An electric car that (with a little help) goes the extra mile
Price: £29,995 (after £5,000 government grant)
Engine capacity: Electric motor with 1.4-litre range-extending petrol engine
Power output: 148bhp
Top speed (mph): 99
0-62 mph (seconds): 9.0
Battery range (miles): 50
Fuel economy (mpg): 235
CO2 emissions (g/km): 27
Reviewing a new car each week can lead to some odd combinations. A few years ago I rocked up to a friend's wedding in a camper van the size of an oil tanker and more recently I spent a tricky half hour trying to fit a monolithic storage unit into a Porsche in a rainy Ikea car park. Not that I'm complaining.
Last week there was a new challenge. The car was the Chevrolet Volt and the drive was a 200-mile-odd round trip to Rutland for a weekend away. Not a problem, you'd think, except that the Volt, as its name implies, is an electric car. Normally this would trigger a healthy dose of electric range anxiety as I hit the city limits and panic as the battery drained 10 miles up the A1. The Volt, though, has a clever trick up its sleeve.
In addition to its lithium-ion battery pack that delivers a 50-mile range (it is nearer 35 in the real world), under the bonnet there's a 1.4-litre petrol engine that kicks in to provide a further 300 miles of motoring. It's not a hybrid, though, because unlike the Toyota Prius say, the engine recharges the battery on-the-go rather than powering the wheels.
The idea is that you'll use the battery, which costs roughly £1.50 for a full six-hour charge, for most trips and only occasionally crank up the pricier petrol engine for longer runs.
So heading off to Rutland last weekend I'm unusually relaxed when I see the battery drain and take stock of my wheels. A four-seater hatchback, the Volt is mechanically identical to its sister the Vauxhall Ampera. Inside, the interior is cramped but classy – it looks like a stealth fighter has crashed into an Apple Store's worth of white plastics.
The battery's 148 brake horsepower means you get steady, smooth acceleration that feels more like a 2.0-litre diesel without gear changes than a weak-hearted electric car. It is not a driver's car, though – it's unsure of itself in corners and there's a an odd pulsing vibration in the pedals under heavy braking – but it's practically silent and handles as well as most hatchbacks on the market, which is a very good thing.
What really counts, though, is economy and here is where it gets complicated. On the face of it the Volt is an economical marvel with a claimed fuel economy of 235mpg, but what you get from it depends on your mix of mileage. If you only ever drive to the shops you'll never need to put a drop of petrol in it and you'll make truly massive savings. However, if you're off to visit Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue down the motorway every weekend, its economy will drop noticeably.
Even so, my combined fuel economy of 30 miles on battery, plus 70 miles on petrol power was still a very impressive 105 mpg. There is still battery wastage to contend with, though (Chevy says it will last 150,000 miles) and the question of exactly how green your electricity is anyway. So opting for a Volt is a calculation potential buyers should take some time over, especially considering the premium price Chevrolet is charging for the Volt.
My run to the middle of England was trouble-free, though, so much so that I nearly forgot I was driving an electric car, which is probably the biggest compliment of all for this clever little car. I even managed to find a spot at a hotel to charge it for the return journey. The owner didn't even charge me. If these things start to catch on, that will soon change.
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