Review: Chevy Volt to Hit Road Soon

Prototype of GM's $40G electric car handles well, promises economy

By Dan Carney
|  Monday, Feb 1, 2010  |  Updated 8:30 AM EDT
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Review: Chevy Volt to Hit Road Soon

The Chevy Volt will cost $40,000 and run on an electric battery.

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Since its announcement three years ago, the Chevrolet Volt has seemed like one of those perpetually out-of-reach technologies, like fusion power or flying cars.

No longer.

General Motors is gearing up now to manufacture the Volt beginning this spring, reported Tony Posawatz, Chevrolet Volt and global electric vehicle line director.

The company began manufacturing battery packs to go into the cars in recent weeks. The rest of the manufacturing supply chain is coming together so the factory will start assembling cars within a few months, he said. It will begin slowly, making preproduction models that will be evaluated for their quality and provided as test models for journalists and fleet customers through the Summer and Fall.

By November, GM will be ready to switch to high gear and begin mass production of cars for retail sale to regular consumers. Those early cars will be offered only in limited markets which the company feels are prepared to support the special requirements of an electric car, Posawatz said.

So far, California, Michigan and the Washington D.C., area are the only announced markets where the car will be sold, but Volt sales will open up to the rest of the country next year.

In anticipation of the approaching launch of the car, GM provided a hand-built Volt prototype for a test drive around the former American Le Mans Series race track adjacent to Washington’s RFK stadium.

The driver doesn’t wave a magic wand or operate some unfamiliar control device to drive the Volt; there is no steering-by-joystick or other silly interface. The car powers up with the increasingly common keyless “start” button on the dash. A conventional console shifter slides between the common “Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low” positions, and the “gas” pedal and brake perform their usual functions.

Result: Anyone can get into the Volt and drive.

Today’s hybrids instantly fire the gas engine if the driver floors the pedal because their electric motors don’t make enough power to accelerate quickly in an emergency. The Volt, in contrast, stays in electric mode until the battery pack is drained. Its electric motor is so powerful that the car is programmed not to use all of the power available when abruptly accelerating from a stop because it could simply spin the car’s tires.

Rest assured, creative gearheads will get into the Volt’s programming as soon as the car falls into their hands, with the guaranteed result being garish burn-out videos posted on YouTube within days of the car going on sale in November. I promise.

Gratuitous, yes. But it illustrates the difference between the Volt and the Toyota Prius or even the more powerful Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Perhaps unexpectedly, enthusiasts will find things to like about the Volt, even if they don’t hack into its computer. The car features a “sport” mode which when selected makes extra engine power available and quickens the electric motor’s response to input on the accelerator pedal. In regular mode there is a maximum of 90 kilowatts of power (that’s 121 horsepower) available, but sport mode ups the maximum power to 111 kW (149 hp).

Switching to sport mode doesn’t, by itself, make the Volt less efficient. Driven moderately in both modes, the Volt will have the same driving range on a charge, Posawatz said. But of course people won’t switch it to sport mode to drive it moderately, so realistically this will probably result in a reduction from the normal range.

The company says that its 40-mile range promise is conservative and that it will be easy to drive farther than that. We won’t know until we have the chance to spend some time with one.

In addition to sport mode, enthusiastic drivers can employ the “low” position on the shifter. There is no multi-speed transmission and there is no “low” gear. But switching to this mode does produce the familiar sensation of additional engine braking when the driver lifts off the throttle, just as when driving in a lower gear.

That makes the car more responsive in point-and-squirt twisty road driving, simulated by a slalom course the company set up on the track. It does this by more aggressively using the electric motor as a generator to charge the batteries when coasting, rather than having the freewheeling, coasting-feeling in a regular car or when the Volt’s shifter is in “D.”

Much of the discussion about the Volt’s projected 40-mile driving range has centered on the fact that most Americans drive fewer miles than that going to and from work every day, so that it's is possible for them to commute with no gas.

The expectation, however, was that on weekends we would drive aimlessly for hours on end, burning up more energy than the batteries contain. But tests of prototypes have shown just the opposite, according to Posawatz. Other than the occasional out-of-town trip, on weekends people tend to drive short distances around town, which means that it is very reasonable to expect that many Volt drivers will almost never resort to burning gas, he said.

When the battery pack is depleted, the gas engine starts up, automatically providing the electricity needed to propel the car. Unlike today’s hybrids, the Volt does not recharge its batteries using gas power. GM’s engineers instead prefer for it to produce just enough energy to propel the car, leaving battery-charging to the more efficient electrical grid.

Driven in gas mode, with a correlation between the accelerator pedal, but not a direct connection, the Volt feels much like one of the less well-calibrated CVT-equipped cars that were briefly popular a few years ago, such as the Ford Five Hundred. Press on the pedal and there is a sluggish revving of the gas engine in response.

Sometimes when driving at higher speeds, the gas engine screams at higher revs than expected, giving the feeling of a slipping transmission in a conventional car. Those instances are the situations that another ten months of refinement to the Volt’s programming will eliminate, Posawatz promised. As is, the Volt works as well in gas mode as some production models of recent years, so the promise of continued refinement for a mode drivers will probably not experience often is encouraging.

The anticipated $40,000 price of the Volt worries many skeptics, but GM says it is already developing successor technologies that are cheaper and easier to manufacture, so it knows that prices are falling on key components. One such example is the current need to ship battery cells from Korea to the U.S.

Because the Volt charges its batteries from the electric grid, drivers will have the ability to avoid buying gasoline often. For many environmentally minded drivers, this alone will make the Volt worth the price. For others, it may be that they become enamored of the car’s near-silent operation at neighborhood speeds. The silence of the electric motor is not an issue at highway speeds, when the road and wind noise tend to overwhelm engine noise in most cars.

By the time the Volt goes on sale, a deal should be worked out with utilities to let drivers charge their cars for much lower rates at night than they currently pay to power their homes, he said. This means owners are insulated from future swings in cost and availability of gas. And at about $2,000 a year for typical gas consumption at $3.00 a gallon, it will mean a substantially reduced cost to drive the car even if gas prices stay stable.

Green enthusiasts will ensure the success of the Volt in its early years, said Posawatz. When the car will need to depend on mainstream consumers for continuing sales, advances in technology should help make the Volt and its successors more affordable.

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