Talk about electric cars today repeatedly boils down to one issue: range. Regardless of the fact that the average person drives just 19 miles each day, today’s electric car’s 100 mile range means that sooner or later, driving an electric car is going to inconvenience you. But General Motors (GM) claims it has an answer that gives you best of both worlds - electric car emissions-free running and unlimited range. It’s called the Chevrolet Volt and has just gone on sale in the USA. It’s going on sale here early in 2012, so on a recent trip to Detroit we tried it out.
Like the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric, a lithium-ion battery back housed underneath the floor, which you plug in to recharge, primarily powers the Volt. But where this car differs to purely electric cars, is that once you’ve depleted the battery (it has a range of 40 to 50 miles) a petrol engine fires up to continue providing power (indirectly) to the wheels. The logic is that, on short trips from home, the car will be emissions free because it runs purely off the battery. But if you suddenly need to get to Lands End tomorrow, it’s not going to take you 3 days to get there as you might in an electric car, because you’ll just keep filling up with fuel.
So the Volt’s important for its powertrain, but there’s a strong digital aspect to this car, which makes the experience of driving and owning it all the more special - and appealing to people like us.
Jump into the cockpit and the first thing you’ll notice is the white centre stack and trim surrounds. Dave Lyons and Stuart Norris from the interior design team talk about trying to live up to Apple’s “gold standard” in design when describing this interior, and we can see why. The white finish is just like the one on that third gen iPod that’s now sat in your top drawer with a dead battery. It might be a generation out of step with Apple’s industrial design, but it’s still striking and appealing to use.
In fact, the "buttons" on the centre console aren’t buttons at all, but touch sensitive actuators which give a lovely positive feedback "click" when pressed…exactly like the sound made when scrolling through menus on an Apple click wheel. Crucially, they’re nothing like as distracting and hard to use on the move as a pure touch screen.
Instead of dials and gauges, two 7-inch TFT screens act as your dashboard displays. The first, which can be used as a touch-screen, sits on top of the centre stack and displays the air-con, navigation and music information. It’ll also display "power flow", which tells you whether the battery or the petrol engine is providing the power.
In front of the driver, you get a central digital speed read-out, which is surrounded by battery charge level, range, fuel level, and an eco-driving meter. GM’s design and tech team are very proud of the intense blacks they achieved with these screens, and we’ve got to say they are beautifully HD clear and high quality in appearance.
There’s even a neat retro touch, in the eco driving-meter gauge, which has the quality of ball bearing maze game/labyrinth toy. You try to keep the gently spinning green ball in its centre "hole" to which it feels slightly magnetized - but brake or accelerate too hard and it floats up or down the gauge, showing you that you’re no longer driving efficiently.
But it’s not just in the car that GM has created a digital experience. Like the system Ford announced at CES, the Volt app - “OnStar Mylink” - available for iPhone, Android and Blackberry, provides the driver with control of the car via a phone. This allows you to set when the car is charged and to see how full the battery is, remotely. But it also allows unlocking of the doors via your phone, remote heating or cooling of the cabin, and remote start of the car, which is an amusing gimmick.
So what is it like to drive? It doesn’t sound as Jetsons-like as some electric cars we’ve driven, but it’s very refined, comfortable and - best of all - normal and easy to drive. And you can forget any milk-float jokes, because while you might not be worrying Porsches in a traffic light grand-prix, flick the Volt into power mode, and there’s more than enough accelerative shove to out-run today’s petrol-powered cars of a similar size.
If this truly is the future of the car, then we’re impressed. GM really seems to be letting us have our cake and eat it. Not only will the average person be driving on electric power, most of time (barely spend any money on fuel). But they’ve removed the worries and constraints involved in driving an electric car. The interior experience and ownership benefits the digital elements of the car provide are the icing on the cake. So forget the long mused about idea of an Apple “iCar”, the car for the digital era has arrived: it’s called the Volt.