2011 Chevrolet Volt Review and Week Long Live With Road Test
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
Several months ago I had the opportunity to spend enough time with a Chevrolet Volt to get a good first impression of GM's entry in the high-tech automotive field. Based on that, I wrote a first-drive driving impression, not expecting to find one available in the local press fleet.
Never say never in this business… I've just spent a short, interesting week with a Volt at home, with a 300-mile roundtrip road trip -- to, amusingly, the regional launch of someone else's new hybrid -- for part of the driving experience. It was a good showcase for the strengths and weaknesses of the Volt and its "extended-range EV" electric-gasoline drivetrain.
Weaknesses first: GM calls the Volt an "extended-range electric vehicle". Plug it in for a full charge -- which takes about eight hours on 110VAC or four at 220 -- and it will run between 30 and 50 miles as an electric vehicle. At all speeds, with all accessories on. No compromises. And when the EV battery reaches a minimum point, the gasoline engine turns on and (partially) charges the battery, which powers the traction motor, so electric power still the main propulsive torque source. (A full battery charge can only be obtained by plugging into an external source of electricity.) Occasionally the motor-generator will be driven by the gasoline engine, generating electricity, and connected to the drivetrain directly via clutch as well, meaning that some small amount of internal-combustion torque reaches the driving wheels. You, as driver or passenger, will never notice, and it's a bit of engineering trivia meaningful only to the most persnickety automotive taxonomist. If the Volt isn't an "extended-range electric vehicle", it's the first production plug-in hybrid, and, as either, its drive system is the most advanced currently in production.
The only real weakness is in the charging infrastructure. Yes, the Volt recharges on regular 110/120VAC house current, but the charger is picky about being attached to a well-grounded circuit and won't work if it isn't. It didn't like my 1943-spec house wiring. Nor was there a conveniently-located outlet in the hotel parking lot. With a pure EV, these would have been major problems; with the Volt, no worries, just put a little unleaded regular in the tank and drive. And if I was considering purchase, I'd upgrade my house and garage wiring. Although it was originally available only in California, Texas, Michigan, and parts of the Northeast or DC, GM has just announced that the Volt can be ordered throughout the country. You may have to wait a while for delivery, but not as long as previously.
Strengths? See above. It's a fully-functional automobile, and also a showcase for GM's engineering, design, and construction abilities. It's not inexpensive -- new technology rarely is -- and the 2011 Chevrolet Volt at $40,280 MSRP (minus possibly up to $7500 in tax incentives) proves the point, but at that it compares well with existing cars in that class. (Update: That was for the 2011 model. 2012 sees a drop to $39,995 base, including the destination charge.) The Volt is remarkably quiet, with the loudest source of noise being the tires. Attention to aerodynamic detail that includes an ultra-low rubber (fortunately) front air dam and smooth underside means nearly-nonexistent wind noise, and good behavior in strong winds. In EV mode the car is nearly silent, no surprise -- but when that ends and the engine switches on, passengers likely won't notice. A glance at the display screen on the center stack is the best way to tell the current power source, as mode changes are seamless and very quiet. Even in extended-range mode the Volt runs under electric power, engine off, at speeds under 40 mph in light-throttle driving. Fuel economy is dependent on driving type and style, see below for details.
The driving experience is a a bit different from a that of standard internal combustion car. There is absolutely no compression braking effect - lift the throttle and the Volt coasts as though it was in neutral, slowing very little. Which is excellent for fuel economy. The brakes, while commendably strong, have a remote, "by-wire" feel and are not linear in effect from pedal travel. I got used to that quickly enough. Same comment for throttle response - an electric motor makes maximum torque as soon as it starts to spin, so initial care is necessary at low speeds. With minimal road feel from the electrically-assisted steering, the Volt feels almost like a computer driving simulator… which, I suppose, is appropriate. It is, after all, a state-of-the-art high-tech electronic device as much as it is an automobile.
APPEARANCE: The Volt is a moderately small, cleanly-styled, and handsome four-door sedan, with an identifiable Chevrolet identity. Nothing about it screams "EV! look at me!", and that is no complaint. Fittingly, it's more upscale-looking than its Cruze platform-mate. Black paint trim beneath the windows is its most unusual styling feature, and a good one.
COMFORT: Car as electronic device? Check out the instrument panel -- it has more in common with a smartphone or tablet computer than a traditional car dashboard. There are no analog gauges and few standard-type switches to be seen. The main instrument display in front of the driver and the secondary information display at the top of the center stack are bright, reconfigurable screens. Center stack switches are touch-sensitive and mostly behind the facing material. All are lit for easy use at night. Need help to do something? Help screens abound in the info display -- electronic device, right?
