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.
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.