The future of the automobile is here
All-electric Chevrolet Volt looks great inside and out and has vast potential, but it has small flaws that should be eliminated
The future of automobiles has finally arrived - it's called the Chevrolet Volt.
The Volt is an E-REV (Extended-Range Electric Vehicle), meaning that it uses electricity to drive the wheels at all times, unlike hybrid vehicles that are actually gasoline (or diesel) powered with electric motor assist.
On a full charge, which costs approximately Bt45, the Volt can travel up to 80 kilometres (this could be less depending on the temperature, terrain and how you drive it). Once the electricity from the 16-kWh lithium-ion battery drops to 30 per cent, a 1.4-litre gasoline-powered engine kicks in, but not to drive the wheels. Instead, it serves as a generator and provides just enough electricity to the battery to keep the car moving. This mode of operation extends the range of the Volt to a total 550 kilometres, before you either stop for charging or refuelling.
When Vijo Varghese, senior PR manager for products at Chevrolet Sales (Thailand), called me asking if I wanted to drive the Volt, I was grinning. You see, Varghese was formerly my assistant here at The Nation and we loved to discuss how boring electric cars were. He knew I'm a critical person when it comes to new technology, usually preferring older and more emotional car models.
So I told him that I'd like to test drive it at night, so I can switch on the air-con and headlights, as well as radio.
"I'm not going to help you out on this one dude," I thought.
I wouldn't be cruising to get the best mileage either, but drive it like any other car that comes to me for testing.
I told him to meet me with the car at the Crystal Design Centre parking lot, which is a good venue for starting the "night" test drive. We could drive in traffic or go a bit faster by going up on the Ramindra-Artnarong Expressway. Expressway exits would give a feel of how the Volt would corner at high speeds too.
I arrived first at the parking lot and saw the Volt being driven in. Hey, it actually looks good. Eye-catching in a positive way, almost like a concept vehicle we often see at motor shows.
We chatted a bit, with Varghese explaining the basics of the car and its systems, including how to charge it.
I stepped inside the Volt and was pretty impressed. You see, American auto-makers like Chevrolet isn't well-known for making great interiors. In the past, the design was dull and the quality of parts poor. Plastics don't event fit together properly.
But this is a great-looking interior. The white trim reminds you of the ivory trim in luxury cars from Europe and high-end electronics. There are two screens (one of them being a touchscreen) that display everything in numbers and graphics. Looked like a Playstation to me.
"I'm sure you can connect an iPhone and do lots of things with this car," I mumbled. Actually there's an application that shows the battery level and charging status of the Volt on a smart phone so that you know when it is ready to go.
Being an electric car, the Volt is dead silent when in operation mode. The only sounds you'd hear are the wind and tyre noise.
The Volt's electric drive unit delivers an equivalent of 150hp and 370Nm of torque. Acceleration from 0-100km/h takes just 9 seconds, and the top speed is claimed at 160km/h.
Below the expressway we ran into stop-and-go traffic, and the first flaw showed up. The brake pedal had this "ticking" whenever I stepped on it and I didn't hesitate to mention it. There's nothing wrong with the braking performance though, just that annoying character.
It is also a heavy car, and although at low speeds there is nothing to be worried about, the effects start to show up when speed increases. We got on to the expressway and I started to floor the accelerator.
"How fast did you say it goes?" I asked.
"Just floor it and find out," Varghese replied.
Acceleration was good, there's nothing to complain here. But as speed builds up, you can feel the Volt losing stability. I was kind of surprised, because at lower speeds the suspension felt great, being solid and sporty.
At the end of the expressway there is a ramp with an exit to the Eastern Ring Road heading back towards Ramindra Road that is almost circular in design.
"Ok, hold on," I warned.
Actually the Volt hugged on to the curve surprisingly well, just like you'd expect from a sports sedan. I was impressed with the suspension, and the electric power steering system with ZF steering gear (which is usually found in higher-end sports sedans).
We exited the ring road at Fashion Island and headed back to CDC and I was telling Varghese how I liked and disliked the car. I said that this is a car with great potential and if the smaller flaws could be eliminated in the next model it would surely be a great product for the Thai market. With the hype over a fuel-efficient car, everyone will rush in to buy the Volt if the starting price is affordable enough. I'd buy one myself too.
We discussed the price of the Volt in the US, which is about $44,000 (Bt1.35 million) with full options, which puts it in the same price range as BMW and Mercedes-Benz luxury cars there. However, there is a $7,500 federal tax break that brings down the price. But it's still costly.
"You can't sell it here at that price plus the 200-per-cent import duty. And Japanese companies won't let the Thai government give you special tax breaks for sure," I said.
But in the US and Europe, the Volt is a winner, being crowned North American Car of the Year in 2011 and European Car of the Year in 2012.
I also mentioned that Volt users will benefit from the very low cost of running the car compared to gasoline. But I also asked where do we get the electricity from?
Driving an electric car doesn't instantly save the environment. We also need to be able to produce clean electricity, and today Thailand isn't producing clean electricity. We also use more than we can produce, having to buy power from neighbouring countries.
I've also recently seen a "Smart Grid" billboard somewhere, but I'm sure it is something that we won't be seeing in the near future either. Good things don't happen easily, especially in this country.