2011 Chevrolet Volt Review
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.2
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