After four years of planning and three years of hype, we've finally driven a production Chevrolet Volt plug-in "hybrid." We expected some character from the most obsessively engineered vehicle in GM's history. We didn't expect so many personalities at once.
Full disclosure: General Motors wanted us to drive the Volt so badly they flew me to Detroit, parked me in a surprisingly nice hotel in Rochester and let me drive Volts around for a couple of days. GM even showed off where in the cavernous Detroit-Hamtramck plant it once built the Cadillac Allante. Sadly, we weren't allowed to take pictures of that.
GM's first request before handing over the Volt was to drive it as slowly as possible — in the name of a contest among the roughly 200 journalists testing Volts to see how far they could travel on battery power alone. The winner gets a Volt to use for a month. I couldn't turn down a challenge, even if I have no place — to put a Volt or its charger (For the record, if we win, we'll give the one month Volt loan to some lucky — or unlucky, depending on what you think of it — Jalopnik reader).
Luckily I had the assistance of Larry Laws, the GM engineer charged with accounting for every watt of energy used in the Volt's battery system; in other words, its chief joule-r. He also holds the GM record for all-electric travel on a single charge with 60 miles. At one point, as we slowly paraded through the suburbs, he'd realized he'd accidentally switched on the defroster for a few minutes. "That might cost you a mile," he said.
The Volt begins and ends in its 16-kwh battery pack. It's the single-most expensive component, the toughest engineering challenge and will ultimately decide whether the Volt succeeds or fails. And with a million miles of testing, GM has obsessed over those batteries like William Shatner in his toupee closet.
The pack only uses 60% of its charge; the rest goes toward keeping the battery alive for at least eight years. The pack also has its own liquid heating/cooling system, unlike the Nissan Leaf — which uses 90% of its battery charge and relies on air to cool its pack. Congratulations, early adopters; you're the test subjects in a global engineering showdown.
In an hour and a half, I covered 47.4 miles, managed to keep 8 miles in reserve and felt like a gluteal haberdasher much of the way to the rush-hour commuters. That was good enough to win among my group and place second overall: the overall leader is currently wanted in a number of Oakland County jurisdictions on public nuisance charges. Most scored in the mid-40s; we found it would take focused effort to get below 30 miles all electric.
During our drive, a guy in a Ram pickup motioned for Laws to roll down his window. "Hey, I heard this thing does't run on electricity?"
Laws politely corrected him, grimacing a little. "OK, that's what I thought," the man said, smiling. "Just tellin' ya what I heard on the news." Got to love second-hand Jalopnik readers.
I was there back in 2007 when GM rolled the Volt on stage at the Detroit Auto Show, promising a new kind of vehicle that sported not just a 40-mile all-electric range, but up to 640 miles of total range with fuel economy on the gas engine alone nearing 50 mpg. And despite its environmental benefits, the Volt didn't get nearly $1 billion to be built simply because of them, especially with a corporate champion who once compared man-made global warming to feces-packed earthenware.
From its inception in Bob Lutz's mind as the "iCar," the Volt's main mission was to revive GM's reputation for technical prowess, while putting those smug bastards from across the Pacific with their dinky hybrids in their place. Lutz contended the Prius lost money on engineering accounting, but was cheap marketing at twice the price.
There's no need to rehash the details of the revelation GM made that the Volt occasionally will use its gas-powered engine to drive the wheels on occasion, at speeds as low as 30 mph. The problem wasn't the details, but the way GM handled them. It had told the car's tech enthusiasts that electricity would be the only force driving the wheels, emphasizing the difference between the Volt and all other hybrids, especially the Prius. When it was made clear that wasn't the case, that the system has a mode (only at certain speeds and with certain levels of battery charge) similar to a Prius, GM's communications team blustered on, half-blaming the enthusiasts for caring about details so much.
Instead of letting the elegance of GM's engineering solutions help the Volt polish GM's reputation among a group of tech-savvy fans, GM showed it didn't know quite how to speak geek. Andrew Farah, the Volt's chief engineer, had lost his voice by the time I posed the question. The Volt, he said "has many personalities."
Behind the wheel, the Volt works for a good first impression like an intern with law school debt.
Press the lit blue start button, and dual screens in the instrument panel and dash launch with little graphic fillips. The touch-sensitive control panel pays homage to early iPods, and the silent start emphasizes the Volt's electric nature.
The best part of driving the Volt comes from snapping the torque hamsters onto their wheels at full charge for a maglev-like rush of 273 lb-ft. The overall system gins 149 hp for 3,700 pounds of car, capable of a zero to 60 mph time in a shade under 9 seconds. Its not speedy, but respectable among family sedans, and far better than a Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius.
To accomodate 435 pounds of lithium-ion batteries, GM engineers had to rework much of the Chevy Cruze-based body and suspension. The basics remain geared to the comfortable, with McPhersons up front and torsion bar rear, but have been tuned for the extra weight of the battery. The battery mass lowers the center of gravity two inches, and befitting a vehicle so closely linked to Bob Lutz, the Volt can hustle when needed.
The Volt has three drive modes: Normal, Sport and Mountain. Sport squeezes the torque from the tube just a touch faster. Mountain changes the power output to reserve enough for climbing tall passes at highway speeds, something any Volt driver east of the Mississippi need not worry about.
On top of those three modes, GM throws a curve in its shifter. The Volt's drive selector has a "L" located below "D" that suggests an old-fashioned low gear. What it actually does is kick up the aggression of the regenerative braking system; combined with Sport mode may be the best way to make the most of driving the car.
It's only after some time in the Volt that the newness wears down a little and practical questions arise. At first, the haptic dash requires a glance away from the road for many functions. The dashboard's busy graphics and animations suggest the designers could soon be the target of a blog post from Ray LaHood.
And once the battery discharges and the 84-hp engine kicks in, the car's electronics start making decisions that won't seem logical to unsuspecting drivers. The engine's initial switch-on is seamless, but to maintain efficiency its revs frequently don't match vehicle speed or driver input. Punching it on the freeway at 55 mph reveals the drawback of the "optimizer" that controls all Volt driving functions: a dumb old car would just dump gas into the engine's maw immediately, but the Volt takes a couple of seconds to decide how to best gather extra energy and feed the engine with a dropper. It gets the job done, eventually.
Mileage? In several dozen miles of fairly aggressive driving, I was getting roughly 33 mpg in engine-only mode. That generally comports with what GM expects; the original 50 mpg target came from a three-cylinder engine in the concept. (Outlandish numbers likely include electric-only driving, figures the Volt's systems frequently mingle in reporting).
The $41,000 sticker before incentives for a semi-luxury compact car knocks several buyers out; the lack of places to charge also knocks millions more households out of consideration. It also may take a few years to see whether gas and battery prices conspire enough to make the Volt more financially appealing. Still, GM will have no trouble selling 10,000 Volts next year in North America, and even the 60,000 vehicle target for 2012 (including Amperas for Europe) seems reachable.
Miser, savior, geekbait — it's a lot of different personalities to hang on a single vehicle.
But the one persona GM should crow about, if it'd only stop eating so much crow first, is this: The Volt is the most advanced electric vehicle/hybrid in the world.