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,
Out of this creaky old furnace of the industrial age, finally, a spark
A Win for the Home Team
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
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
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.