Volt: Risks and Resurrections
By Bill Moore
Electricity can kill you or save your life. A jolt of 'juice' can stop your heart or start it up again. It's all a matter of degrees... well, amps and volts, actually. In General Motor's case, they're counting on Volts reviving their fortunes, not terminating them. The silver gray four-passenger car I drove the last two days could do just that.
Over those two days, I and two fellow journalists put a good one hundred miles on a pair of Chevrolet Volts, driving them beyond their battery range. Our routes took us through rush hour traffic in Detroit, through eastern Michigan farmlands, and along the shores of Lake St. Clair and the once trendy communities of Gross Pointe. Most of the time, we rolled quietly along at 45 mph and occasionally nudged the extended-range electric car above 60 mph for brief stretches of freeway. We certainly didn't push the car to its limit, but pretty much drove it the way GM thinks most owners will use it: daily commutes to and from work, with the odd side trip and weekend jaunt thrown in to break up a fairly predictable, maybe even hum drum routine.
At this point, I am tempted to write something like, "but the Volt is far from hum drum or routine," but honestly, it's not a Corvette or a Camaro. It's not meant to boost your ego, arouse your libido, increase your heart rate, stimulate the flow of adrenaline, or elicit lust. It's meant to do one thing great: meet your daily driving needs as quietly, cleanly and petroleum-free as you let it. And when you're ready to drive it across the state or the country, it can do that too; maybe not quite as efficiently as the Prius, the icon it's aiming to leapfrog technologically and in public mind share, but certainly in a highly creditable manner, with an estimated combined highway/city mileage in the 'high thirties' is the way Volt program managers are putting. GM should have the EPA's numbers in the next few weeks.
In reality, however, whatever those numbers turn out to be, they will be, essentially, meaningless. The very existence of two energy sources propelling the car, electricity and premium gasoline, makes it practically impossible to arrive at a commonly agreed upon result. Instead, the number that will ultimately matter most to its owners is electric driving range: how far you can drive before the 1.4 liter gasoline engine turns on, almost imperceptibly, I must add.
Case in point, when GM met us at the airport and paired each of us up with another journalist, they challenged us to see how far we could drive on battery power alone. The current record was 46 miles, the distance from DTW to the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, with some 7 miles of reserve range still available. Ed Gibson and I got to within about half a mile of the hotel before the IC engine turned on, and when it did, I was the only one to notice it, and only then because I had my video camera ready to record the event. Gibson and Rob Peterson from GM, who rode along with us, were busily conversing about fantasy football leagues.
Sensing the viral possibilities of such online competition, GM has set up its MyVolt.com web site for owners to help them track their daily performance, which is automatically recorded via OnStar. This information is kept private, but owners will have the option to share it via social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. I can easily imagine competitions arising between neighbors, internally within companies who lease the cars for their fleets, possibly even between cities, say Seattle versus San Antonio.
Not that MPG isn't important. After touring the Hamtramck assembly plant where the Volt is being built on the same line as the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne, Rick Cotta and I set out on the final drive of the day, largely retracing our steps as we drove north towards Miller's Big Red Greenhouses and Cider Mill near Romeo, Michigan, some 55 miles away. We left the factory with about 16 miles of EV range. When I pulled into the Apple Farm for cider and donuts, we had averaged 61.8 mpg. After the car went into EREV mode, we burned 0.8 gallons of fuel for the remaining 39.5 miles, or -- if my math is correct -- roughly the equivalent of 49.3 mpg. That easily puts it in the same league as the Prius. Of course, you won't get that barreling across I-80 at 80 mph, in either car.
Besides the 'seat time' I clocked, I learned all sorts of fascinating pieces of information about the car, like what happens if the gasoline in the car's 9.3 gallon pressurized tank (for compliance with California emissions standards) begins to 'go stale" from not being burned? You could dump in a fuel additive like Stable, but GM has incorporated an algorithm that determines when the fuel is starting to deteriorate. This causes an alert message to pop up on the display screen that offers to run the engine to burn off some of the fuel. The driver has the option to ignore it, accept it, or take a long trip.
Another interesting attention to detail: if you leave the car "on," when you open the hood, the engine automatically comes on as a precaution to prevent possible injury to a mechanic, for example.
In keeping with its goals of being as cutting edge as possible, there are no analog gauges on the car. Instead, there are two LED screens, one providing driver and vehicle information: speed, EV range, quantity of fuel in the tank, etc. The second screen incorporates GPS navigation, climate control, entertainment, etc. Frankly, there's almost too much information, at least it seems pretty overwhelming at first. I am told by GM engineers who drive the car daily, that you quickly adapt.
What you also learn from the engineers is that their preferred driving mode of the three available is 'Sport' with the shifter set to 'Low.' The Sport setting gives you brisker mid-range acceleration, but its the 'Low' shifter setting that won me over. Actually, the term should be 'Slow', but not because its like driving in first or second gear; the car doesn't need to shift gears. It has, in effect, an infinitely variable transmission that is as smooth as silk. No, what 'Low' does, is it provides for more aggressive regenerative braking; right there on par with AC Propulsion. You can, with a bit of practice, drive this car without ever touching the brakes. As soon as you let up on the accelerator, the car goes into regen, slowing it and recapturing some of the kinetic energy back into electric power. In a word, it is 'sweet.'
Performance-wise, the car does okay. Rick Gotta, with whom I paired the second day, wanted to find some curves to put it through, but in this part of Michigan, there aren't many to be found, so we didn't get to test its handling. From my perspective, the car is solid, stable and quiet. When the engine does come on, you have to work hard to notice it.
Acceleration is what about you'd expect from a six-cyliinder, only far smoother, though there does appear to be a second or so lapse between flooring it and the car responding, but it has plenty of get-up-and-go when needed, even in EREV mode. Actually, it could have even better acceleration, a Volt powertrain engineer told us. It would take about 30 minutes of programming to change some control code and the car could be coaxed to do burn-outs. (I wagered with Tony DiSalle, the Volt marketing guy, that hackers would figure it out within a year.)
So, bottom line, what do I think of the car? Would I trade my plug-in Prius conversion for one? If I had the financial wherewithal, sure. My car is what I consider a second generation plug-in. The Volt is clearly next generation. It offers just about everything I'd want in a grid-charged car. It's got enough range to drive me pretty much all around Omaha in EV-mode, something my Prius can't always do... yet. But moving from a 6.1 to 16kWh, does have its costs, mainly in terms of longer charging time at 110 -- my Prius takes only about 3-4 hours to recharge overnight. Installing a 220V, 30 amp service run to my garage won't be easy or inexpensive; ask Chelsea Sexton.
Being around the people involved in the Volt program, you sense both their pride and their apprehension. A lot is riding on the success of this car: their careers and, to a very large degree, the credibility and fortunes of their company. This Volt could revive GM's reputation as a technology leader, or short-circuit it.
Rob Peterson said something interesting on the drive out from the airport to Rochester. In his mind, the Volt program will be a success if it encourages the same kind of risk taking in General Motors' other divisions. Hopefully, the Volt is just the jolt GM has long needed.
blog comments powered by Disqus