First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Prototype

#GM, #Volt

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.

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