Driven: Chevrolet Volt
High efficiency and low CO2 emissions reported for this and the Ampera only give half a picture, so the only way to really understand the strengths and weaknesses of a range-extended electric vehicle is to live with it. The real surprise is, they’re entirely achievable for a lot of drivers.
Volt differs from most hybrids because its petrol engine provides little direct power to the wheels, instead driving a generator to top up the car’s battery once it drops below a third charge. From a full charge, which takes about eight hours from a standard plug socket, it’ll cover up to 50 miles without using a drop of fuel and the range doesn’t drop steeply on the motorway as it does in some electric cars.
Once this is depleted, it generates its own electricity using power from the petrol engine, allowing it to carry on driving for as long as there are fuel stations en route.
Aside from the silence, the Volt doesn’t feel like a stereotypical green car. Throttle responses are accompanied by silent surges of forward motion at almost any speed, the low-mounted battery offers excellent high-speed stability and its aerodynamic body has the presence of a five-door coupe rather than a futuristic bubble car. This rides and performs like a the best of compact executive class, with only weight-induced tyre squeal dampening the driving experience.
But its biggest benefits are for those with commutes within its electric range. With the petrol engine running it’ll average around 45mpg on the motorway and 50mpg in town, helped by an ability to switch in and out of electric mode depending on battery charge. It’s a great motorway cruiser when it needs to be, but this isn’t the most efficient use of its drivetrain even with the added electric range it can find at low loads.
Choosing between the Volt and Ampera comes down to personal taste. Ampera’s aggressive styling draws more attention, but the Volt’s subtlety may age better. It’s also cheaper than the Vauxhall, sold in a single, highly equipped trim level which includes pretty much everything buyers of a £30,000 car would want.
The difficulty it has to overcome is the counter-argument of instead buying an efficient diesel. But, equip a five-door Astra with the closest equivalent diesel engine, an automatic gearbox and the Volt’s plethora of standard equipment and it’ll set you back just under £27,000. It also lacks the character of the Volt, and is unlikely to match the 76.9mpg average economy achieved during a 500-mile week, which included several trips well outside its electric range.
Frustrations are few. The Volt has a low ride height to reduce drag, but this also causes the front spoiler to catch on speed bumps and heavily cambered driveways. There’s no middle seat due to the battery, and the gap in the rear bench means passers-by can look into the boot, not helped by the cheap tightly-woven elasticated net used as a load cover.
But the interior is otherwise made from an excellent selection of high quality materials, and only the gloss white centre console and front door cards as a controversial point.
This isn’t technology which will suit everyone, and drivers spending every day on the motorway will struggle to see the benefits of the Volt’s drivetrain. But it offers an clever solution for the problems of electric motoring, of range and the lack of supporting infrastructure, and packages high technology in a good looking, well-appointed and luxurious coupe body which most would be proud to have on their driveway.
It’s a risk for Chevrolet to launch a mainstream-branded product at a price point which pitches it against the premium brands, but the Volt feels every bit as special as an equivalent-priced compact executive car. Real-world benefits depend entirely on usage, though, and it’s drivers spending most of their time in electric mode who will reap the biggest rewards.
Sector: Lower Medium
Type: Range-extended electric vehicle
Price: £29,995 (after £5,000 grant)
Electric range: 50 miles
CO2 emissions (tailpipe): 29g/km