A few decades ago, when a hydrogen fuel-cell or the Porsche Cayenne were mere dreams in the mind of a madman, there was such a thing as a diesel-electric powertrain, pushing people and freight all over the country and no-one batted an eyelid. The diesel engine generated electricity that drove the wheels. Clever eh?
Fast forward to the 21st Century – you know, the new millennium when we’d all get to work in a flying car and eat food pills for breakfast – and General Motors has rediscovered this revolutionary powertrain. It works like this: A small engine burns petrol and, instead of driving the wheels, it generates electricity. This electricity, in turn, powers an electric motor that drives the wheels. It sounds more complicated but, weirdly, it’s more efficient (although GM has admitted that on very rare occasions – Christmas and the Queen’s birthday and so on – the petrol engine can drive the wheels directly, though this is akin to the USS Enterprise passing Warp 9.9).
But there’s more. Energy can be recovered while coasting or heading downhill, meaning you can generate more electricity from movement and gravity. More cleverness. If that doesn’t float your boat then you can plug it into the mains and charge it up at home, at work or at one of the (rather low) number of charging points around the country.
Chevrolet calls this technology Voltec – and it’s new in the automotive world. As we’ve seen, this technology has been around for a long, long time however – a sign of how slowly the car industry grasped the necessity for change that it’s only just become financially viable. Not that it is for GM, who are reckoned to lose money on every Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera sold, of course. Whether it’s cost-effective for private, business or fleet buyers is an intriguing question too. But more of that later – here are my thoughts on the Volt (and Ampera too – I’ve driven both and the differences are not meaningful).
I love it. I wholeheartedly love it. It delights me, it amuses me, it surprises me and it wows me. Years ago we might have called this the X-Factor. Let’s say it has a certain je ne sais quoi.
The Volt looks cool; it has a certain whiff of the muscular styling that left the country with Dodge and Cadillac a couple of years back. But while they looked rather clunky – the automotive equivalent of a 20-gallon hat and Smith and Wesson sticking out of a belt – the Volt looks imposing and rather different.
Step inside and this impression continues. It’s not uncommon to see car interiors compared to TARDISes – or smart LCD screens imagined as Starfleet technology. The Volt reminds me of Blake’s 7 starship The Liberator: bright, white, smart and clean – a vision of the future from a time when that didn’t mean the dirty industrial neo-noir of how we tend to envision things to come in these permanently-disappointed days. The Volt doesn’t talk to you in a haughty voice – I’d guess Justin Bieber if it did talk – but you wouldn’t be inordinately surprised if it started yakking at you about the weather.
Start up the car and there’s a bunch of noises more akin to a gaming console firing up. That sensation is compounded by the displays that spring into life when you press the start button, swimming into sight like the interface of the 360 or PS3. This is clearly not accidental; in fact it’s one of the first of a new paradigm in how we communicate with our cars. It’s not the first example of the way that our cars will dazzle us with information via a pretty screen, but it’s one of the more noticeable.
If you have any charge in your Volt’s batteries, you will pull away with the gentle, almost imperceptible, whoosh of an electric car. This is a genuine thrill that has yet to wear off for me and it’s a constant audible reminder that the car you’re driving is Other, something new.
It’s at this point that the Volt can go one of several ways. It is an electric car, with caveats. It is a parallel hybrid, if you drive it that way. It is a series hybrid, if you run out of electric charge. It’s a plug-in hybrid or a KERS-powered hybrid, or both. Or it is essentially a petrol car with some brake energy regeneration. It depends entirely on how you drive it and how you treat it. And that determines entirely how much it costs to run.
Drive it as a pure EV – this is possible if you follow a logic diagram and can tick yes all the way down – and your bank manager will kiss you. Drive it as a pure petrol car – this is possible if you take every path of least resistance – and your bank manager will tut and shake his head. Children will cry when they see you and you will feel all hollow inside. The difference, over 10,000 miles a year, could amount to thousands of pounds.
Still, either way, Boris will ensure that you don’t pay the Congestion Charge in London; the Treasury won’t be chasing you for any road tax and neither insurers nor your local repair man will be your friend as you’re unlikely to be putting as much business their way. If you ran the Volt purely on electricity it could cost you as little as £5,000 to cover 10,000 miles in a year by my reckoning (I have a C in GCSE maths so make of that what you will) – perhaps less than half of a similar petrol car.
That means the quoted fuel economy and CO2 figures are quite, quite meaningless. That’s not Chevy’s fault, but these European homologation numbers seems to get more absurd with every new car. You might as well ascribe a mile-per-gallon rating of 270mpg to your house, cat or Yorkshire Pudding as the Volt. The answer, in my view, lies somewhere between 40mpg, 80mpg and N/Ampg. Where 270mpg comes from is a genuine mystery to me. So too the 27g/km for CO2. Eh?
The Volt is, then, a tool and it’s up to you to use it in the way for which it was designed. You wouldn’t buy a hammer to fix your broken china pot nor a bicycle to cover your daily 100-mile commute. The Volt can be used incorrectly in much the same way, though the worst that can happen is that you blow a lot of money on a cool car – you wouldn’t exactly be the first to make that mistake. Use the Volt well – remember how we’re taught that electricity can be our friend if used properly? – and I think it could the start of a beautiful friendship.
If this were a Top Gear review then, at this point, I’d do a massive switcheroo and suggest you shouldn’t buy one. So should you buy one?
No. And, yet, yes.
