I'm driving through General Motors' Warren Technical Center at about 30 mph, and see some Canadian geese in the distance. "They'll move," I think, and hit the throttle a little harder. As I get closer, they show no inclination of moving. In fact, it's as if I'm not even there. It's only as I slow down and veer away from the plodding birds that I realize: of course the geese can't hear me, I'm driving a Chevrolet Volt prototype. There's no noise for them to hear.
With bankruptcy rumors swirling and news of tougher CAFE standards due this week, GM clearly thought it was the right time to give journalists a closer peek at Volt development--specifically, its Voltec electric propulsion system.
Soon-to-be-retired vice-chairman Bob Lutz was on hand, as were Volt program bosses Frank Weber and Tony Posawatz. The message from each of them was clear: GM is making progress on the Volt, regardless of what doubters may say.
Lutz, who will be on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman Wednesday to discuss the Volt, said the prototypes answered doubters of lithium-ion technology, including "some of our Japanese competitors."
Weber stressed that the Volt is not a hybrid but rather a breakthrough vehicle.
"People are still saying, 'oh this is a hybrid vehicle that you're doing,' just because we have an engine to generate electricity. I say, no. This car is an electric vehicle," he said.
We were allowed about twenty minutes in the prototype, ten behind the wheel. Posawatz cautioned that our mule, dressed as a Chevy Cruze, was an older example that doesn't reflect the latest stage of the development process. GM also disabled the gasoline engine in our model, as it's still fine-tuning the crucial software that will determine when and under what circumstances the generator will kick in.
Despite these limitations, it's possible to gather to a few distinct impressions. The first, as noted before, is the silence. It's one thing to coast along at 15-20 mph in a conventional hybrid, it's quite another to accelerate from 0-60 mph with no aural input beyond wind and tire noise. Even those sounds will be less noticeable on the final product, Posawatz said, as the Volt team is hard at work quieting noises that are usually tuned out by the hum of an internal combustion engine.
The other noticeable difference from a typical small car lies with the braking system. The best way to shed speed in the Volt is often by lifting on the "gas" pedal. When the car is shifted into low mode, the motor serves as a generator, charging the batteries while simultaneously slowing the car. This is quite effective in low-speed, stop-and-go traffic, and might even come in handy during more spirited driving, as it increases the impact of lifting throttle in a turn, (Bob Lutz did note that he has a lot of fun driving in low mode). Unfortunately, the conventional brake pedal isn't as impressive, as it seems to take too long for hydraulic override to come in, creating a spongy, air-in-the-lines feel. Posawatz assures us this won't be an issue on the final product. "That's not one of our big technical challenges," he adds.
Otherwise, the mule feels like a normal, if slightly pudgy, compact. Acceleration is particularly impressive, even though our prototypes were providing only about 80 percent of the power of the final product. GM is aiming for launch feel on par with a 250-hp V-6 sedan, thanks to instantaneous torque, and expects a sub-nine-second 0-60 time. You'll be able to chirp the front wheels. Our mule likewise didn't have a production intent suspension setup, but the Volt's Delta II underpinnings, shared with the Cruze and the 2010 Opel Astra, already feel reasonably well composed, if a bit harsh over bumps.
Based simply on our seat time, it's impossible to say if GM will make its deadline and if the Volt will be the big hit the company desperately needs it to be. Posawatz readily admits he has a considerable list of concerns, including how well the batteries will hold up over ten years, and how customers will take to the EV experience. He also fears what might happen if one of the fledgling green car companies (i.e. Tesla, Fisker, Aptera, etc.) should have serious product issues - such as a battery that reacts dangerously in a car accident - and thus spreads a pall over the entire segment. He didn't even have to mention the possibility that his company, currently surviving on federal loans, might cease to exist.
In the areas under its control though, the Volt team remains confident.
"There is nothing in particular that is worrying me more than another thing," Weber said about the development process, while stressing that there is lots of work left to be done.
The car clearly remains a high priority for the company, such that it's safe to say that if there is a GM in five years, there will be a Volt. In the nearer term, the team says it hopes to have closer-to-production prototypes for us to drive by fall. We'll be there if it happens.