Chevrolet Volt: A Win for the Home Team
General Motors' Detroit-Hamtramck assembly hall—D-Ham to its friends—
is a Dickensian old shed of a car factory where, for years, GM has knocked together some of its most unloved automobiles. No robotic skillets or rotisserie carriers cradle the cars on their way through the factory, no video monitors at the build stations. Compared with some of Europe's sun-flooded auto ateliers, D-Ham looks less industrial than correctional.
The tour guides are pleased to show you the century-old cemetery out back, and when they do, every single visitor has the same thought: Well, that's appropriate.
Dan Neil reviews Chevrolet's new electric car, the Volt, which Dan Neil calls General Motors' most technologically significant car since the 1912 Cadillac.
All things being equal, D-Ham's three million square feet of gray concrete sprawl is not the place you would choose to build the Chevrolet Volt, GM's futuristic extended-range electric vehicle and the company's most technologically significant car since the 1912 Cadillac. You would perhaps want to stage-manage an ultramodern assembly hall, a place to bring dignitaries to witness the moment when the Volt's mega battery pack—the piece on which all else depends—is united with the svelte chassis. Put on your goggles. Raise the platform. Cue the chain lightning. It's alive!
Then again, maybe D-Ham's perfect. Because nothing could reinforce GM's page-turning narrative more than the moment when you see a Volt creeping down the line, a handsome and aero-sleek EV mixed among the obsolete Cadillac DTS's and Buick Lucernes. There's nothing fanciful or speculative or low-volume about D-Ham, nothing that suggests the Volt is merely a marketing exercise. This place is about major-league, hammer-and-tongs car-making.
Out of this creaky old furnace of the industrial age, finally, a spark of genius.
A Win for the Home Team
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General Motors I get it. A lot of people don't like GM because: 1) the bailout, or 1a) Obama; or 2) the United Auto Workers; or 3) because some Monte Carlo or Cutlass Sierra or deuce-and-a-quarter left them walking a long time ago. That's understandable. These are sour times. But for the moment, we should suspend our rancor and savor a little American pride. A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet. And they did it in 29 months while the company they worked for was falling apart around them. That was downright heroic. Somebody ought to make a movie.
And now we have this little bit of science fiction: a four-seat, five- door electric car that doesn't run out of electricity—well, unless it runs out of gasoline. The Volt is powered through the front wheels by a tourbillon of electric motors and a 1.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine. Serenely running off electricity stored in its 16-kilowatt- hour lithium-ion battery pack (435 pounds), the Volt can travel 25 to 50 miles per charge (depending on weather, terrain and driving behavior) using the electric traction motor and generator, which does double-duty as traction motor. On a test drive here last week, my driving partner and I got about 49 miles in all-electric range, with three people in the car, but conditions were perfect and we were driving like funeral directors.
TV Ad: Chevrolet Volt 0:44 Watch GM's new ad for the Chevrolet Volt.
2011 Chevrolet Volt
Base price: $41,000
Powertrain: Range-extended electric vehicle/series hybrid, with two electric motors and a 1.4-liter, 16-valve in-line four cylinder (below) charging the battery and driving front wheels through a planetary gearset; 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack; regenerative braking and front-wheel drive
Horsepower/torque: 149 hp/368 pound-feet
Curb weight/length: 3,781 pounds/177.1 inches
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
0-60 mph: 8.8 seconds
Top speed: 100 mph
Recharge time: 4 hours at 240V
Range: 25-50 miles all-electric; 310 miles in extended-range mode (est.)
Fuel economy: 260 watt-hours per mile in electric mode; 35 mpg in extended-range mode (est.)
Cargo capacity: 10.6 cubic feet
If and when the battery is depleted, the Volt can continue on its way using the internal-combustion engine to drive the generator, thereby powering the traction motor.
The Volt is thus a technological solution to a sociologic fact: Americans may be attracted to electric cars—and they should be—but they are also accustomed to unlimited mobility, which a pure electric car cannot provide, at least until a quick-charging infrastructure can be built. It hardly matters that about 80% of American drivers travel less than 40 miles per day—the Volt's nominal all-electric range. The Volt is palliative care for the so-called range anxiety.
And it works like a champ. Actually, it's extraordinarily efficient. Consider that the operable range of charge in the battery is 65%, or 10.4 kWh. At 40 miles all-electric, that's 260 watt-hours per mile, or about the power necessary to run a hand-held hair-dryer for 15 minutes. We're talking about an object that, with passengers, weighs two tons.
How the Volt got to be so efficient is a long, complex story that starts with a huge bolus of computer coding that manages the battery and the Voltec propulsion system. Then there's a few thousand hours of aero analysis and optimization, low-rolling-resistance tires, and a ruthless whittling down of vehicle weight. It's only in its slight anorexia that the Volt reveals itself as a high-efficiency car. The interior panels are thin plastic (with some spiffy graphics), and the seats are not exactly plush; the Volt's center console comprises a plastic, iPod-like fascia with touch-sensitive switches, some of which are a little too sensitive. I would have voted for some more comforting substance in the gizzard of this thing.
In all other respects, the Volt upholds the designer/engineers' mantra to make the car transparent—which is to say, as familiar and nonalienating as possible. They've added sounds where drivers might expect to hear them. The car will roll slowly from a stop if you take your foot off the brake, mimicking a conventional gas-powered car. The electrically assisted steering is crisp and affirmative, with a build- up of effort off center as you'd expect in a hydraulically assisted system. The brake pedal feels pretty artificial, but no wonder—up to 0.2 g of braking effect is regenerative, putting electrons back in the battery. Handling is lively, and there's even a Sport mode, sharpening the "throttle" reflexes and raising the force of the regenerate braking, so that it feels like an engine-braking effect (lift off the pedal and the car slows down).
Around-town, stop-and-go traffic is where the Volt shines, sluicing effortlessly to speed on a hushed carrier wave of electrons. Zero-60 mph is about 8.8 seconds, GM says. At highway speeds, the car has plenty of torque and passing pickup. It takes about a half-hour for the EV novelty to wear off, and then the Volt feels exactly like any other well-made fuel-efficient hybrid, which was the general idea.
For off-peak charging, figure operating costs of 2 cents to 3 cents per mile, depending on your local utility rates. GM says it takes 10 to 12 hours to recharge the car on household current, and about four hours on 240V current (like your dryer outlet). A 240V charger is available for $490, not including installation. Once the battery is depleted and the engine fires up, the car gets about 35 mpg, which isn't great as compared with the 50-mpg Toyota Prius. But then, as a GM engineer said to me, "It would be kind of stupid to buy the Volt and then not plug it in."
Indeed, the Volt is not for everybody. The car presupposes an audience of home-owning commuters with driveways and garages, people who can afford to pay $41,000 (less $7,500 federal tax credit and applicable state tax breaks) for what is a nicely equipped but hardly luxurious product. Will users save enough gas to justify the Volt premium? It depends on their driving and charging behavior, and more on their state of mind.
I caution against what author Rebecca Costa calls "extreme economics," the pecuniary mindset that says every choice is reducible to a simple cost/benefit ratio. There was a moment last week when I borrowed a Volt to drive to a local mall. It was raining. I was alone. And I had a moment when I felt, ever so slightly, less of the problem and more of the solution. That feeling was priceless.
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