Entering the Electric Age
You fire up the Volt by twisting the "ignition" key with the brake pedal pressed. While there's a flurry of light and display activity, the arousal process is virtually silent. Moving the awkwardly large shift lever down a notch or two initiates your drive into the electric age.
The whine of motors and gears previewed by the Tesla Roadster and poorly developed hybrids does not play in the Volt. This powertrain has been rid of any significant noise and vibration. It moves off the mark with the smoothness and excitement of a department store elevator. That's endearing but customers will eventually become immune to the silence unless they revert occasionally to a conventional car.
Another false forecast is the instant torque that gives the Tesla its giddy sports car feel during the first five or six seconds after a light. The initial Volt acceleration is barely substantial enough to merge safely into traffic. Instead of spinning the front tires and impressing the curious with a strong initial surge, Posawatz's crew spread the electric drive joy throughout the normal drive range. As a result, the soft thrust available from zero to 30 mph feels consistently the same with passing urge available from 50 to 70 mph. With a maximum of 149 horsepower driving an estimated 3500 pounds of curb weight (including 400 pounds of battery), the Volt will never be a drag star.
During our test drive late on a Sunday afternoon at a deserted GM Tech Center campus in Warren, Michigan, we had the run of the facilities with no fear of incurring the wrath of enforcement officials. Posawatz courageously gave the go-ahead for testing the Volt's all-out performance by remaining silent while we mashed and held the accelerator pedal to the floor for a long run on what amounts to a back straight paralleling Warren's Mound Road. Years ago, I buzzed a '55 Chevy hotted up by GM's Performance Division up to 90 mph on this stretch so I knew that it was long enough for flagrantly illegal speeds. Tapped fully out, the Volt gathered momentum smoothly but surely. At about 40 mph, when the electric range gauge was approaching zero, there was a subtle shudder and a sound similar to a heater blower whirring on a cold day. The 1.4-liter, 71-horsepower gasoline-fueled four-cylinder had fired up to help out with the demand for warp speed.
The uncanny aspect of the engine is that the intensity and frequency of its hum remains relatively constant while the car speed continues rising. It was only after I saw 92 flash on the digital speedometer and had lifted off the accelerator that the engine note softened. When Posawatz's speech returned, he noted that the Volt's maximum speed is governed at 100 mph and that it will eventually cruise down German autobahns at that velocity for extended periods.