General Motors has been working for nearly four years to bring the Volt electric sedan to market, and, based on what we've experienced, the final result is a shockingly good, technologically brilliant electrically powered sedan. The Volt seats four.
The Chevrolet Volt uses a enormous 420-pound, T-shaped lithium-ion battery, mounted right in the center of the car, under the center console and rear seat, to power the car through a large 149-horsepower, 368 foot-pound AC-current electric motor with a planetary transmission and transaxle driving the front wheels. Chevrolet says a fully charged battery will run the car on electricity alone for nearly 47 miles.
The battery, co-developed with Korea's LG Chemical, a leader in this technology, uses 288 slim cells divided into four 72-cell packs. The battery has its own separate heating and cooling systems to allow it to operate efficiently in extremes of temperature. The battery can be fully charged on normal house current in 10-12 hours, said Chevrolet, and with a 240-volt charging station, in about four hours. Since electric power rates vary wildly across the country, Chevrolet estimated than an overnight charge will cost $1.00 to $1.50 per day, far less than the several gallons of gasoline it would take most commuters to get to work and back. Chevrolet will charge $490 for the fast-charging station, plus whatever your local power utility will charge for installation, and some power companies are prepared to offer rebates on installations to promote the idea. The first 4,400 Chevrolet Volt buyers will get the charging station free.
When impending battery depletion is sensed by the electronic control system that links the battery, motor, clutches, transaxle, and starter/generator together, the 1.4-liter gasoline engine starts, and converts the starter into a 55-kilowatt generator, which then supplies electrical power to the battery and the motor so that the journey can continue.
Travel can continue until the 9.3-gallon fuel tank runs out of fuel, a distance that Chevrolet calculates to be about 350 miles, or 47 miles on the battery and 310 miles using gasoline to charge the battery. The battery is never truly depleted, and operates continuously between 50 and 65 percent of its capacity, but the system is geared toward preserving the battery's life and condition under extremes of heat, cold and continuous duty.
The Volt's 1.4-liter double-overhead-cam, four-valve, fuel injected gasoline engine is the same engine used in the Chevrolet Cruze, without the turbocharger, and is rated at 84 horsepower at 4800 rpm. Because there is the possibility of long periods of gasoline storage, the Volt is built with a sealed, pressurized fuel system, and Chevrolet has specified that only premium unleaded fuel be used because it can stand up to long periods of storage without deterioration. There is a warning system that tells the driver to go out for a drive to burn off any condensation that has reached the fuel.
Although the Volt could be characterized as a series hybrid by some definitions, Chevrolet insists the Volt is an extended-range electric vehicle with onboard generation, and that the gasoline engine, because it adds power through the starter/generator, doesn't ever drive the front tires directly.
The battery can drive the Volt in any of three modes, Normal, Sport and Mountain, in either Drive or Low ranges in the planetary transmission, offering a great deal of situational flexibility. Volt engineers recommend using the Low range any time the car is driving in bumper-to-bumper or other heavy traffic, so that the brakes can regenerate additional electricity.
If the $41,000 price tag seems high, remember the amount of new technology and expensive parts in this car, and be reminded that there is a $7500 federal tax rebate available, which drops the price down to $33,500. There is also a federal rebate of $2000 on a home charging unit. And several states offer refunds or rebates ranging from $2000 to $5000. Chevrolet offers a lease price on a Volt of $350 a month, with a 36,000-mile limit and a $2500 down payment. While the entire vehicle carries a normal GM warranty (three years, 36,000 miles), the battery itself carries an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty.
GM designers have worked continuously on the Volt program since it was introduced as a concept vehicle four years ago, with the goal of making it as aerodynamically efficient as possible. The result of the low hood, front air dam, long roof, high decklid and cut-off rear panel is the most aero-efficient Chevrolet in history, with a drag coefficient of only 0.28, among the best in the world for sedans.
The final design is clearly a Chevrolet, with very good use of lighting as a design element, not one but two front spoilers to manage air flow over and around the body, and a bold alloy wheel design mounting Goodyear Fuel Max P215/55R17 low-rolling-resistance tires.
