Don't tell me – it's another me-too green car concept that's too expensive and complex to ever be made…
Not quite. For a start it's an entirely new concept, and important enough to be General Motor's biggest news from the Detroit show. An electric motor drives the front wheels. You can plug the car into the mains and charge the battery in three hours, giving you a range of at least 40 miles, which covers the needs of 78 per cent of drivers. But if you need to go further there's a 1.0-litre, 3-cylinder engine and a 45-litre tank. If the battery gets low, the engine cuts in. But it doesn't drive the wheels; instead, it acts as a generator and charges the battery. This allows the engine to be placed anywhere in the car, makes a gearbox unnecessary and means the front wheels can be pushed all the way forward as only the compact electric motor needs to sit between them. This produces the striking look of the Volt concept car which GM is using to introduce this new E-Flex system.
So how far can I drive it?
With a full charge and a full tank, you'll be able to cover 640 miles. If you drive 60 miles between charges you'll get 150mpg, as the petrol engine will only cut in for the last third of your trip. GM reckons that if you drive on electric power alone, you'll save 1900 litres of fuel each year and 4.4 tonnes of CO2. Drive 60 miles a day, and you'll save 2200 litres. And the Volt is no eco-dullard: with 160bhp it will hit almost 120mph and gets to 60mpg in 8.5 seconds, and the AC motor delivers all its 236lb ft of torque instantly.
Why do I feel a catch coming?
GM still needs to work on the lithium-ion batteries at the heart of the E-Flex system before it can put it into production; cooling them, balancing the charge and making them durable, light and safe. But battery technology is advancing rapidly. GM won't put a price or an on-sale date on its new technology, but expect it to make production in around four years. The company stresses that this will be a high-volume, mass-market technology, and the Volt concept car it is using to introduce it has Astra underpinnings, so it should be affordable.
What happened to GM’s big commitment to hydrogen fuel cell cars?
They're still paying lip-service to it, but are tacitly admitting with this car that plug-in electric cars are probably the way forward. But the 'flex' in E-Flex stands for flexibility; the engine can run on any fuel, including pure ethanol or biodiesel. And the engine can be replaced with a fuel cell; GM says that with a fully charged battery and a full 4kg tank of hydrogen a fuel-cell E-Flex car could travel nearly 500 miles.
Didn't GM 'kill the electric car'?
It killed the EV1 in the '90s, but now talks about how much it learnt from it. With the Volt it's trying to resurrect the electric car, and we think it just might. Listen to Bob Lutz, GM’s legendary, 74 year-old-car czar: 'This is the most exciting programme I have had anything to do with in my career. Everything else has been a variation on a theme but this is ground-breakingly different. It will make a profound difference not just to the automotive industry but to the way we live.'