Chevrolet Volt, that near-perfect electric car

The biggest problem with electric cars is that you are always worried about running out of charge. Engineered to override this nagging fear the Chevrolet Volt is an electric car whose range can be infinitely extended by using a petrol engine as an electricity generator.

The power-pack consists of a lithium-ion battery pack, coupled with an electric drive unit. The Volt can be driven as a pure electric car for a range of around 40 to 80 km. Once the charge depletes, and here’s the unique part, a 1.4-litre petrol engine kicks in, charges the battery and extends the range by up to a massive 550 km. This is something no pure electric car can manage. And if you want to travel even further, just top up the tank.

You can charge the car off a wall socket at night and use it as an electric car all week, not consuming even a drop of fuel. But the Volt also gives you the flexibility to make long excursions and even cross-country trips. So the penalties for driving an electric are almost nil. The Volt’s battery can be charged using a household electrical outlet, or can be charged much faster via purpose-built 240V charging posts, which are being set up at convenient locations across the US.
The Volt’s largest component is the battery, which is more than five feet long. The 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack weighs almost 200 kg, is T-shaped and sits in a spine between the seats, allowing the Volt to have a real boot. The petrol motor is mounted in the nose and drive from the electric motors is sent to the front wheels. Chevy engineers say the second motor provides the Volt additional thrust when you need more power, and it’s also used as a force-multiplier, much like one would use a gearbox to drop rpm at higher road speeds.

Getting behind the wheel of the Volt sparks more curiosity than excitement. There are different three-dimensional graphics on the touch screens, many new controls and several driving modes. Since this is an electric, I stick to normal mode. The Volt pulls away easily, as any torque-rich electric should, and the step-off is very impressive. The smooth torque makes this 1.7-tonne car feel like it weighs substantially less and it seems to sail along effortlessly. The relaxed demeanour continues even when you pull the car harder; which must have something to do with all those relaxed but potent V8s Chevy has built.

Only under hard acceleration above say 80kph, does the engine cut in and become quite audible. Pull the Volt hard and the revs rise, the second motor also cutting in at higher speeds and adding to the whine. The performance, however, is quite strong and the Volt easily breezes along at speeds in excess of 120kph.

The Volt drives quite nicely, making the experience altogether rewarding. The chassis feels reasonably stiffened, the steering feels connected once you get away from the straight ahead position, and with the weight of the batteries sitting low in the car, body control is quite good. It’s fun to drive, even on a challenging road, which comes as a bit of a surprise. The regenerative brakes, which return some of the power to the batteries, however, feel wooden, and that spoils the driving experience a bit. The ride quality is not too impressive.

Chevrolet wants the message of the Volt to spread far. A right-hand drive version has been made for the UK and Japan, the car will soon be in China and Chevrolet India is working on a plan to get the car here as well. In half a decade or so, we could also see a diesel version of the Volt or something smaller, targeted at European and Indian markets. Wouldn’t that be great?

Shapur Kotwal,