The Volt is as modern and different on the inside as it is on the outside. On cloth-seat base models, the door panels and other trim are metallic, but if the premium package is ordered, those panels become wildly graphic, including the dashtop. Either way, the interior looks very modern, the materials and graining are very well done, and there is plenty of light coming into the car from the large windows.
Volt seats just four people. The layout is for two up front in bucket seats, two in the rear on the bench seat, and the buckets are modern looking and very comfortable.
There are two large display screens, one directly in front of the driver, and one at the top center of the instrument panel, and between the two screens, there is every kind of technical information about the operation of the car, plus navigation and entertainment on the center screen. The very large speedometer numbers dominate the driver's screen, with the normal gauges arrayed around the corners, a battery depletion gauge on the left, and a floating virtual Earth on the right-hand side, the idea being to keep the Earth centered at all times for best battery life and best energy usage, functionally similar to the growing-leaf display in the Ford Fusion hybrid.
The center stack is very different from everything else out there, a smooth white plastic panel with a dozen and a half touch buttons and touch areas that operate all of the Volt's heating, ventilation, air conditioning, entertainment and navigation functions. It's a little bewildering at first, and the driver must use a carefully pointed fingertip to avoid hitting the wrong button or area, but after a short drive, the various functions are easy to find and fun to use.
Like some of the existing hybrids, the Volt is always trying to help the driver achieve better battery performance, better overall efficiency and better fuel mileage, through the various instruments and displays on the instrument panel. It's very easy to stay on top of all that information by scrolling through the menus as you drive, trying to keep the battery stack icon as tall as possible.
But, eventually, the battery will deplete, after 48 miles in our case, and then the engine starts noiselessly and stays quietly in the background even at high throttle settings. Chevrolet said the Volt will run from 0 to 60 mph on battery power in less than 9 seconds, and reach a top speed of 100 mph.
The chassis underneath the unibody Volt is almost all composed of the same parts used on the Chevrolet Cruze sedan and some German Opel models, with the exception of the ABS brakes, which are connected to the car's electrical system and recharge the battery every time the car is braked or the accelerator pedal is released. Everything about the steering, braking and handling of the Volt reflects the Cruze, a highly competent compact. There is nothing weird about it. The steering is relatively quick and nicely weighted, the brakes work extremely well crawling through traffic or even hauling down from highway speeds, and the suspension absorbs big bumps and deep potholes with ease. The ride is taut and smooth, but well short of luxury-car plushness.
We drove almost 50 miles in Low range in afternoon rush-hour traffic, using the Low range by lifting off the pedal to slow the car between stoplights and regenerate electricity at the same time, using the brakes sparingly, which also recharged the system. In this mode, the Volt is virtually noiseless, conversation is easy, and the sound system doesn't have to be cranked up to overcome operating noise. A very pleasant commute from the airport to the hotel.
The engine did not start until 48 miles had elapsed, and when it did start, it started imperceptibly and stayed quiet under all driving conditions. On a longer highway driving loop, using the battery until it was depleted, and then the engine/generator/motor combination, the onboard gauges told us we had gone 64 miles on battery power, 59 miles with the engine on, for a total of 123 miles, using only 1.65 gallons of gasoline, or 74.8 miles per gallon! According to published reports, while the engine is running the Volt is getting about 32 mpg.
The Volt's safety package is far more complete and complex than an ordinary car's, because all of the safety systems, air bags, OnStar, ABS, traction control, StabiliTrak, and the rest, are tied into the electrical system so that the system shuts down automatically in the event of an accident, flood, rollover or air bag deployment.
The Volt proved to be a very nice surprise in terms of its smooth, quiet operation, its excellent acceleration, its competent dynamics, and its ongoing economy of operation. It got a great many looks of admiration and thumbs up for its overall style, and the interior decor and function are very appealing as well. By 2011, Chevrolet will have the capacity to build 30,000 Volts for the U.S. and Canada, and we don't think that's going to be enough cars to fill the demand.
Jim McCraw filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Rochester, Michigan.