Car-buying is about to become a heck of a lot more complicated. Oh, sure, these days you have to factor in running costs to special offers, divide by cashback, multiply the finance and reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. But that’s child’s play to what’s coming. It is phenomenally hard to work out whether a car such as the Volt will save you money.
To do so you need to know your annual mileage, your electricity tariff, your most likely commutes, the proximity of various charging points and your projected savings on the likes of road tax, insurance and maintenance over, say, seven years. Got that? OK, here’s your next task.
What are the Volt’s likely resale values? How long will the battery last? Should you buy a wallbox for faster, more efficient charging? Will a new generation of superconductors make electricity much cheaper? Will petrol prices rise exponentially in the next decade? You might even have to bear in mind the prevailing temperature in your part of the world, how hilly your commute is, how busy it’s likely to be at certain times of the day, whether you mainly drive in urban or motorway environs…
Only you can answer any of these questions. In the same way that fleet managers spend time poring over spreadsheets, gnawing on a pencil and frowning before handing you a piece of paper on which they’ve written VAUXHALL ASTRA and HYUNDAI i30, you will have to calculate up to a dozen factors – some of which will be hedged bets and best guesses – before deciding whether the Volt will save you money.
My own experiences with this car, in this area, have left me nonplussed. On the launch I was mightily impressed by the figures achieved and potential savings. On a more recent encounter, when I racked up around 600 miles in the car, I was less impressed. Whether because of my style of driving (fairly conservative, believe it or not), weather or other conditions, I got barely 20 miles from charging the car up – a long way shy of the potential 50 miles the Volt is capable of.
For those 20 miles I had the car plugged in to the mains at 120V for around 12 hours; by my reckoning at a cost of about two quid. Now, how far would a new diesel engine at 50mpg combined cost to cover the same distance? I suspect the difference is down to a few pence. I’m well aware of the other financial savings on road tax, maintenance and the like, but the Volt has an asking price of around £30,000 (£35,000 without the government incentive for which it currently qualifies), perhaps double the price of cars that offer comparable size, performance and economy. There are numerous cars that go for £30K but I find the most instructive example to be the Jaguar XF. A Jaguar XF!
I could say more – in fact I once delivered a piece to camera, in one take, on the mathematics of electric cars that lasted well over a minute and has driven all who’ve seen it to horrible tears – but I think the point is made. You will spend a lot of time figuring out whether an EREV makes sense for you – and when you have it you will need to have your wits about you like never before.
Because while you can drive the Volt as if it’s a pure ICE car it would be utterly pointless to do so. It would be like insulating your loft and then leaving all the windows open in Winter. It would be like buying a Toyota Prius and driving it down the motorway at 90mph. It would be like pateintly collecting and sorting all your recycling every week before throwing it in the bin. As a pure petrol car the Volt is a little short of poke and returns about 40mpg. Further, like the Prius example, there is no point in buying one if you have a heavy right foot – you’re simply chucking money down the drain.
30 years ago you had a simple choice. Small family car; big family car. Little car; big car. Slow car; fast car. Cheap car; expensive car. 4-star petrol, manual, two seatbelts and a choke. Not any more. Rather like the way that privatisation has made choosing an energy provider a baffling and distressing paper-chase of incomprehensible tariffs, car-buying is becoming similarly discombobulating. Whether this concerns you or not depends entirely on your approach to buying and owning cars.
If you’re a worrier, a pen-chewer, a bean counter then the coming age of EVs, EREVs, hybrids, turbo petrols and ultra-efficient diesels are going to make your life a living hell. If, on the other hand, you simply buy cars because you like them – and to Hell with the cost – you might revel in the dazzling range of choices.
And I think the Volt (and its Ampera sibling) might just delight the discerning car-buyer. It’s new, quite different, vaguely futuristic and exciting in the way that few new cars are. It’s a technological marvel, it has style and it’s a car that certainly says something about you. I’m not entirely sure what it will say, but I perceive a much bolder, more offbeat, pretentious-in-a-good-way vibe to the Volt. That name, that powertrain, the gaming-like interface and the fairly radical centre stack. It screams that it is different to the rest of the car parc; a commitment to awkwardness; a statement of uniqueness.
The Volt is, in essence, the new Saab. I can imagine architects driving this car. Doctors, dentists, history teachers. People who own a coffee table book of Klimts, the DVD of that Scorsese film on Bob Dylan and a black rollneck sweater. Glib? Yes, I don’t care – you can read the What Car? review if you want luggage space or ISOFIX information. The Volt is the new Saab, you read it here first.
That means the Volt is my car of 2012, not because of its economic or ecological credentials, not for its rather ordinary driving manners or somewhat awkward use of interior space. But because of what it is not. It is not like most other cars; it is not like any other cars. It makes driving feel like a new experience again – new skills to learn, new sensations to come to terms with – a car that feels like a kick up the arse in its use of computer trickery to communicate and cajole.
It’s the way that GM has not made a hair shirt of this car; rather something bold, futuristic and exciting. Instead the differences are made a virtue; accentuated and pushed to the fore – an ECU that has more information than you can comprehend, showing you what your car is doing in real-time and making it a defining factor of what this car is all about.
How many decades have passed since the first diesel-electric trams and trains? 50 years later EREVs and plug-in hybrids will be the norm soon – the opportunity to offload responsibility for power generation onto national grids will be too good for car manufacturers to resist. It’s ironic that this very old concept has been reanimated as a car of the future, but that’s what it is. And guess what, we can expect to see petrol-electric trains using this form of powertrain again in years to come. Good ideas never die – they just go out of fashion, but then they come back. The Volt is the new Black.