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Chevrolet Volt driven

  • Range-extender car tested
  • Can do 175mpg
  • On sale spring 2011

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What is it? A bridge between fossil-fuel and pure electric cars
How much? £30,000 before Government grant (est)
On sale Early 2012
Fuel economy 175mpg in range-extender mode
CO2 Zero at tailpipe in electric mode; 40g/km in range-extender mode

Suddenly, the range-extender electric car that seemed so too-good-to-be-true when General Motors revealed it in concept form three years ago is upon us. The five-door, four-seat Chevrolet Volt is only weeks away from going on sale in America and will be available in the UK, along with the European version - Vauxhall/Opels Ampera - in a little over a year.

Controversy, aside

So, lets ignore for a few minutes the controversy that recently erupted about whether the Volt and Ampera are the all-electric cars that GM claims, or just clever plug-in hybrids. After all, this is our first taste of a near-showroom-ready Volt, and its much too important a car to be tarnished by semantics. With its Voltec drive system, its a highly intelligent bridge between the fossil-fuel cars weve relied on for more than a century and an electric future.

What's it like?

The Volt is quiet, smooth, clean and blessed with strong torque all the things you expect of an electric car but it also dispels any worries you might have that the batteries will be dead before you get to a charging point. How? Well, because although the wheels are always turned by the cars electric motor, theres also a petrol engine a 75bhp 1.4 from the Corsa to act as a generator once the batteries are drained to around 15% of capacity.

If all you ever do is commute to work or do the school/shopping run, the petrol engine will be there purely as emergency back-up. However, if you travel more than 35-40 miles a day or use the car in such a way that its draining energy like a ruptured gas pipe, youve got the petrol engine to act as a range-extender. Your horizons are no more limited than in a conventional petrol car.

The Volt has been three years in development and has required lots of detailed aerodynamic work as well as the co-operation of some of GMs partners Bose, which has developed a compact and light power-saving hi-fi system, and Goodyear, with low-friction tyres to ensure it extracts the maximum from every bit of energy. Its a terrific car to drive as well as an intelligent choice: the perfect answer to the miseries who say that electric cars will take all the enjoyment out of driving.

About that controversy

The controversy surrounding it follows GMs recent admission that when the car is being driven at motorway speed the petrol engine will cut in to assist the electric motor. That makes it a plug-in hybrid, say the Volts detractors. Not so, says GM, because the petrol engine never actually turns the wheels directly, as in a Toyota Prius.

Well leave the engineers (or the lawyers) to argue that one out. From the buyers perspective its win-win: all the advantages of a pure electric car, with one of the major anxieties removed.

What Car? says

So, now whats stopping you buying an electric car?

Chevrolet Volt
Engine 1.4-litre + electric motor Price (est) £30,000 before Government grant Power 150bhp 0-62mph 9 sec Top speed 100mph
Fuel economy 175mpg
CO2 emissions/tax 0-40g/km/0% Likely discount? Forget it. Supplies will be limited, so Chevrolet will be able to control distribution.
Rivals There aren't any. It sits somewhere between a limited-range electric car and a plug-in hybrid.