The Chevrolet Volt has probably been "coming soon" for longer than any vehicle in automotive history, but trust us, it's real. We know this because we were recently handed the keys to a preproduction version of GM's electric Prius-hunter for a test-drive in downtown San Francisco.
GM tells us that this preproduction model was hand-built late last year, and that substantial tweaks have been made to both the software driving the Volt and the fit and finish of the interior of newer versions being tested elsewhere--and that the production models that roll off assembly lines in November will be tweaked further still. However, the actual hardware of the vehicle's drivetrain is about as showroom-ready as it gets.
Extended range electric vehicle
The hardware in question begins with a T-shaped lithium ion battery pack running the length of the vehicle's center tunnel and rear seats that provides power to a 120kW electric motor. The motor is connected to the front wheels through a single-speed transmission and handles all of the vehicle's motivational duties. Running in electric vehicle (EV) mode, the Volt has an estimated optimal range of 40 miles, more than enough--by GM's estimates--to handle commuter duties for the vast majority of drivers.
Also tucked under the Volt's hood is a 1.4-liter gasoline engine. This engine integrates a generator, producing juice to keep the Volt's batteries trickle-charged in extended range (ER) mode when trips exceed the vehicle's 40-mile EV range. This gasoline engine is not mechanically connected to the drive wheels or transmission, only the electric motor is. So don't go calling the Volt a hybrid around GM's people. The preferred term is extended range electric vehicle, or EREV.
Settling behind the wheel of the Volt, we depressed the brake pedal and touched the glowing blue Start button partway down the glossy white center stack. The Volt's LCD displays sprung to life and we got our first look at the interface. At the top of the center stack is a color touch panel that gives you control over the infotainment systems and climate controls, and it displays detailed information about the Volt's electric power train, charge state, and historical fuel economy. Below the touch screen is a bank of capacitive touch sensors that bring up functions such as hard-drive media storage, XM Satellite Radio, or navigation. In the center of this bank is a pair of knobs for tuning and volume, and the Volt's CD slot.
Looking even farther down, we find the Volt's drive selector, a chunky glossy white handle that lives in an indentation where the center stack and console meet. This stylized shift lever slides back to select Drive or Reverse with a satisfyingly industrial thunk that made us feel like we were piloting some sort of sci-fi spacecraft.
Looking past the Volt's steering wheel, we notice that in place of a conventional instrument cluster is yet another color LCD display. This display is home to a digital speedometer and a host of information widgets supplying information about everything from the total range and EV range to fuel levels to service bulletins and warnings. Compared with the SmartGauge found in the Ford Fusion hybrid, or even with the color-changing conventional cluster in the Honda Insight, this admittedly preproduction interface seemed more like a hodgepodge of widgets rather than a clear and unified interface that's easy to read at speed. We're pretty sure that the production interface will see an upgrade before launch.
Driving the Volt
Satisfied that all systems were go, we pulled the shifter to Drive and stepped on the gas, er, accelerator. This being a test mule, GM wouldn't set us loose onto the streets of San Francisco, so we were restricted to a few laps of a cone course set up in a large parking lot. At the relatively low speeds, the Volt glides forward with little drama or fanfare. Power is good and comparable to that of a large four-cylinder engine but with six-cylinder levels of torque. The Volt isn't a neck-snapping electric freight train like the Tesla Roadster, but she's no golf cart, either. With no gears to shift or engine buzzing, acceleration is silky smooth.
As we reached the halfway point of our first lap, the GM engineer riding along with us brought the Sport button to our attention. Pressing this button cycles through the Volt's various power-train modes. Normal is the EREV's default state, emphasizing efficiency in an attempt to get the full 40 miles out of the battery. Next up is titular Sport mode, which remaps the throttle for more aggressive tip-in and is more liberal with sending the electrons to the motor. An oddly specific Mountain mode causes the range extender to kick in earlier and more frequently, helping to prevent draining the batteries when traversing steep mountains. In addition to the different drive programs, there is also a mode chosen via the drive selector lever that increases the amount of regenerative braking, maximizing efficiency and minimizing brake use in stop-and-go situations.
With the drive mode set to Sport, we were able to accelerate out of corners with more gusto, chirping the front tires if we weren't careful. Braking at the end of the course's long straight, we entered a series of turns that tested the Volt's handling. Despite the plethora of orange cones, this was no autocross course. However, with a low center of mass--thanks to its low-slung battery pack--and instant-on torque with no hunting through gears, the Volt seems like it would have a handling advantage over similarly sized vehicles. Then again, theoretically beating a Toyota Camry or Ford Fusion around a parking lot is really nothing to brag about.
Because of the low speed and short distance of our test, we weren't able to coax the range extender engine to fire up, so testing of the Volt's appeal as a long distance EV will have to wait until we can get more seat time.
Is it a game changer?
After a few laps, we decided that what's most remarkable about driving the Volt is that, aside from the gee-whiz underpinnings and futuristic looks, it's quite an unremarkable ride. If that sounds like a slight against GM's golden child Prius-killer, it's not. GM and Chevrolet have built a decent vehicle that just happens to run on electrons. Aimed at the mass market, the Volt needs to stand out and be unique, but it also can't be strange and alien. It has to be, first and foremost, a car that feels familiar enough to just get in and use. By that measure, we believe the Volt succeeds.
Looking past our short demo drive and into the realm of ownership, the high-tech gizmos and gee-whiz underpinnings do have a huge effect on the Volt experience. Not only will drivers have to adjust to a daily charging regimen and keep tabs on battery charge levels, but there's also the management of fuel levels for the gasoline range extender. Perhaps the EREV nature of the Volt will ease the shift into an electric car; and maybe the Volt's software and tools--like the--will help, but we feel that it bears mentioning that the Volt requires a much more drastic paradigm shift than a hybrid like the Prius would. Our time with the Volt has seriously piqued our interest and left us wanting to spend more time with the vehicle to see how it handles the world outside of a cone course.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is scheduled to hit showroom floors around November 2010. Pricing is still being determined.