Jason Kavanagh, Senior Vehicle Test Engineer
Toppling the Nissan GT-R is a mighty task, yet the 2011 Chevrolet Volt has done it. No, not lap times at the Nürburgring. This time it's a contest of anticipation and speculation, and the Chevy Volt has eclipsed the mighty Japanese supercar.
The hype machine has been running full-tilt for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt since GM revealed the 2007 Volt Concept car, and although we've previously wheeled a development mule, we've now driven the car you see here, a pre-production Volt.
With all the hoopla, it's easy to forget that the 2011 Chevy Volt strives to be a normal car.
If you're a hermit who just descended from a remote mountaintop hovel yesterday, here's the lowdown on the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. It's a four-passenger, series-type plug-in hybrid with which GM has been doing a slow striptease — and with good reason, as the Volt is indeed unlike any hybrid to come before it.
All of the familiar bits are in place — a gasoline engine, an electric motor and a battery pack — but the Volt's twist is that its wheels are driven solely by the electric motor. [Update 12Oct10: GM revealed that the gasoline engine does contribute to mechanical propulsion of the wheels in concert with the electric motor(s) during certain circumstances.] GM reckons there's up to 40 miles of cruising range until the battery pack runs down to about 30 percent of "full," at which point the Volt's 1.4-liter gasoline-powered (it'll run on E85 ethanol, too) engine kicks on. The engine generates electricity to power the electric motor and maintain the battery's state of charge to this level and no more.
There's a good reason for this strategy. Replenishing the Volt's battery is less expensive when you use a wall outlet rather than burning gasoline, so the engine maintains rather than replenishes. Meanwhile, charging the Volt using household 120-volt current, a full recharge takes about 8 hours, while a special 240-volt supply is expected to shorten this process to 3 hours.
Under the skin, the Volt is related to the upcoming 2011 Chevrolet Cruze compact car. Its shares the steel chassis, overall width and same wheelbase in the interests of minimizing costs, but when you add its 400-pound battery pack the Volt reaches a curb weight of roughly 3,300 pounds.
A Question of Range
GM's estimate of 40 miles of battery-only propulsion is based on the EPA city driving cycle. It is a best-case estimate, as the pattern of cruising, stopping and starting in the EPA's simulation of city driving involves plenty of opportunities for regenerative braking, while the air-conditioning and other power-sapping accessories are switched off.
Volt chief engineer Andrew Farah makes it clear. "The Volt's [battery-only] range is up to 40 miles. Most people will get less than 40 miles. A few people will get more than 40."
Once the gasoline engine is fired up to sustain the charge, Farah reckons the Volt will run completely out of fuel — again, assuming you drive in a way that's similar to the EPA's city driving cycle — in another 300 miles. Since the Volt's fuel tank is presently 8 gallons in volume, this overall mileage expectation equates to more than 38 mpg when driving in this "charge-sustaining" mode.
This total driving range of about 340 miles elevates the Volt from commuter-car compromise to a realistic full-time transportation alternative that's comparable to modern conventional automobiles.
Of course, even advanced lithium-ion batteries like those in the Volt have limitations. For example, heat is an issue. Charging and discharging batteries in particularly hot climates can send battery temperatures up to a point where the battery's performance can be compromised. Farah acknowledges, "The Volt may not be right for everyone. If you live in the Southwest, depending on how you use your car, the Volt might not be right for you."
Still, the Volt will be available in all 50 states once it reaches full production in early 2011, while select dealerships will have Volts in the showroom in late 2010. At this point, the estimated price will be about $40,000, or $32,500 with the current $7,500 federal incentive.
Volt in the Metal
The car we drove was one of about 80 pre-production Volts, and while it is not the finished product, Farah confirms, "It's 99 percent correct in terms of hardware, and about 65 percent correct in its calibration." In lay terms this means that they're still fine-tuning the powertrain, suspension, interior fitment and NVH characteristics.
During our drive on a prepared course around Parking Lot 1 at Dodger Stadium, about 3 miles from where the car will be displayed during the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show, the Chevy Volt is a rather handsome thing. The blacked-out rocker sills and beltline of the greenhouse visually slim the car so it looks less slab-sided, and there's a forward thrust to the styling that's missing in your average hybrid. Its 17-inch alloy wheels lend it some style, even if these P215/55R17 Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max tires are low-rolling-resistance jobs. Only the nose looks a bit ponderous due to its sheer size, though the detailing of grille and headlights lessens the blow.
On the driver's fender is a round door at the height of your thigh, through which the charging port is accessed. The GM engineering team wanted to retain the showcar's better-integrated charging port — it was inside the badge on the fender — but practical considerations such as structural integrity and sealing against the elements ruled it out.
You open the Volt's door and are presented with an unusual-looking glossy white center stack with touch-sensitive controls and two blacked-out video screens. Once you press the Start button, the two screens blink to life in sharp, vivid color. The windshield is steeply raked for aerodynamic reasons, and this makes for a very deep cowl.
Other than that, the Volt's cabin seems like that of a normal car. The seat has a manual rake and mechanical height adjustment, and the horseshoe-shaped gear selector is your typical grab-and-slide affair, albeit one that resides in a dark well that is sure to collect all manner of Cheetos and pocket lint.
Driving the Volt
Like a pure electric vehicle, the Volt's acceleration is smooth, quiet and instantaneous. Its shove is linear, too, and this makes for deceptively effective pointing and squirting. This is certainly one of the mixed blessings for the Volt's development staff — the hushed nature of electric propulsion makes the gasoline engine that much more noticeable when it finally thrums to life. It is heard rather than felt, particularly because the engine doesn't necessarily need to run when you floor the throttle as it does in even a hybrid like the Toyota Prius.
A Sport button on the left side of the center stack increases the responsiveness of the throttle pedal as well as its ultimate limit, resulting in acceleration from a standstill to 60 mph in less than 9 seconds, Chevy tells us. Sport mode provides a very noticeable sharpening of the Volt's urge to scoot.
Likewise, the console-mounted gear selector includes an "L" setting that, like in a normal car, provides more aggressive deceleration than does Drive. Farah says the engineering team has done this to make the car feel more familiar to those accustomed to using Low when driving down steep grades in a conventional car. "It's also really nice for stop-and-go driving," he says.
The Volt feels slightly nose-heavy when you bend it around a corner, but it makes its moves with little body roll. Even in this relatively early state of development, the brake pedal operates seamlessly as it modulates regenerative and conventional braking, which is a real accomplishment.
Indeed, from the compliance of its ride quality to the weight and response of the steering, this pre-production Chevy Volt drives more naturally and feels more substantial than the Honda Insight we happened to drive to the event.
A People's Car
The overall, overriding impression the 2011 Chevrolet Volt gives you is one of normalcy. There are no bad habits or overtly obvious telltales of what's going on behind the curtain. You just get in and drive.
And that is truly the key bit. Aside from the charging process, the Volt functions usefully as a normal car. It doesn't force you to live with the limitations of a pure electric car, while providing a large chunk of the benefit. Certainly diligence in keeping the battery topped up will tip the payoff equation to the car's benefit, but the Volt doesn't force the consumer's hand.
"We're trying to build a car, not a battery on wheels," says Farah. He acknowledges that the world waits for a breakthrough that allows pure EVs to match the range and ease of refueling of a conventional vehicle, but notes, "The Volt is something we can do now."
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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