Yesterday morning we finally hopped into a Chevy Volt mule with outgoing GM product czar Bob Lutz for a spin around the Warren Tech Center. What's it feel like? It's utterly unremarkable and appliance-like.
The Volt project's often dismissed as a marketing stunt, a gimmick, too expensive for the segment, or a toy for wealthy eco-nuts. We withheld our judgment until we had the chance to do a test drive. Now, after driving a Volt-in-a-Chevy-Cruze-shell powertrain mule, we're prepared to declare it — much to the delight of the Volt's PR team, engineering crew and Bob Lutz — utterly unremarkable.
The Volt's unremarkable because it's exactly like driving any other appliance car on the road today, and that's the point. GM is trying very hard to make the Voltec system driving experience as familiar as anything before it and even at this early prototype mule level they've succeeded quite nicely. The Voltec system consists of a 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine driving a generator, an electric motor driving the wheels and a lithium ion battery pack in between the two to hold plug-in and regenerated power. This doesn't work like a Prius or an Insight, there's no transmission, the engine doesn't power the wheels; it's an EV that goes 40 miles and then it runs off the generator, and it works.
Our ride in the Volt was up to about 55 MPH on the grounds of GM's Warren Tech Center and the cars are, dare we say it, peppy. There are no whirs or whines or whistles like in a traditional EV, just silence, like the motor has stalled out and you're coasting along on momentum. There's no shifting going on as there are no gears to shift, just direct power, and unless you're paying attention you don't even notice. Stab the go-pedal and it responds happily, it's even got a little get-up and go. According to Lutz the current prototype accelerates from 0-to-60 MPH in around 8 seconds — that's about 2.0 seconds faster than a 2009 Toyota Prius and about 3.5 seconds faster than a Chevy Aveo. Not too shabby for an appliance if you ask us.
There are two drive modes, a normal highway type where you accelerate and coast normally, and a second drive mode which maximizes regenerative braking in city traffic. It feels like you're hitting the brakes but you aren't hitting the brakes. We had hoped the Volt would give us a back-rub and deliver a milkshake, but it's just a car, even bridging on the pedestrian, the bland, the appliance. But this is again, the point, to make this huge paradigm shift and make it seem easy.
The Volt is coming, and from a powertrain perspective, it's pretty darn good. Lutz was adamant on that point saying "Volt is currently on time and we fully believe it will hit the market as expected." The Chief Engineer, Frank Weber, a rather intense German who has been extraordinarily cautious in the past about the program's hurdles, seems to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Yesterday he remarked "There are no more large elephants in the room, only hundreds of small ones."
In June, GM will be completing the first full prototype vehicles, nearly 80 in total, which will look and feel and operate like real Volts. They'll have all the correct body panels, interior bits, and system calibrations and we'll be driving those eventually. At that point we'll be much more able to judge the complete vehicle. Until then, we're kind of hopeful the Volt might actually be fun to drive, along with being frugal at the pump.