Feature

Test drive: the electric Holden Volt

Green Lifestyle online

This green car could become a popular choice as petrol prices rise. We give Holden's electric car, the Volt, a trial over long- and short-distances.

online-Volt-Holden

How do you like our electric ride? We got to take this nifty car for a spin to a certified-organic vineyard – charged on solar power, of course.

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The budget was announced earlier this week, with a whole bunch of bad news for the environment. But there’s one slight reprieve – petrol prices will be hiked up by about one-cent per litre. Whether higher prices lead to a reduction in our petrol usage remains to be seen, but cars like the Holden Volt could start to grow in favour.

The first surprise most people get from the Volt is it's size. It's much bigger than what is usually expected – a far cry from a plug-in golf buggy or mobility scooters for the elderly that are often associated with electric forms of transport. It's a spacious four-door hatchback, with a sleek, sexy look to boot. That said, it does look like a sporty girl's car, and there are so many buttons inside that it feels like you're driving an iPhone at first. It's very close to the ground, for improved aerodynamics, so it corners beautifully, but it also means the car doesn't lend well to speed bumps or rough, unsealed roads. Reduced visibility also takes a bit of getting used to, with the sides of the windshield holding the safety airbags.

The second surprise people who have never driven an electric vehicle (EV) usually get is how fast and zippy they are. The instant torque of EVs provides an impressive kick when accelerating, and it's smooth as there's no need for gear changes. Electric-powered cars are also very quiet, so driving can be a pleasant experience akin to sailing a boat. The Volt has a quirky, subtle side horn to warn pedestrians and cyclists that the car is even there.

Car owners, especially in Australia, seem to have a common fear of 'range anxiety', that the battery in a fully-electric car will run out, leaving you stranded on a long, lonely country road. NRMA has mobile charging stations for EVs, but the Volt, designed and made in the US, is built to put an end to this fear altogether. A standard charge of the battery will take the car for 80 km on electric, and after this, the normal petrol mode kicks in, meaning the car is just like any other petrol car. Even the petrol mode is economical at about 4.6 km/litre. As technology improves further, the range of EVs is expected to improve as well.

One of the most exciting parts of driving an EV is it's ability to charge the battery when the car isn't accelerating – such as going doing down a hill, or coasting up to traffic lights. On one particularly hilly drive, we switched the Volt to electric when going down the hills, to petrol going up them, and the battery indicated that there was now over 100 kms of charge. This ability to extend the electric range of the car means that on some drives, you'll be able to go more than the expected range from electric mode. The Volt switches seamlessly from electric to petrol, and isn't anywhere near as clunky as a lot of hybrids (especially the older ones) can be.

We took the Volt interstate to see how well it was received at different locations. We were able to charge the car overnight on solar power at the lovely Garden Cottage accommodation at Beechworth in Victoria, and it wasn't an issue to plug it in at other locations as well. As soon as you mention that it only cost on average $3 per overnight charge, most places are pretty happy to accommodate. It's much cheaper to charge with power than it is to fill the tank with petrol, so it's worth asking. But if the uptake of EVs becomes more popular in Australia, a better solution is needed.

A usual full charge takes six hours, but commercial charging stations, such as ChargePoint that has over 80 stations across Australia, can charge the car in just two hours – just the perfect amount of time to do your grocery shopping and have a coffee. In Europe, there are EV charging stations at just about every major shopping centre and all major facilities.

If used in the correct way, the potential green benefits of the Volt are better than hybrid cars or even other electric cars currently on the market (see our overview of EVs here). And that's probably the most interesting thing about this car; the way you plan to use it depends on how suitable this car is for you. If you have easy access to plug the car into a standard power socket overnight, if your daily drive to work is around 40km, and if you need to do the occasional long-distance trip, then this would be one of the greenest cars you could choose if you really need to own one. Obviously, if you have solar power, rather than grid electricity from a fossil-fuel polluting coal-fired power plant, it will make your use of the car even greener.

Go Get and Green Share Car say that most of the trips made in their cars are under 100 km, and both car sharing companies have added Hybrid and some fully electric vehicles to their fleet. Unfortunately both companies also charge their cars from standard grid power that uses fossil fuels.

With the car being on the market for just three years, it's hard to tell if it's built to last yet, but surely it's a better choice than a standard petrol car. There are a number of factors to consider in making automotives more sustainable, but this is at least a step in the right direction, and with user-friendly cars like the Volt on the market, it's likely to help the demand for EVs to increase. In the US there are about 180,000 plug-in electric cars on the road. In Norway about 20,000 are registered, but in Australia there are only about 700. The predictions are that by 2016, 30 per cent of the world's car manufacturing will be for hybrid and electric cars. If this is true, we can look forward to healthier cities with less air pollution, depending on how our energy is produced.

The problem with the successful uptake of this car in Australia at the moment is that there's a hefty-enough hit to the back pocket to turn people off - but with rising fuel prices this car might come into it's own. Once fuel prices rise, people will really start to see the long-term benefits of such a car.