Chevrolet Volt: A sneak peek at GM's plug-in hybrid
Even in this rough prototype, the whole car seems lighted from within by
the ambitions of its builders. And it goes about 40 miles before dipping
into its gas tank.
November 30, 2009
It accelerates with a big husky twist of its electric motor. Actually,
you can even chirp the front tires if you push the go-button hard enough
-- very unlike a golf cart. It corners confidently and brakes crisply
and, if it's no Ferrari, it certainly won't embarrass itself on the 110
Freeway, otherwise known as the Pasadena Grand Prix.
It's comfortable, practical and -- graded on the curve of five-seat
family hatchbacks -- reasonably attractive. Think German-made-dishwasher
But the question remains: Will the Chevrolet Volt -- General Motors'
radical electric vehicle with a range-extending gas generator on board,
due in November 2010 -- really work? Will it help GM leapfrog Toyota --
currently experiencing its own woes -- as a grandmaster of green-car
technology? Will it help win back legions of disaffected customers? Will
it wow EV enthusiasts in Southern California, who still haven't forgiven
GM for building the Hummer H2 or forgotten the murder of its charismatic
little electric car of the 1990s, the EV1?
The high-tech, Earth-friendly Volt could provide a bridgehead for GM in
California, where the company's sales have plummeted about 50% from
And by the way, while the Volt is saving GM, will it save gasoline?
"Absolutely," says Andrew Farah, the Volt's chief engineer. "It's going
to work and work better than people realize. . . . I'm proud as hell of
The Volt is a series hybrid EV that is propelled by a 120-kilowatt (160-
horsepower) electric motor. Drawing on energy stored in its 16-kilowatt-
hour lithium-ion battery, the Volt has an all-electric range of about 40
miles. If the battery is depleted, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder generator
kicks in to supply electricity to the traction motor.
The advantage of this design is that if drivers don't exceed 40 miles of
driving daily (and most don't), and if they plug in at night, they won't
use any gas at all. If they need to go farther, they can, burning
The Volt splits the difference between the greenness of an EV and the
freedom of a gas-powered car. It will be the first such car to come to
GM hasn't announced pricing, but it's widely speculated the car will sell
for under $40,000. Buyers will get a $7,500 tax credit on the car, for a
net cost of $32,500 or less. That would still make the Volt thousands
more expensive than a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight hybrid.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Volt to the image of
GM -- not least because GM, battered by bankruptcy and a lingering
reputation as the Darth Vader of fuel economy, has been trumpeting the
car in advertising for well over a year. That strategy carries its own
"GM likely feels the massive pre-intro hype for the Volt is probably more
valuable than any post-intro disappointment it may yield," said Karl
Brauer, editor of Edmunds.com, the consumer auto research website. "The
company is well into its second year of cashing in on the car's promise
of near-zero emissions and 200-plus mpg. Will there be a year plus of
scolding by the press if the car ultimately bombs? No, a few weeks at
Behind the wheel
Farah was in Los Angeles this weekend taking a hand-built Volt prototype
on a goodwill tour of sorts, visiting Jay Leno's garage and car
enthusiast events. The tour included a stop at Dodger Stadium on Sunday,
when journalists had a chance to drive the car for themselves.
I spent 45 minutes behind the wheel, weaving through a four-tenths-mile
course marked off by cones in one of the parking lots. This was one of
the first opportunities for anyone outside of GM engineering to test the
The Volt -- a four-door sedan with a hatchback, about the same size as a
Toyota Prius -- is filled with cheery, next-generation textures: the Mac
computer-like finish on the touch-sensitive center console; a bright,
animated information panel with readouts for battery life and fuel
As with all electric cars, the sensation of hard acceleration feels
slightly empty since there's no accompanying pitch of a snarling internal-
combustion engine. The absence of engine noise tends to amplify other
sounds, such as the squealing of the special low-rolling-resistance tires.
The Volt has a sport mode that boosts battery/motor output by 27
horsepower. In sport mode, the Volt acceleration feels well within the
reported 8 seconds to 60 mph, perhaps a little better.
The critical moment arrives when the Volt exhausts its supply of onboard
electrons and the range-extending gas generator kicks in. During my test
drive, this moment came and went without much of a mechanical inflection.
The output of the electric motor, and therefore the performance, remains
the same. The engine noise is distant and muted.
If the car encounters a steep uphill grade, or the driver really floors
it, the gas generator does rev up to keep up with the electrical demand,
sounding much like a conventional car. The engine noise is still too
noticeable, according to Farah. The complex power management software
will be evolving until the day the car goes to market.
Still, even in this rough prototype, the Volt vibe is spacious,
comfortable and lively. The whole car seems lit from within by the
ambitions of its builders.
The job ahead
The Volt will not be an easy sell. Because it is, in Farah's words, a
"discontinuous product" -- which is to say, unlike anything else on the
market -- the public is still unsure how the Volt works or how it differs
from a hybrid or a pure electric vehicle. "People hear what their brain
tells them they already know."
For example: Unlike electric cars like Nissan’s Leaf, due late next year,
the Volt has essentially unlimited range, since it can run on gasoline.
And yet, many fret that the Volt will leave them stranded with a dead
battery. So-called range anxiety is one of the big obstacles facing
battery-electric vehicles in the U.S. "One message we're trying to get
out is that there's life after 40 [miles]," Farah said.
Another challenge: Not everyone will have a place to plug the car in.
Apartment dwellers need not apply.
The Volt's technical approach has won fans in the environmental community.
"Combining battery electric drive with an internal combustion range
extender is an elegant solution that provides enough electric-only range
for most people, while offering unlimited hybrid range when required,"
said Ron Cogan, publisher of Green Car Journal and editor of GreenCar.com.
However, some in the industry are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"It's a new kind of technology and an unknown quantity," says Michael
Omotoso, director of powertrain forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates.
"The fact that there's an engine on board might give people confidence in
the car's range," he said. "On the other hand, people might say, 'Wait a
minute. I want an electric car. If I wanted something with an engine on
board, why wouldn't I just buy a hybrid like a Prius or the Honda
To complicate matters, the federal government isn't quite sure how to
calculate fuel economy for the Volt and other range-extended EVs (such as
the proposed Fisker Karma). In August, GM announced that the Volt got 230
miles per gallon in city driving -- which is accurate by the numbers but
not really representative of real-world driving.
Farah said GM and the government are working toward a mileage
methodology. "We want a clear, understandable and communicable number,"
Based on a national average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, GM estimates
it will cost about 80 cents per day to fully charge the Volt. In electric
mode, that works out to about two cents per mile. A comparable gas-
powered car would cost about 12 cents per mile to operate, according to
In any event, GM figures the Volt will average more than 100 miles per
gallon for most consumers. "I drove it for over 200 miles one weekend and
used two-tenths of a gallon of gas," Farah said.
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