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2011 Chevrolet VOLT: The Ultimate Volt Review - MANY VIDEOS

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

The Light at the Front of the Tunnel

By Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher

January 23, 2011: Just a bit more than four years ago, Rick Wagoner and Bob Lutz (General Motors’ Chairman and Vice-Chairman, respectively) appeared on the GM Press Conference stage at the Detroit Auto Show to trumpet the start of what they hoped would, and could be, a new era in transportation. After starts and stops 100 years ago in the early days of the automobile to perfect the electric motorcar, and then again two decades ago with the EV1 followed by the Toyota electric RAV-4, a major automaker was back talking about building an electric passenger car. The talk didn’t stop; instead it started the wheels turning in the minds of all the other automakers as to how they could participate in the electric revolution.

Alas, Wagoner and Lutz are gone from GM, but the dream of the concept that they introduced on that cold winter day, the Chevrolet Volt, has come to fruition. And regardless of whatever critical comments can be said about GM, the Volt and the questionable near-term future for electric cars; General Motors did it. They brought the Volt concept to completion and to America’s roads. Cars have actually been delivered and real, live retail customers have begun taking possession of them.

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2011 Chevrolet Volt

Earlier this month we were invited to attend a Volt media event in Sausalito, California. But this time, it wasn’t just to see a static model of the Volt and discuss superfluous aspects of the design of the plug-in power cord. The purpose of the event was to get in and actually drive the car.

En route to the event location, Mark Fulmer and I stopped off in Dixon, California to visit with Andy Frank, Professor of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at University of California at Davis. Dr. Frank is universally regarded as “Father of the Modern Plug-In Hybrid.” His work in this area goes back more than 25 years. Andy is also Co-Founder and CTO of Efficient Drivetrains, Inc., a Silicon Valley based company whose mission is to capitalize on the various innovations and patents that he and his team have developed over the years.

We wanted to get Dr. Frank’s assessment of the Chevy Volt, because as it turns out, he personally took delivery of the very first Volt in Northern California. So who better to review the Volt than the man who’s responsible for creating the technology?

Andy took possession of his Volt (it was not given to him, he purchased it) just before Christmas, which allowed him to use it on some long family-related drives over the holidays. As you can see/hear for yourself in our video interview with Andy, he thinks GM did a superb job on the Volt. One of the most important comments made by Andy, which comes towards the end of the interview, is his statement that the vehicle would be nearly perfect if ethanol is used in place of gasoline to power the small on-board internal combustion engine.

Click PLAY to watch the interview

In the past several years, The Auto Channel has had the opportunity to video tape Andy’s presentations at different alternative fuel expositions. We also did an extended interview with him in June 2009 for our RoadTrip television series.

Click PLAY to watch the RoadTrip interview

Is the Volt part of an energy independence solution or a diversion?

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In the test drive that I did in the Volt I can honestly say that it was a pleasure. The car is fun to drive. Perhaps owing to its low evenly-distributed center of gravity (the extended battery runs down the center of the vehicle), the Volt’s driving characteristics are not unlike the tight, sturdy go-cart feel of the MINI Cooper. As Andy Frank stated, the acceleration - and eventual transition from pure battery (sorta-kinda) to gasoline-powered-electric - is seamlessly smooth. There’s no herky-jerky gear changes and (again, just as Andy said), since the gasoline engine is so well muffled you’re never aware of the gasoline engine when it kicks in.

The interior of the vehicle, although somewhat Spartan, is quite nice.

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The seat comfort is just ‘okay,’ suited more to a sub-$20,000 car than a $40k vehicle (yes, I know that with the federal tax credit that the car nets out at about $33,000). The vertical console panel may present some problems as the vehicle ages. The reason is that there are no raised buttons to push to select various features/functions: it’s just a flat surface with printed words. Typically, lettering on buttons will wear away with extended use, but at least there are still the well defined levels of the buttons to indicate where to push or what to switch. On the Volt, if the lettering wears away it would not be clear as to where you should push. Lending the car to a friend, unfamiliar with the exact location of the 'sweet spots,' could become an adventure.

However, the big issue with the Chevrolet Volt, and with all of the planned electric competitors that will become available over the next few years is what benefit will these vehicles be in helping to improve the environment and assisting us in becoming energy independent, while also working towards the elimination of funding of global terrorism. This is why I subtitled this review "The Light at the Front of the Tunnel." The Volt illuminates the beginning of the journey, but where it leads and how it will turn out is pitch black.

As Bob Gordon, my partner in The Auto Channel, has extensively written*, the limited production numbers for electric vehicles for the coming decades will be insignificant compared to the number of new gasoline vehicles that will continue to pour out of the factories. The number of electric vehicles produced and sold will be so small that they probably won't even equal the number of vehicles needed to meet increasing population. So we will still have hundreds of millions of poisonous gasoline-powered vehicles on the roads, with millions more being produced and sold every month.

If the ramp up to electric vehicle production could account for a majority of new vehicles sold within just the next few years; that would be one thing. However, some government studies and independent research shows that electric vehicles won’t become impactful for 50, 60, 70, 80 years.

The danger…and we have seen evidence of this already, is that our collective attention is being diverted by a false promise. We need action now, not at mid-century or later. A look at General Motors’ own marketing shows an alarming reduction in their promotion of flex-fuel vehicles. They have virtually abandoned their e85 marketing push of the past 10 years, going so far as to turn their backs on the tens of thousands of customers who believed in the GM pitch and purchased flex-fuel cars and trucks. The ironic part of this sad story is that although GM continues to produce flex-fuel vehicles (indeed all vehicles are flex-fuel to some extent), they no longer advertise it. Consequently the growth of new ethanol plants and filling facilities has been stifled as the public is led away from ethanol and energy independence.

Therefore, while big media fawns over an electric fantasy and politicians continue to suck up money from petroleum oil interests, the true solutions to achieving a cleaner environment, ending the economic depression and striking a blow against oil-supported global terrorism have been forced into the background. These solutions, CNG, propane and ethanol (the best of all), could be used immediately to change hundreds of millions of existing vehicles. Then, when electric vehicles and battery technology are finally ready for prime-time, the transition will come to a richer, healthier and safer world.

Bottom line:

As I said, the Chevrolet Volt is a fun car to drive and even if I have great reservations about its future as a near-term game changer, I have to give GM a lot of credit for actually doing what they said they would. All the more remarkable is that it was done by an “American” car company.

Unfortunately, at $40,000 the car is priced way too high. It should be selling for about $20,000. Of course GM could never sell it that low, unless the government gifts them another $50 billion of taxpayer money; but then we would all be paying to allow a very small percentage of our countrymen to drive a car that enables all of modern society’s worst evils.

Two weeks ago I purchased a 2002 Ford Taurus with 110k miles for a couple thousand dollars. I will be using e85 ethanol in the car, thereby effectively getting about 150 miles per gallon of gasoline, which is considerably higher than the 99 miles per gallon of gasoline that the EPA (through a wacky formula) rates the Volt at. And I saved $30,000, to boot.

*SEE ALSO: Electric Vehicles: Are they a Solution or Diversion?

Click PLAY to watch "Test Driving the New Chevrolet Volt" (May 1, 2009)

Click PLAY to watch "Chevy Volt A Big Hit at Alt Car Expo 2008" (October 14, 2008)

Click PLAY to watch "GM Celebrates 100th Anniversary by Unveiling Chevrolet Volt" (September 18, 2008)

Click PLAY to watch "GM to Begin Testing Chevrolet Volt Electric Car" (August 11, 2007)

Click PLAY to watch the "Complete Introduction of the Chevrolet Volt at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show" (January 8, 2007)