That all works very well, and is appropriate for the car. The basic car aspects are also done well, with comfortable, supportive seats -- fronts manually-adjustable to save energy -- for four as the battery pack size and location preclude a center rear position, manual tilt and telescope adjustment of the steering wheel, and power windows, mirrors, and door locks. Hey, there are some conveniences that must be kept even in a car designed for maximum energy efficiency. The Volt is a hatchback, all the better to load cargo into the rear or get access to the recharging kit. USB and Bluetooth connectivity, XM radio and traffic, and a Bose audio system are standard. Most of the tech and other options expected to be available in a near-luxury car today are offered.
SAFETY: All of the safety features expected in a car at the Volt's price point are included in that price.
RIDE AND HANDLING: Ride quality is first-rate, with correctly-matched spring and damper rates giving a moderately-firm, compliant ride in the best European manner. Steering, as mentioned, is different, as are throttle and brake response. As is the Volt's drivetrain, so all of that is appropriate. It works, and well.
PERFORMANCE: I won't go into the complexities of the Volt's "Voltec Electric Drive System" here for reasons of length. I covered that in the previous article. The Volt is meant to be used primarily as an electric vehicle (EV), so the battery can only be fully charged by plugging in to the power grid (or, presumably, your own 110 or 220VAC generator, windmill, hydroelectric generator, or personal nuclear reactor…). That charge is good for between 30 and 50 miles of purely electric operation, with lower speeds making for longer distances. I got about 35 miles of highway driving off the initial charge, and 12 more from a four-hour partial charge at 110V. After that, the gasoline engine quietly turns on and runs the generator as needed to keep the battery charge level at its optimum. It's more like a diesel-electric submarine in that respect than a diesel-electric locomotive. It will run in that mode until the fuel tank runs dry, just like a normal gasoline-powered car. Only then would you need a tow truck, and that's your fault, as in any other car. GM suggests that the charge cable be plugged in whenever the car is parked, to lessen battery drain from the battery climate-control systems that may come on when the temperature gets too hot or cold. An electric motor makes maximum torque as soon as it starts to rotate, so low-speed acceleration is brisk. With a 0-60 time of just under 10 seconds, it's quick enough for everyday traffic. Steep hills, even at highway speeds, are no worry.
Fuel economy is variable, depending on the type of driving and distance, with low- to medium-speed surface street driving being the most economical and high-speed highways the worst. If you only drive within battery range and can recharge your Volt in between drives, you (theoretically) could go years between gasoline fill-ups. If that does happen, the car's computers will run the engine occasionally to ensure that it gets adequate exercise, and that the fuel doesn't go stale. Don't worry, the computer will ask first…
The window sticker lists all-electric mileage as the equivalent of 93 mpg. Yes, electricity is not free (although a full charge should be under $2) and much of the electricity in this country comes from natural gas or coal. And there is no such thing as "infinite miles per gallon". Gas-only is listed at 37mpg, similar to similarly-sized hybrid sedans. According to the computer, I got 41 mpg during my mostly-gasoline time with the Volt. A little more digging into the information systems also showed "38.4 mpg since reset" and "52.5 mpg lifetime mileage". Ymmv, as they say, but it's still good.
CONCLUSIONS: GM breaks new technological ground with the Chevrolet Volt.
2011 Chevrolet Volt
Base Price $ 40,280 - 7500 fed tax credit = 32,780 Price As Tested $ 44,680 Engine Type DOHC i6-valve inline 4-cylinder with continuously-variable cam phasing Engine Size 1.4 liters / 85 cu. in. Horsepower 84 @ 4800 rpm Traction motor Horsepower 149 (111 kW) Torque 273 lb-ft Torque (lb-ft) 273 @ y rpm Transmission planetary gearset Wheelbase / Length 105.7 in. / 177.1 in. Curb Weight 3755 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 25.2 Fuel Capacity 9.3 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P215/55R17 93H Goodyear Assurance Brakes, front/rear vented disc all around, ABS and regenerative braking standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / torsion beam axle Drivetrain front engine and motors, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 35 - 90mpg depending on driving 0 to 60 mph 9.2 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Premium Trim Package - includes: leather-appointed seating, premium door trim, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel $ 1,395 Viridian Joule Tricoat paint $ 995 Rear camera and park assist $ 695 17" forged polished alloy wheels $ 595 Destination charge $ 720