With petrol prices on the rise, manufacturers and consumers are constantly in search of more efficient cars. We've seen hybrids, battery electric vehicles, alternative fuel vehicles and, in the case of the Chevrolet Volt (aka the Vauxhall or Opel Ampera) range extended electric vehicles.
This part-electric, part-petrol car promises the low running costs of an electric vehicle, without any of the compromises. But is the 2012 car of the year the great green hope of motoring or are you better off sticking with more conventional solutions? We took an extended spin in this £36,740 saloon to find out.
The Vauxhall Ampera beautifully treads the line between progressive and conventional. It has a recognisable saloon profile so it blend in well on the high street, but has plenty of edgy, intricate detail that means it'll keep the gaze of anyone that happens to look at it.
The Chevy Volt doesn't have as efficient a shape as typical hybrids or electric cars. It has a drag coefficient of 0.28cd, which is slightly higher than the 0.25cd of the Toyota Prius, but the upshot is that it doesn't look like a potato wedge on wheels. On the whole, it has a muscular, sporty, charismatic appearance that should appeal to a broad cross section of people.
The interior wont' be to everyone's tastes. It's rather busy inside and the dashboard has a two-level design that reminds us of the shoulder pads on an 80s jacket.
For the most part, the Chevy Volt has as much room as you'd expect from a standard saloon. There's plenty of room up front, with comfortable, supportive seats. The driving position is good, too, you'll really feel connected to car as you travel. The instruments and controls are quite confusing, however. The dashboard is littered with buttons -- far too many for our liking -- and that doesn't even include the functions that can be accessed via the central touchscreen.
At the rear of the cabin, there's enough room for two adults to sit in relative comfort -- provided those up front aren't too tall or don't slide their seats too far back. However, there are only two seats at the rear -- a consequence of Chevy's decision to install a T-shaped battery that runs the length of chassis.
Performance & handling
The Volt gets its power from several sources. For the most part, it's driven by a 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which powers a 74bhp electric motor that drives the front wheels. This is supplemented by a 1.4-litre petrol engine that acts primarily as a generator, feeding power to the battery.
Together, the setup provides enough grunt to get the car from 0-60mph in 9 seconds. It won't set your pulse racing, but the fact the power is delivered primarily by the electric motor means you get masses of torque -- 370Nm to be exact. As a result, the Volt feels very responsive and will leap away from a standstill, or low speeds with some zeal.
Economy & environment
The Volt's running costs are impressive in the main. The car has a 35-mile electric-only range, meaning you can get from your home to the office and back again on electric power alone with range to spare. Because the battery capacity is relatively small in comparison to a proper battery electric car, recharging 'only' takes around three hours (most need an overnight charge).
You'll never be stranded in a Volt if you run out of electricity. In such cases, the petrol engine picks up the slack, feeding just enough power to depleted battery to drive the electric motor. However, once the battery is depleted, it essentially becomes dead weight, meaning economy isn't as good as it would be in an ordinary petrol car. Chevy claims a mammoth 235.4mpg combined, but drive it beyond the 35-mile electric-only range and you can expect that figure to drop to mid-30 miles per gallon.
CO2 emissions are low. Vauxhall claims 27g/km from the exhaust, though you'll need to factor in the amount of CO2 generated by your electricity supplier to get a true picture of the amount of carbon dioxide involved in running a Volt.
Equipment & Value
The Volt's initial purchase price is rather high but it qualifies for the government's £5,000 electric car grant, which drops the price to a slightly more sensible £31,740. Most of its kit comes as standard, but there are some options. Metallic paint finishes cost £495, three-layer “premium” paint will set you back £995, shinier alloys are £490 and the stereo and sat-nav upgrade goes for £1,745. None of these are particularly cheap additions, but they all serve their intended purpose well. The stereo is punchy and clear and the sat-nav will come in handy for finding charging points or plotting the most efficient route.
The Volt has a host of safety technology including traction control, brake assist, electronic stability control, so unsurprisingly it scored a 5-star Euro NCAP rating. That agency awarded it 85 per cent for adult occupant safety, 78 per cent for child occupants and 41 per cent for pedestrians, which is pretty reassuring -- unless you're hit by one. Chevy includes a pedestrian alert sound -- a slightly quieter horn noise -- to warn people you're creeping up in a near-silent electric vehicle.
That said, there are lingering concerns about the safety of the Volt's battery. The car came under scrutiny in 2011 after one caught fire following a side impact crash test. The company subsequently improved the Volt's battery coolant system, which played a major part in the fire, and it has since been declared safe by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in America.
It's worth noting, however, that the NHTSA has also issued guidelines for police and fire departments in the US on how to handle an electric car that's caught fire.
The Volt is a superb car in many ways. It's attractive, well designed and comfortable. Around town, when using the electric-only driving mode, it should prove very cheap to run, and the fact it uses an petrol engine means you'll never have range anxiety. It's not perfect, though. Even with the government grant it's expensive and once its electric charge has expired, it becomes less economical than a conventional petrol car. If you regularly drive long distances, a premium saloon or hatchbacks could be a better bet. An Audi A4, for example, is cheaper and costs less to run in some cases. If you do most of your driving around town, however, with the odd foray forther afield, the Volt is worth a look.
Model tested: Chevrolet Volt
Engine: 1.4-litre petrol and 74bhp electric motor
Acceleration: 0-62 in 9 seconds
Top speed: 99mph
Emissions: 27g/km CO2