fun for a change, but it's still a tough sell when you see it on paper. Especially when you consider you can spend your $60,000 on something infinitely more European like a BMW X1, Mercedes Benz C200 or Audi A4 2.0 TFSI quattro. You really need to drive the Volt to understand why it's a more sensible purchase than its European alternatives.
For $60,000, the Volt is incredibly well-featured. The only two omissions I noticed were no rain-sensing windscreen wipers, no auto-brake feature to go along with the Collision Detection System and no automatic park system like you'd find on something like the 2012 Ford Focus.
It's also worth noting that the Volt probably isn't the car you want to use in a bank heist. There are a few more things to do in it to get it off the line than a normal sedan, and because they're all in different places to everything you have driven before, it's going to take some time to get used to the start-up procedure. After a few goes, though, it's child's play.
This Is Weird…
You get a whole lot of car for $60,000. Holden tries to keep it simple and low cost by only offering one spec of the Volt in Australia: the one with all the bells and whistles -- like in-dash satnav, parking sensors, reversing camera, remote locking/start, CD/DVD/USB/HDD/iPod infotainment system, heated seats, luxury leather pack and more -- on it as standard.
At $60,000, the Volt is one of the most expensive electric cars on sale in the country right now -- bar perhaps Tesla's offerings. The Toyota Prius will set you back just under $25,000 these days and something like the Nissan Leaf will set you back $52,000.
Despite the high price tag, however, Holden still loses money hand over fist selling the Volt. Sources inside Holden have often been reported as saying that the company doesn't even want to sell them because of the loss it's making. The reason it continues to offer the long-range electric model is because it's the right thing to do, and I rather like that.
Should You Buy It?
I'm handing back the keys today, and despite the fact that this car is worth about as much as I make in a year, I'm still thinking that it'd be a great purchase.
It makes saving the environment fun: something Toyota has been lacking in it's eco-friendly Prius ever since its inception.
The next time you go to replace your sedan and want something upmarket, responsible, good-looking, well-featured, tech-laden and a bloody lot of fun to drive, get into a Holden showroom and give the Volt a go. It won't disappoint.