Tuesday 19 October 2010. The Green Piece Column.
It’s finally here! After three years of anticipation, the Chevrolet Volt (known in Europe as the Vauxhall/Opel Ampera) has finally made its debut in the US ahead of launching in dealerships next month (see article). So as the Press finally get their hands on the vehicle, is it living up to the hype?
What’s all the fuss about?
The Chevrolet Volt first appeared at the North American International Motor Show in 2007 when it instantly caught the eye for its unconventional approach to motoring.
The idea is that it can run for around 41miles purely on electricity taking its power from lithium-ion batteries meaning there are no exhaust emissions. However, whereas other electric cars are restricted in range, the Chevrolet Volt also includes a small battery engine that springs into life when the electricity runs down and powers an onboard generator to keep the car running. This meant that General Motors was tackling, head on, the idea that electric cars are impractical due to their modest range. With a full battery charge and a full tank of petrol, the Chevrolet Volt can travel for 350miles meaning it can be a family’s primary car rather than just a runabout.
With GM reeling from the effects of the global recession and briefly entering bankruptcy, the Chevrolet Volt took on added importance and seemingly became the company’s beacon of hope.
Why has the Chevrolet Volt caused controversy?
The primary focus for debate about the Chevrolet Volt is how it should be classified, with GM consistently referring to it as an electric car.
Its classification makes sense in that there is electricity driving the front wheels whenever it is moving, meaning GM can insist it is not a hybrid. GM also argues that the presence of a petrol engine should not change its classification because the engine is only used to turn a generator and the Volt will not drive without electricity to its motor.
The issue has caused controversy with some reviews suggesting the petrol engine does provide some assistance to the drive wheels, similar to a parallel hybrid like the Toyota Prius. However, GM has hit back at what it describes as “inaccurate media reports” by firmly stating that there is no direct mechanical connection between the 1.4litre engine and the drive wheels and that in extended range driving the engine’s power is fed through the drive motor and balanced by the generator and traction motor helping to boost fuel economy.
So is the Chevrolet Volt truly different from a hybrid car?
Certainly there are some substantial differences between the Chevrolet Volt and, for example, the Toyota Prius. The Prius features a much smaller battery and takes the bulk of its power from its petrol engine with the electric motor assisting the vehicle at lower speeds. By contrast, the Chevrolet Volt is driven primarily on the power from its battery.
However, there are also substantial differences when compared to a regular battery electric car such as the Nissan LEAF. The LEAF runs only on the energy stored in its battery and is capable of a range of 100miles, after which it will rely on an electric charge of around eight hours to power the battery to full capacity again.
Clearly the Volt has been designed to offer the best of both worlds. When driven on a typical commute it can run with zero emissions and drivers can benefit from cheap refuelling at home. However, it also eliminates concerns about being stranded with a depleted battery thanks to the presence of a petrol engine – albeit this is reflected in the price and weight of the vehicle.
So what has the reaction been to the Chevrolet Volt?
So far the Volt has been well-received by journalists with praise for how well the electric and petrol drive systems are integrated.
However, there has been criticism of GM’s claims that the vehicle can achieve an effective 230mpg. What’s known is that the vehicle can travel for around 40miles (possibly more) on an electric charge only for around $1.60 worth of electricity. Then it can travel a further 310miles partly using the fuel from its tank. The mileage equation for this form of “range extension” hasn’t yet been settled on by the Government.
There are also fears about the price of the car – it is being marketed for around $41,000 in the US (see article). Part of the reason the price is so high is that it will initially be produced in relatively low volumes due to its specialised parts. Already GM has invested around $700million in revamping its factories to produce the Volt and that’s ignoring initial research and development costs. You also have to factor in the price of the lithium-ion battery itself which has a warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles – a replacement cost has not yet been published.
Our verdict – Is the Chevrolet Volt worth it?
GM certainly deserves a lot of praise for the Volt which seems to have achieved most of its objectives and is a legitimate “game changer”.
Nevertheless, there is room for improvement in the vehicle. It is very heavy and its aerodynamic coefficient is not as impressive as the Prius. It also won’t be able to run on E85 until 2013, despite the fact that the original concept was marketed as doing so.
However, what GM has achieved is a legitimate mass market vehicle that reduces costs and takes advantage of the progress that has been made in electrification while answering the fears that surround it. With traditional hybrids more expensive to run, and electric cars still limited by range, the Chevrolet Volt may be that middle ground drivers have been looking for to bridge them to the next era of motoring.