The Holden Volt, launching this year.

The electric car has been the pipe dream of science fiction for decades. And while it has existed in various forms for a number of years, the simple truth is that to date, no electric car has met the rigorous demands of the Australian driving market. But that could all change with the Holden Volt.

Nick: Trev, I know that you’ve already spent some time driving around in the Holden Volt, but this was my first time behind the wheel of an all electric car. And I have to say that I was very, very impressed. It was packed full of tech (which I love), felt responsive to handle and thanks to the fuel tank on board to keep the battery charged, would actually be a practical car for me to use. My first impression was that Holden has created the secret sauce that could smash open the EV market. Am I right?

Trevor: Without doubt, a fully electric car will always suffer from lack of juice after the standard daily commute for most commuters. Plus, we love our driving so a road trip is just out of the question. So the combination of a petrol engine – which both keeps you driving and re-charges the car – is a top solution.

For me, I commute about 70km per day, so I could likely do that day in, day out without using any petrol at all with the Volt. But if the wife calls and asks me to detour via the shops – which adds time and kilometres to the trip – I don’t need to stress as the petrol is there to keep me going.

How did you find the initial ‘startup’ and ‘get going’ – a bit strange really isn’t it for a first go?

Nick: See, for me living 60km out from the CBD, there’s no way I could own a purely electric vehicle. The distance is just too great for anything other than a Volt, hybrid or normal car. Perhaps that is what excited me so much about the Volt.

In terms of driving, I actually felt it had a pretty good start up. Having driven a few hybrids before that tell you how green you’re driving, I almost always take off slower now anyway to try and keep my fuel consumption down. But especially when I popped the car into Sports mode – which gives it a little bit more zip – I found there wasn’t any real stand out differences to any other car I’ve driven in terms of responsiveness. One of the other drivers told me I drive like a granny, which I’ve decided to take as a compliment about my economical driving skills.

I did especially like dropping the Volt into L mode, which turns on the regenerative braking permanently and essentially brakes whenever you aren’t accelerating. I think if I owned a Volt, I’d probably drive in that mode all the time to try and keep the battery topped up as much as possible. It took a little bit of getting used to, with the car actively slowing down every time you take your foot off the gas, but I think it could promote a better style of driving across the board, where people don’t actually need to brake to stop.

Aside from the fuel tank adding range to the car, what excited you most about the Volt?

Trevor: I think they’ve done some great work with the in car tech – the two large colour screens, one as your ‘dashboard’ and one for the centre console infotainment are impressive and have a possibly overwhelmingly large amount of information on them. I reckon most people will keep the centre console on Radio or Sat Nav after the novelty of seeing where the power is coming from wears off.

The styling is great, it’s certainly not an ugly car, and inside I really think there is a feeling of value. At $60,000 you really want to feel like you’re getting bang for your buck, not just a cool concept.

Did you get a chance to look at the options in the dashboard screen? A simple little scroll wheel on the right of the steering wheel on the dash allowed you to page through some nice dash options. I thought that was a very nice interface,but do worry it’s a bit too much information?

Nick: Yeah, it’s certainly information overload when you’re juggling both screens at once. But apparently you can strip back the information by pressing the back button to the side of the wheel. I’m not sure just how far back you can strip it, but it looked like a fair amount from where I was sitting in the passenger side when the Holden guy told us about that one.

That $60,000 price tag is probably the only thing in the way of mass adoption, especially if they can get some people in the driver’s seats at dealers. 60K for a smallish car – even if it is the future of motoring – is going to put a lot of people off, when they can pretty much grab two Toyota 86’s for the price.

Then there’s the fact that the Volt is, in essence, a first-gen product. One thing they said at the event that struck me was that last year’s model in the US only managed 60km or so, while this year’s has reached 87km. So why not wait for next year, when it might crack three figures? Or five years, when it may not even need the fuel tank on board and the price may be a lot lower?

Don’t get me wrong, I was really, really impressed by the Volt this week. But just like when the original iPhone was released overseas, I held off and waited before I bought one of my own so that Apple could iron out some of the kinks. That’s probably what I’d recommend to friends thinking about buying one. What would you say?

Trevor: I would recommend it to anyone happy to throw that kind of money around and with no “large car” needs like 5 seats or a large luggage space. Unfortunately, most people with those needs aren’t also willing to spend $60K, so that’s a real issue. Frankly, the Volt will be purchased by people trying to push their Green credentials, or people who love standing out. It was only a decade or so ago that you could spend $60K for a BMW 3 Series and really stand out from the crowd with low numbers of that car on the road, but a great car for the money. Perhaps cars like the Volt will suit those who just want to be different.

Perhaps a bigger question is what does this mean for the automotive industry? Holden have the Volt, Toyota have their very strong Hybrid program, Nissan the Leaf, Mitsubishi the I-MiEV and so on. Are these vehicles only ever going to be a small percentage of the sales market, or are we looking at a real trend to the future?

Nick: There’s no doubt that the future of the industry is in cars that don’t run on fossil fuels. But does that include cars like the Volt, the i-MiEV or the Leaf? Or is it something like Hydrogen power? That’s a really tough question, but my gut says that electric cars, at least in their current state, will never take off until they absolutely have to. The Volt aside, there are still too many sacrifices that need to be made if you’re planning on buying an EV, like driving range or the need to install a special power outlet to charge.

Maybe when fuel costs $10 a litre, electric cars may take off. Or maybe the answer is a Volt-like vehicle that has a Mr Fusion-type energy source from Back to the Future, which replaces the petrol tank. Either way, the EV market still has a long, long way to go before it starts putting pressure on petrol-based cars, don’t you think?

Trevor: I’m not writing off Fossil fuel just yet mate, it’s far too soon. The electric car’s issue is its batteries; They are too big, too heavy and their lifespan is unknown. Prius owners already worry about the re-sale value past 4-5 years, fortunately there hasn’t yet been vast issues with the batteries reaching end of life and the replacement cost becoming an issue, but that won’t be far away. My Mum’s 18 Year old Honda Civic has done over 400,000 km’s and is in no sign of needing major new parts worth thousands of dollars. That’s the kind of longevity people are expecting from the auto industry – especially the 3rd and 4th owners of vehicles.

Petrol won’t hit $10 a litre. If it did we’d see Carbon Tax style outrage and compensation. So the industry needs to find cheaper ways of making this kind of affordable transport.

One upsell to the Volt in Australia is the fuel consumption. I spoke to one Holden rep who while acknowledging they don’t release the petrol only consumption report, you can expect 5-6 l/100km’s. That’s a good number.

Let me say this – if money isn’t a huge issue, the Volt is most certainly my choice of “future fuel” vehicles on the market today. Would you prefer a Prius Nick?

Nick: No, I agree that the Volt hurdled the Prius in my preference table. But it’s still a fair way down the desirable list. Cut the price by $30K and I might just change my mind though, Holden…

Stay tuned for a full review in the coming weeks!