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Not a "pure" EV, but game-changing potential

Chevrolet Volt – Click above for high-res image gallery

"The Chevrolet Volt is an electric vehicle that is capable of being your only car," said Volt Marketing Director Tony DiSalle at the Volt media launch briefing. "You have the freedom to 'fuel up' at home, yet you're not tethered to a charge station. You can't always plan your day around charge opportunities." He added that General Motors is counting on very positive feedback from Volt early adopters thrilled by its "unprecedented customer experience."

The Volt's promise, first made at a December 2006 media briefing prior to the concept's January 2007 Detroit Auto Show debut, was that it would run on inexpensive energy off the grid for the first 40 miles, then go as far as needed on electricity generated by a small ICE. It would be a non-fuel-burning, tailpipe-emissions-free electric vehicle (EV) for at least the first part of each day's drive, then a fuel-efficient compact the rest of the way. Thus, it would eliminate "range anxiety," that sweaty-palm fear of running out of battery before you run out of trip.

This all sounded good, but the skepticism of many leaving that briefing four years ago was largely justified: how well would this unique series-hybrid system work; would GM have the commitment and resources to get it done; and – even if so -- could it be sold profitably at an affordable price? Now that the Volt is finally here, we know it's a very nice car. Find out what else we learned after the jump.

Based on the same platform as Chevy's all-new 2011 Cruze sedan, the Volt is about the same size and even looks a little Cruze-like, even though it has an aero-optimized shape and is a 5-door hatchback, not a sedan. Its Chevy-signature twin grille ports are covered by aluminum-look bars, its interior is completely different, and its two-passenger back seat is less roomy due to the centrally-located battery pack.

The interior is a mix of conventional (a nice Cruze-like steering wheel with convenient audio and cruise controls, stalks for turn signals and wipers, comfy seats and PRNDL shifter) and unique. The iPod-like shiny plastic vertical console (looks better in grey than white) offers touch buttons for audio, climate and standard navigation, plus the electric park brake and propulsion on/off. Fits and materials are good, with soft upper dash and door-panel pads and nicely grained plastic elsewhere. Only the contrasting "high-tech wallpaper" pattern on the doors struck a jarring note to my eyes.

A "coin stack" graph on the left indicates EV range, while a graphic rotating wheel on the right zips up and down to show power flow out of the battery and regen back to it. In between is a compass over a large digital speedo, plus readouts for trip miles, range (electric and gas), fuel used and average fuel economy. A knob on the left rotates through displays for tire pressures, engine oil life, two trip odometers and a helpful "tutorial" mode.

GM claims a total range of "up to" 350 miles on full battery and 9.3-gallon gas tank, and that's how we started our drive. At 10.9 city/suburban miles, driving normally in "Normal" mode, we noted 38 miles EV range remaining for a projected total of 48.9. (The two other selectable modes are "Sport" and "Mountain," the former trading some range for performance, the latter reserving some battery energy for long upgrades.) At 19 miles, we stopped at GM's Warren, MI. Technical Center for a briefing with 27 miles of EV range remaining -- a projected total of 46 at that rate of usage.

The "Voltec" (formerly "E-Flex") propulsion system begins with a 111 kW (149-hp) electric drive motor that generates a healthy 273 lb-ft of torque from zero rpm for strong launch response. There's no shifting or powertrain noise – just smooth, swift, silent acceleration. At higher cruise speeds, the smaller 55 kW (73-hp) motor/generator joins in to keep the drive motor in its most efficient range (a 10-15-percent efficiency gain).

When the battery runs down, the 84-hp DOHC dual-VVT 1.4-liter ICE fires up (almost undetectably) and operates in its most efficient speed range (2200-4200 rpm) driving the motor/generator to keep electricity flowing to the drive motor. At higher speeds with the battery depleted, both the motor/generator and the ICE assist the drive motor through the complex and clever planetary gearbox for best efficiency, though the engine can't power the car on its own. EV purists find this controversial, but if it increases efficiency, why would you not do it?

It may also be controversial that this little range-extender engine requires premium fuel (mostly). But Volt Powertrain Chief Engineer Pam Fletcher explains that high-octane gas adds 5-10 percent efficiency by enabling a higher compression ratio and more spark advance. Why not have it recharge the battery instead of providing just enough juice to power the car. "It would be inefficient to charge the battery using gasoline," she said. "We don't want you to pull into your garage with a full battery. That would defeat the purpose."

