GM's Volt of enlightenment
Wed, Jun 24, 2009
Few have been let behind the wheel of GM's new electric plug-in family
car but CHELSEA SEXTON got the chance to spend a day behind the wheel of
the Chevrolet Volt
GENERAL MOTORS? Volt has been described as a car that can save the
motoring world from its dependency on fossil fuels. Incredible times
Due to be sold as a Chevrolet in the US, it will come to Ireland later
on as the Opel Ampera.
From its unveiling over two years ago, I?ve wanted to drive it. Having
worked on GM?s original electric car, the EV1, I?ve had the right
contacts to make a case and have all but made a nuisance of myself with
the company, seeking evidence of their sincerity about doing another
While the EV1 wasn?t flawless, it became the benchmark of what GM was
capable of in both engineering and consumer passion.
At a time when the company is fighting just to survive, I have to admit
that I had my suspicions that the Volt might have suffered under the
financial pressures: in US parlance ?nickel-and-dimed? to a shadow of
So when I got a surprise call inviting me to fly to Detroit for a test
drive, I hopped a red-eye and was there ? along with the film crew from
Revenge of the Electric Car that I am working with at present.
If the Volt drive wasn?t enough, GM?s Milford Proving Grounds is like
Disneyland to an engineering girl like me. After a quick tour of the
property, we arrived at the section of course that had been closed for us.
Next to the car was the Germanic father of Volt, Frank Weber, General
Motors? global vehicle line executive, looking more proud and hopeful
than I?ve ever seen.
Self-described with the statement ?I am German, I am an engineer ? I do
not feel?, Frank has always seemed pessimistic to me against the
aspirational backdrop of the Volt team, but even he couldn?t disguise
his thrill at finally having something physical and operational to show
after two years of talking.
I had certainly had enough of the talking myself, so with little
fanfare, I was let loose on the track. After the first few of many laps,
Jim, ?the Voltkeeper? who tended the car all day from a technical
standpoint, asked if I might stop smiling anytime soon.
I drove the Volt all day long (stopping not because the car needed to,
but because we were also interviewing GM folks in-between driving segments).
First impressions were of a car that is more refined than many
production cars I?ve driven.
It?s also the quietest full-performance plug-in I?ve seen so far ? it
sounds more docile than it is. It?s incredibly smooth, and feels very
solid, even on the intentionally rough proving ground roads.
Because it?s still a test car (or mule in motor industry terminology),
Weber assured me the car is only at about 80 per cent of the final
version?s performance capability, and the extra bit of low-end torque I
came away wanting will feature in the production car. While the
acceleration is good (0-100km/h in nine seconds), I was spoiled by the
?off the line? performance of GM?s last EV, and the Volt doesn?t have
that same initial surge.
In fairness, the Volt can?t rightfully be compared to the EV1 (I have
badgered GM not to do it) but I am aware it and the other EVs of the
1990s are the frame of reference for many people. I will say simply that
this is not the same as what has gone before. It is not a hand-built
car, so lacks all of the quirks, noises and ? yes ? individuality that
implies. Some will be disappointed by that fact but GM is clearly
betting the masses will be thrilled by it. Most folks love what they can
do with the iPhone and don?t care about what?s inside. It?s the
functionality and flexibility that allow personalisation and is most
appealing; a similar line of thinking is informing the Volt.
I also failed to talk the guys into letting me drive the Volt in
range-extended mode ? I?d hoped to put to rest all the conjecture that
because no one?s been allowed drive it that way, there must be something
Alas, Weber was typically insistent that it just wasn?t ready. I finally
pinned him down: ?What is so wrong with this car that you won?t let
anyone drive it with the engine on?? He paused and admitted: ?Well, when
the engine comes on, you can hear it.? I kept waiting for more, but that
was it ? the big mystery.
Eventually I was chastened by my own admiration for the position he
took. While there?s a point where you have to stop engineering and start
building, Weber?s statement is indicative of the attention to detail
being paid to the Volt.
That said, some of the other folks working with the other Volt mules
?happened? to drive by a few times in range extended mode ? the thing is
already Prius quiet. And because the generator operates within certain
distinct ?power bands? depending on the driver?s right foot (more power
requested, higher the band ? if the request is at the lower end of any
band, the extra energy is fed back into the batteries), any detectable
sound should directly correlate with attendant ambient and road noise. I
can?t speak firsthand on the power of the generator but time, and my
next test drive, will tell.
Driving the Volt was a mix of experiences: it was a fun day, and it?s
great to see some bright sparks of hope amid the gloom in Detroit and to
talk to folks who are excited to be working on ?something cool again?
(their words). It was also a relief for me ? there were several years
when I wasn?t sure they?d ever get this far on a plug-in car again.
But in the end, building the car won?t be their biggest challenge ? it
never has been. Whether they can get behind it effectively as it hits
showrooms remains to be seen. And I remain repeatedly frustrated at
watching them struggle to tell their own story, or when they allow, say,
Bob Lutz to go on national television. They?re learning, but I often
wonder if the wisdom will come fast enough.
I still don?t know that they entirely understand the passion many people
have for electric cars, but I think they understand just what?s at stake
for this one. It is the end of the poker game for GM, and they?re all in.
IN THE 1990s, General Motors produced a limited number of all-electric,
plug-in cars but before they became widely available, company officials
decided to stop production. They recalled the roughly 1,000 electric
cars and crushed them.
A 2006 documentary, called Who Killed the Electric Car?, explores the
reasons behind the move. Chelsea Sexton stars in the documentary.
Chelsea Sexton found her passion at an early age with the General Motors
EV1 electric vehicle program. Sexton became well-known as an advocate
for clean, efficient, fun transportation, focusing on building a market
for alternate-fuel vehicles through partnerships with corporate and
non-profit stakeholders, shaping public policy and incentives,
developing marketing strategies and working directly with the drivers.
She is one of the key individuals in the forthcoming film Revenge of the
Electric Car? by Sony Pictures Classics; in the book Plug-In Hybrids,
the Cars that Will Recharge America by Sherry Boschert; and in the
Sundance Channel Series ?Big Ideas for a Small Planet?.