New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt (Integration Vehicle)

In the long history of hype, the Chevy Volt is the consummate media star. From its 2007 show debut, to its evolution into a practical production design, to its current status as GM’s Hail Mary savior, the Volt hauls a Peterbilt’s worth of baggage. Now that we’ve had an opportunity to drive a developmental prototype using both electrical and combustion forms of energy conversion, it’s time to see if the Volt really deserves all the attention heaped upon it for the past three years.

What’s Under the Skin

Volt shares key platform components with the Chevy Cruze compact due to go on sale later this year (a few months in advance of the Volt’s expected late fall arrival). While exact dimensions haven’t spouted forth from the information fountain, expect a 106-inch wheelbase and an overall length of about 179 inches, both essentially Honda Civic size. A notable sacrifice is passenger accommodation. While the standard compact configuration is two front buckets and space for three (in a pinch) in back, the Volt’s substantial central spine for the battery box provides no rear-center seating position.

Diminished Design Drama

While the Volt represented true exterior design drama in concept form, the toning down for production has diminished its sparkle. The front end looks busy and poorly integrated. The dark beltline bands replacing the impractical transparent panels look dated. To these eyes, the standard Cruze is more palatable. While GM designers surely felt the Volt had to be a standout, ordinary consumers probably won’t insist on shouting their support of electric propulsion during every last trip to the mall.

Inside Furnishings

The interior design team also ventured far afield in their attempt to celebrate the electronic age. While the mostly touch-sensitive controls are logically arrayed and pleasant to use, the displays, trim treatments, and net interior impression shows several flaws. Thankfully, this aspect of the Volt is a work in progress. The psychedelic patterns adorning the door panels and the bright white Apple-esque center stack surround will be modified, toned down, or supplemented with alternative furnishings according to Tony Posawatz, my host, the first GM employee to sign on to the Volt project, and the current vehicle line director.

At the left of the video display cluster, there’s an image bearing a vague resemblance to a gasoline pump, though the gray and blued colors aren’t helpful in discerning that. Posawatz suggests it’s like the signal strength meter in your cell phone: more bars means more charge in your battery available for propulsion. As you go they wink off; lift off the accelerator pedal and a bar or two might come back as the driveline’s regenerative braking kicks in.

On the right side there’s an even weirder gauge: a slowly turning green ball decorated with leaves. This is the electric car equivalent of the tachometer. Tromp the accelerator and the display goes deep in the drain direction; lift off to coast and it rises high in the save-the-planet direction. No matter what you do, the ball turns at a slow, steady speed as long as electronic systems are awake and running.

My favorite part of the interior is the driver’s seat which is firm and supportive. The backrest wraps snugly around your ribs to hold you in place for your most ambitious cornering attack. Corvettes should have it this good. The steering wheel is another GM flawed design with spokes far too wide to encourage a comfortable finger wrap of the rim.

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.

Decent Driving Dynamics

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.

While I decelerated in regen mode, the unwanted momentum was converted to electrical power and dispatched to the battery by the drive motor, now serving as a generator. Reversing the current drain is the engine’s signal to take a break, so it slacks off during diminished electrical demand. The engineers’ goal is to maintain consistent performance whether the drive motor’s electricity is coming from the battery or the generator. During peak need, both pitch in. But when the battery charge dips below what Posawatz terms the minimum buffer level and all the drive juice is supplied by the engine-driven generator, performance is reduced. Simple math says why. In Sport mode, the electric motor turns the front wheels with 149 horsepower through a single-speed gear reducer (versus 121 horsepower in the Regular mode). The 71-horsepower engine doesn’t match that so the battery is allowed to drain a bit below the normal minimal state of charge threshold to assist. When regen is available, that ‘borrowed’ charge is restored. However, the battery is never fully replenished during driving because it’s cheaper and greener to draw that power from the electrical grid by plugging in the charger. In pursuit of a 10-year, 150,000 mile service life, the strategy is to treat the 400 or so lithium-ion cells with kid gloves. That means charging the battery only after it’s heated to room temperature by a system that circulates warm anti-freeze through its confines. Also, only half of the battery’s full 16 kilowatts of energy is ever intentionally used. While GM has not specified the exact limits, the guess is that the state of the charge is never allowed to drop below 30 percent or rise above 80-percent in the interests of battery longevity.

What’s Under The Hood

Overall, the electric-drive powertrain impressed me as highly refined but hardly sparkling with enthusiasm for intense acceleration. Under the hood, there are four components bolted together in one assembly for noise, vibration, and collision performance optimization. The electric motor is mechanically attached to a gear reducer and differential that spins the front axle shafts. Adjacent to the motor is the gasoline engine which drives a generator. To save weight and cost the electric drive motor and the generator share a common housing. They are electrically but not mechanically connected. Also, there is no mechanical tie between the gasoline engine and the front wheels. While this arrangement sounds like a series hybrid, GM prefers to characterize the Volt as an extended range electric vehicle.

A large box of electrical gear mounts atop the propulsion and generating components. A few orange cables snake hither and yon but, according to Posawatz, the final underhood appearance is still not set. A charging port mounted in the left-front fender allows connecting to an electrical outlet for recharging the battery pack. Expect 8 or more hours for a full recharge on 120 volts or less than half that with the optional 240-volt charger.

Handling Counts Too

To investigate the Volt’s driving demeanor, I whipped in a few aggressive lane-change steering commands at cruising speed. The on-center feel was positive to my touch and the effort build was nicely progressive and more shrewdly weighted than I expected. Give the Volt an A for electrically assisted steering execution. With Posawatz’s permission, I took a few hot laps around a traffic circle to explore the outer fringes of grip and control. The Goodyear Assurance 17-inch radials quickly wilt under cornering pressure but at least body roll is reasonably well restrained by the suspension. There’s more than enough understeer and no hint of tail wag or wobble. While the Volt is definitely not a BMW in green garb, it is at least predictable and reassuring in its moves. The tree huggers will love its amiable attitude, quiet disposition, and low gasoline thirst.

Business Game Plan

To build and sell 60,000 Volts per annum, GM invested $336-million in its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, originally Cadillac’s home manufacturing base. While CEO Whitaker would love to see GM’s can-do car on the road as soon as possible, there is engineering work left to be done, orders for the initial demonstration fleet to fill, and a production ramp-up to accomplish before you’re likely to see Volts gracing Chevy showrooms. Unless you’ve got a deposit in place, you’re unlikely to find one at retail before the clock strikes 2011.

The exact price is still unknown. Our guess-which is no better than the next-is that the sticker will start at $39,995 and a base edition will roll for about $32,495 after the federal government’s generous $7500 tax credit is applied. In this area, the timing could not be better for GM. Toyota and Honda have both exhausted all their hybrid credits so Prius and Insight buyers now must pay full sticker (not counting state or local credits). Likewise, the applicable credits for Ford and Mercury hybrids expire March 31 of this year. This situation is sure to send shrewd green buyers straight to Chevy dealers once the Volt hits the market.

While it’s too soon to say whether the Volt is the homerun GM really needs to buff its tarnished luster, we can conclude that the project is on track with better driving performance than we expected. This is definitely GM’s best opportunity to show the world that it’s alive, kicking, and still able to top the best imported technology.