Chevy Volt 2012

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The new face of GM

We’ve been hearing about it since its debut at the 2006 Detroit auto show. No car in General Motors’ history has received so much publicity before hitting the market. Needless to say, as the car goes on sale in Canada as a 2012 model, the Volt needs no introduction. However, if you’re new to the Volt, know that it’s a different kind of vehicle. It’s not a hybrid, but a range-extension electric vehicle. Like the Prius, or GM’s own Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, the Volt has a gasoline engine on board, but unlike hybrids, the Volt’s engine is only present to recharge the battery pack when it runs out of juice. It is not connected to the driving wheels at all.

Having been exposed to wedge-like cars like the Prius and Insight for years, the Volt’s aerodynamic looks are handsome but not ground-breaking. In place of a conventional instrument cluster, the Volt receives an advanced display illuminated in blue or green, depending on whether the car is running on electric power, or if its “generator” engine is active. The display is one of the most advanced on the market with visually appealing graphics, and it’s easy to understand and use. One downside is that the buttons on the centre stack are a bit on the small side.

While there’s an obvious emphasis on advanced technology, GM didn’t go overboard emphasizing the Volt’s environmentally friendly nature as with other hybrid vehicles. For instance, to indicate how efficient the driver is, the display shows a balancing marble, rather than growing leaves or blooming flowers. Unusually, the Volt has space for four occupants – not five – but it has a decent-sized cargo bay. As the batteries are located underneath the vehicle, there is little impact on cargo space.

The Volt starts at the push of a rectangle “power” button. It’s like switching a light on – there’s no sound at all. The dashboard lights up, there are a few electrical noises, and it’s ready to go. Because the engine is silent in electric mode, it’s easy to drive too fast. For drivers that need more, activating the Sport mode can call up the system’s full potential, enabling it to accelerate to 100 km/h from still in less than nine seconds. This extra boost comes in handy when passing or merging on the highway.

According to GM, the Volt’s battery pack is good for between 60 and 65 kilometres in “regular” mode before the gasoline engine kicks in to recharge. But the question on my mind was how the car would perform with the gas generator on.

I started my test with the battery charge indicator reading 22 km.My  goal was to use up the battery to transition to gasoline mode. When the indicator showed that there was one kilometre of electric power left, I felt a slight vibration under the hood as the four-cylinder, 1.4-litre engine fired up. The dashboard display changed to show the fuel available instead of the energy from the batteries. The noise was comparable to an ordinary compact car, but the difference compared to the muted electric mode was noticeable.

When the gasoline engine is running, it’s always under a bit of load as it’s actively charging the battery. By and large it stays at the same speed, but if you floor the accelerator pedal, the engine will work harder to keep up with the extra demand. It’s an odd sensation – there’s a delay between when the engine starts working and when you start accelerating. But let’s give the Volt a chance; after all, our tester was still a prototype and there’s still time for GM to fine-tune it.

The overall impression, however, is that the Volt drives like any other compact car. GM has tried hard – and succeeded – to make it as user-friendly as any other vehicle.

For those who drive less than 65 km per day, chances are that the gasoline engine generator won’t switch on very often. In fact, GM says drivers could save up to 1,900 litres per year in fuel, compared to a conventional compact car. The Volt can be charged on a regular 110 or 220V outlet, requiring five to six hours using a 220-volt outlet, and eight to nine hours at 110V. On a full charge, with a full tank of fuel, the Volt has an approximate range of 550 km. Keeping colder climates in mind, GM added a pre-warming function for the cabin to improve battery performance on colder days.

As for the battery itself, it’s a lithium-ion pack covered by an eight-year, 260,000-km warranty and operates at 50 per cent to maximize its lifespan. When the indicator shows a drained battery, it still has 30 per cent energy. When the indicator shows that it’s fully charged, it is charged to 80 per cent. This way, GM can guarantee an excellent battery lifetime.

There’s no question the Volt is going to have a huge impact on the market as it’s the first vehicle of its type. I tested it and it is as simple to drive as any compact car.  The Volt faces competition from two of Japan’s most prominent green brands, Toyota and Nissan. Toyota plans to launch a plug-in version of its Prius in 2012, upping the game of conventional hybrid vehicles. While Nissan is coming to market this year with the Leaf, which marks the return of the full-electric car to mainstream North American consumers. Each vehicle offers certain strengths, GM looks to have the best of both worlds with the Volt.

Specs

2012 Chevrolet Volt

Base price: $41,545

There will be an 8 000$ rebatte from the provincial government starting january 1st 2012

Type of vehicle: FWD, compact hatchback

Engine: 110 kW electric motor + 1.4L, 16-valve DOHC I-4

Power/Torque: 149 hp / 273 lb.-ft.

Transmission: Direct drive

0-100 km/h: 9.0 seconds

Competition: Honda Insight, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius

PROS

- Advanced technology

- Drives just like a regular car

- Comfortable and practical

CONS

- Still needs a bit of tuning

- Soft steering

- Price will be a deciding factor

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