Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to the beginning of the end of gas-electric hybrid passenger vehicles as we know them.
Traditional hybrids, like the archetypal Toyota Prius, use a gasoline engine as the main source of power, while a battery pack and electric motor(s) provide extra juice when needed, and can drive the car alone under ideal conditions. But the 2012 model year has seen a couple of key developments in the move toward the full electrification of the automobile. Nissan made the biggest advance with its all-electric Leaf, but in Chevrolet’s Volt, which its maker calls an electric car with “extended range,” we see an evolution of the hybrid concept.
Like a hybrid, the Volt’s drivetrain comprises an electric motor, a massive battery pack and a gasoline engine. Differences include the fact that, like the Leaf, the Volt can be plugged in to charge the battery for anywhere between 40 and 80 kilometres of electric-only range. (The reality of that is different, but more on that later.)
I have heard the Nissan Leaf described as the best new vehicle your money can buy, period. The journalist who expressed that opinion is right, in the sense that it breaks ground and sets the market up for more electric vehicle (EV) competition. That, in turn, will lead to improvements in the technology, bring prices down, and make EVs more accessible to all (again, more on that later).
But in terms of current-day personal transportation, the Leaf’s only flaw is its 160-kilometre range, which limits it to city driving. That’s not a bad thing, but a driver who needs a vehicle for highway trips will need to either own a second car (which many families do) or rent one as needs dictate. The Volt’s advantage is that its gas engine allows the car to be operated outside of the typical EV envelope. Battery runs out, gas engine starts, car keeps going until it’s time to fill the tank. That makes it feasible for single-vehicle households who want a car suitable for all situations, not just the commute to work or trips to the mall. What the Volt does is admit the shortcomings of current electric vehicle technology and public charging infrastructure while allowing early adopters the chance to get into an EV that works around those limitations. Call the Leaf a “pure” electric vehicle, while the Volt simply incorporates EV technology.
The Volt, a compact car based on the Cruze, is no bargain, starting at $41,545. Add the $6,000 worth of options in our test car, including navigation, premium stereo, 17-inch wheels and upgraded paint ($1,135!), and you boost the price to $48,150. The all-electric Nissan Leaf costs $38,995 and includes navigation; the package that adds that option to the Volt costs $2,300 on its own. Comparing base prices, you’re paying about $2,500 for the Volt’s “range-extending” drivetrain but that cost is probably higher once you start factoring in what convenience items are standard in each car.
Consider, too, that for buyers fixated on value for the dollar, there’s a veritable fleet of small cars that cost less than half what the Volt does, come with nearly as much kit and whose real-world, highway fuel consumption figures rival those of the Volt once you’ve gone beyond where its battery can take you. For a certain buyer, the Volt, with all of its avant-garde technology, is worth whatever Chevrolet wants to charge for it. In absolute terms, though, it’s a terrible financial proposition, unless you do most of your driving in the city and rarely light up the gas engine. At that point, though, a bicycle for the summertime and a transit pass for the winter is a smarter financial proposition.
If the Volt is expensive for its size, it at least drives like it’s worth the money. The ride is plush and quiet, and though it’s not sporty, it handles competently, thanks to the weight of the batteries under the floor, which lower the car’s centre of gravity.
Speed is not the order of the day either. The Volt is about as quick in a straight line as a typical subcompact car; 149 horsepower (from the electric motor) and a curb weight of more than 1,700 kg (3,781 lbs) will do that. What makes it feel quicker than it is, at least at first, is lack of noise. When running on electricity, hard acceleration from a stop generates some quiet whirring and whining noises; the only familiar sound is the tire noise that ramps up as the car gains speed. One thing that takes getting used to, and that I hadn’t expected, is the lack of a racing engine note to indicate that the front wheels are spinning in slippery conditions.
After the battery runs down and the gas engine lights up (which happens so seamlessly you may not notice), the soundtrack becomes somewhat more familiar, but only to a point. Now, the engine is running, but its operation isn’t linear like it is in a conventional car, where the engine note rises and falls in time with the car’s speed. In the Volt, the engine spends the majority of its time running a generator that sends power to the electric motors, which do the work of moving the car. Therefore, the gas powerplant might “idle” high when the car is stopped, and then purr along nearly imperceptibly when the car is at speed.
In my driving, all done in the city, I ran the battery down on two occasions; both times, I travelled a little more than 40 kilometres before it went flat and the engine had to start. Even with the engine as a backup, driving this car makes you acutely aware of how far you travel; it becomes a bit of a game to see how much distance you can cover on a full charge. According to the Volt’s trip computer, I burned a total of 0.6 litres of gasoline, for a fuel consumption average of 0.32 L/100 km. My actual energy consumption rate was higher than that, of course, but I figure my four days of driving cost me about $5 in gasoline and electricity costs.
Getting a full charge into an exhausted battery took eight to 10 hours using the 120-volt charging unit supplied with the car; a 220-volt charging dock installed at your home will shorten that time to about four hours for a completely dead battery.
The Volt’s interior looks completely alien the first time you get in, but there’s little here that you can’t get in other cars. The main differences are in the instrument panel and the screen in the centre stack, both of which set aside lots of space for telling you what’s happening under the hood. Most hybrids have the same thing, but not to this extent.
The touch-sensitive centre controls on the centre stack work better than those in Ford’s Touch setup, but there’s the same lack of texture that makes it hard to hit the button you want without looking away from the road.
The seats are comfortable, and space is pretty good, but better up front than in the rear, where the tapered roof cuts into headroom, and legroom is at a premium. The Volt is strictly a four-seater, thanks to the battery, which cuts up the middle of the car under that high console. The Leaf, by contrast, is a proper five-seater.
I’m a car guy, but these days, I’m more impressed by envelope-pushing cars like the Volt than I am by big horsepower and sticky handling. That’s stuff’s fun, but it’s been done to death. Hybrids, too, have reached a plateau of sorts, save for coming versions of those cars with plug-in charging ability, but Chevrolet has beaten that bunch to the punch. It’s time for something new, and the electric car, pure or not, is that something.
This review was originally published at Autos.ca.