Performance anxiety? Range anxiety? Relax. To borrow Mad magazine’s superb line, the Volt is number one in a field of one. It uses a battery and it uses an IC engine yet it’s not a hybrid. It is an electric car all right, but it’s a hybridised electric car – whatever that means. It is General Motors’ unique solution for the problems typically associated with electric vehicles (range, performance, price, yawn-inducing), conventional IC-engined cars (problems, what problems?) and the human race. No, not the last one.
Essentially, the heart of the Volt is... drum rolls... the Voltec Propulsion System. And this thingy is ‘the world’s first plug-in, electrically driven, extended range system in a production vehicle.’ What that means is that the Volt is almost as practical as your regular car, but vastly greener. It offers up to 80 km of only electric driving and an IC engine that extends it further to 550 km. Yes, that translates to a range of over 600 km. Hmm, you were saying...
Anyway. A T-shaped 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack is combined with a 111 kW (149 horses) electric drive unit. This electric drive, comprising two electric motors and a multi-mode continuously variable transaxle, powers the Volt’s wheels at all times. Of the two motors, one steps in only when required. When the battery is nearly down, power from an 84-bhp 1400cc four-cylinder engine is transferred to the electric drive. The IC engine’s sole purpose is to keep the battery pack charged and not for you to rev its, er, cojones away. This 16-valve engine has a lot of features to make it more efficient, but frankly, it’s no use telling you all that – a new range of GM engines is on its way and it will eventually be replaced.
As expected, there are three driving modes. The Normal mode, well, is the normal mode. The Sport mode improves pedal response by giving you torque quickly and then there is the Mountain mode that really sucks up all the Volt’s juices. This mode should be engaged only with a full charge or ahem, 10-15 minutes before it is actually required. How do you do that? Use your satnav or your ESP. Your inbuilt ESP, not StabiliTrak.
While you are driving, there is a green ball in the screen behind the steering wheel that bobs up (acceleration) and down (braking) – this indicates whether you are being a conscious citizen of the planet or driving like the editor of BSM. Given enough time with me, I am sure that ball would have jumped out of its intended path and rolled off the screen. Keep it in the centre and you get the Greenpeace Award. Anyway, both the displays have lots of stuff spewing out: and beyond a point it was too much analysis for me. Was I depleting the battery at an abnormal rate? Is the IC engine working overtime? What sort of range do I have left? Was it time for lunch already?
When you go all Ferrari on that pedal, GM claims the Volt can do the 0 to 96 kph time in less than 9 seconds and go on to a top speed of 160 kph. Which is not bad actually – GM says that’s about as good as what a 250 bhp V6 sedan can do. American sedan, I am sure. But it’s not all that bad to drive. Okay, it feels a bit eerie to drive something so quiet but if you have that Bose stereo blasting, it wouldn’t matter, right? And you wouldn’t notice the shift in power delivery from one source to another if you didn’t look at the screen. The steering response is sans feedback and tuned more towards comfort; you’d expect that in an American car. Motive performance from the eng... sorry, system is good enough most of the time. The thing with the Volt is that it is more of a commuter than an energetic continent-crosser. So low-speed driveability is pretty good and if you encounter traffic (which I didn’t, as I was driving it on a short route in GM’s proving grounds near Detroit), the Volt actually enjoys it thanks to regenerative braking. It is quick off the line and looks like it can keep up with most cars in the city.
The Volt’s kerb weight, at 1,715 kg, is high for a car of its size – I am sure that near-200 kg battery pack has to contribute to it to a large extent. And that also governs how the car has been packaged. The MacPherson strut front suspension is made of lightweight aluminium while at the rear it gets a semi-independent torsion beam set-up. Hydraulic bushings all-round give it a quiet ride. Since the route I drove on was smooth, there was no idea of how the Volt can handle bad patches. And on whatever curves I encountered, the wide track and low centre of gravity gave it a good level of stability while minimising body roll.
At the end of it, the Volt comes through as a well-engineered, well thought-out car. What goes against it is the cost. But with the Volt and the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera going on sale in many markets across the world, it may bring economic relief for GM and customers too. It is a clever, ingenious piece of kit, and is the way forward. Something ought to be done about the price anxiety though.