Latest Controversy Aside, Chevy Volt a Shockingly Satisfying DriveBy Bill Visnic October 12, 2010
It all seemed so far in the future when then-General Motors Corp. unveiled the Chevrolet Volt concept car at the 2007 Detroit auto show.
That future - with sketchy promises for a car that appeared improbable, relying on crucial innovations that didn't exist - is here, nearly four years later, with the media driving Volts on the road this week and production-ready copies scheduled to begin coming off the company's Detroit Hamtramck assembly line November 1.
General Motors has proved it can make the plug-in hybrid Volt a reality, yet for all its inventions, patents and innovations, fundamental market-acceptance questions linger: will people connect with this new-technology car - and pay rather substantial money to try it?
And will there be enough acceptance for GM to, ahem, profitably sell a car whose main claim to fame is that it can travel 40 miles or so on battery power?
Old Problems Solved, New Ones Appear
To complicate the run-up to Volt sales that could begin as soon as late November, GM re-energized skeptics when it revealed at the Volt media launch yesterday that, contrary to its prior information about the Volt's drivetrain, the car's small 1.4-liter gasoline engine is in fact mechanically connected to the drive wheels. The disclosure - though it has little to do with the car's actual performance - refuted GM's longstanding assertion that the Volt's internal combustion engine acted solely as an electricity generator and had no direct connection to the wheels.
The point, though esoteric, in many minds makes the Volt less than the pure electric car GM has billed it and more a hybrid-electric vehicle that might be lumped in with any number of existing hybrids already on the road.
To see it that way is a disservice to GM's achievement with the Volt, but some nonetheless felt betrayed, regardless of the fact GM engineers quickly answered back, saying that the Volt drivetrain's design is such that at no time can the combustion engine alone turn the wheels - propulsion from the car's electric drive motor always is required. Moreover, the engine indirectly assists to help drive the wheels only in a very narrow range of operating parameters.
The dust-up is unlikely to affect Volt purchase intenders, but after a day of driving Chevrolet's otherwise profoundly competent new-age sedan, there are reasons to see impediments to widespread adoption, including:
> The need to install an expensive 220-volt home charger to replenish the Volt's fully discharged lithium-ion battery pack in four hours rather than the ten hours required for the included 110-volt charge cord. The charger is cheap enough at less than $500, but with professional installation might total a $2,000 investment. Some 4,400 lucky owners in the Volt's initial test markets will e the lucky recipients of free 220-volt chargers and installation through a federal program.
> To wring the utmost efficiency from the Volt's 83-horsepower gasoline engine - whose chief purpose is to generate electricity once the battery pack is depleted - premium unleaded fuel is required.
> Though subsidized by a minimum of a $7,500 federal tax credit, the Volt isn't cheap. A base car has an MSRP of $41,000. Options: a premium trim package ($1,395); rear camera and park assist ($695); crystal red clearcoat paint ($495); viridian joule or white diamond tricoat paint ($995) and polished aluminum wheels ($595). All options and the most expensive paint amount to a Volt that stickers at $43,285.
> Some may see the 4-occupant configuration as a limitation.
> It remains unclear whether GM will be able to control dealer price gouging.
'Regular Car' In Every Way
The most remarkable thing about the Volt may be the fact that driving it is unremarkable.
The Volt is silent, even if the gasoline engine is called to duty. The electric power steering is not particularly communicative but has consistent efforts, reassuring on-center stability and comfortable weighting. Much the same for the mostly transparent brakes, although the initial "bite" could be better and some engineers admit the last bits of pedal feedback before coming to a complete stop are difficult to "blend" to perfectly mimic conventional hydraulic brakes.
Thanks to 400-odd pounds of batteries, the Volt is a heavy car at 3,781 pounds, but cornering is reasonably brisk and body roll is almost nonexistent thanks to the weight of the battery pack being low and centered in the chassis.
The Volt's interior is a delight. There are no gauges, just two primary high-resolution screens. The screen in front of the driver digitally presents vehicle speed and all manner of ancillary information, much of it relating to driving efficiency and, of course, the state of battery charge or whether the combustion engine is operating.
Atop the glossy center stack is a second screen to show the navigation map, audio and climate settings. The only problem with the high-tech appearance of the center stack is the flush-mounted buttons have scant differentiation or hierarchy. The chunky gearshift lever is a visual and tactile pleasure, as is the soft blue lighting for the start/stop pushbutton.
But first and foremost, the Volt is about electric driving, and the experience is excellent. The Volt torques away from stoplights leaving conventional cars waiting for their engines to get up to speed. Acceleration is linear and assuring and almost always exceeds expectations.
Although most are skeptical of real-world battery-only driving-range claims, a 47-mile trip was accomplished solely on battery power, although nobody would want to drive so light-footedly in typical traffic. Another less efficiency-minded run yielded 42 miles of battery driving with three persons on board.
Meanwhile, the notion of "refueling" cheaply and conveniently at home, rarely visiting the gas station, is appealing on many levels.
"Eighty percent of the public could buy this car and drive gasoline-free" for long periods, said Jim Federico, group executive for small cars and EVs.
That's the Volt's calling card, one that GM's gambled billions will resonate with the public.