The 435-lb. GM-engineered (except for the cells) battery pack holds 16 kWh of energy in 288 liquid-cooled lithium-ion-phosphate/manganese cells. Every cell is precisely temperature controlled and micro-balanced by four individual controllers. While the original intent was to use just 50 percent of the pack's energy to extend its life and keep it far away from low and high state-of-charge extremes, the engineers now have opened that window to 65 percent – hence the revised 25-50-mile EV range claim (vs. the original 40). GM says the pack is designed to last 10 years in normal service and warrants it for eight years/100,000 miles.

Following the briefing, we drove 16.8 city miles, some in Sport mode with the heater on, before changing drivers. With four miles of electric range remaining, our projected total had slid to (19 + 16.8 + 4 = ) 39.8 miles, and the gasoline fuel-economy meter still said "250+" mpg – really, that should read "infinity," since we had consumed no gas at all. Some eight miles later, we noticed that the range-extender engine had started and the gas range meter said 247 miles. Should you run the gas tank dry, by the way, the battery reserve allows about five more miles to find a station.

We arrived at a lunch stop at 34.1 miles (53.1 total) with 240 miles of gas range remaining. We had burned just 0.3 gallons of gas and achieved gas/electric composite fuel economy of 112.7 mpg. After lunch (with no battery recharge), we drove 48.1 gas-only city/suburban miles, some of them aggressive, at a respectable 33.9 mpg. Our total trip, counting the first roughly 40 on electric, came in at a very impressive 81.5 mpg.

A few days later (during North American Car of the Year testing), I reset the B trip odometer and flogged a battery-depleted Volt hard in Sport mode on twisty back roads. I found it surprisingly quick, agile and fun despite its low-rolling-resistance tires and 3,781-lb curb weight. I averaged just 26.1 mpg on that spirited drive, but the A trip meter (which factored in other testers' earlier EV-only and gas-powered driving) said 54.2 mpg. Not bad at all.

So, the Volt is what was promised: a "pure" electric vehicle, up to a point. After that, it's a series hybrid – except at higher cruise speeds, when it morphs temporarily into a uniquely-driven parallel hybrid. But if this set-up enables owners who drive short distances most days to do it on zero fuel, yet provides fuel-efficient compact-car extended range when needed, what's the downside?

Well, there are a couple of big ones: the engine, complex gearset and sophisticated controls add a major cost increment over a battery-only electric; and limited availability of vehicle-size lithium-ion packs will limit Volt production for the first few years, at least.

# # #

Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Years Ago
      Nobody has discussed the issue of appropriate vehicle morphology for the primary transportation need at hand.

      Considering the present state of battery technology -- low energy storage at high cost -- the primary justification for an electric vehicle is to handle daily, short-distance commuting needs. Since we drive alone 7/8ths of the time, a heavy, expensive, multi-purpose 5-seat vehicle does not have the best shape and size to accomplish that task, whether it is a Volt, Leaf, Prius or whatever.
      • 4 Years Ago

      Yah, but the Prius only gets that expensive when you add features like automatic Lane Keeping Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre-crash, Automatic Parking, LED headlamps, Solar panel sunroof, etc. All junk you can't get on a Volt. Heck you can't even get power seats on a Volt.

      If you add leather seats, nice wheels, paint, or parking sonar to a Volt you at $45k before rebate.

      You should probably compare comparably equipped Prius with a like equipped Volt.
      • 4 Years Ago
      @Dan "The current stock 2010 Prius is not comparable to the Volt... The Volt operates for 40+ miles on electric only. The Prius NEVER can run without gas.

      Even the coming PHEV Prius (13miles EV) is less than the Volt (40miles EV).

      Only once the packs are emptied is the Prius (48mpg) better than the Volt (?35mpg?) technically we still dont absolutely know the Volt's CS mode mpg."

      Regardless of the range, it is pure shame that the Volt apparently can't break the 40 mpg highway mark. There's absolutely no good reason why it shouldn't be comparable to PHEV Prius in charge sustaining mode, except that it was over-engineered in aspects where it shouldn't have been (too much horsepower, added weight of the direct generator to powertrain coupling); and under-engineered in aspects where it should have (Cd 0.28? Come on, I know you can do better ... if not GM EV-1 0.19 better, then at least able to beat Prius!).
        • 4 Years Ago
        This was exactly my thought. Sure, you get some crazy high mpg numbers if you start with a charged Volt. But running the car exclusively on gas gets far worse mileage than a Prius? I just don't get it why that is.

      • 4 Years Ago
      A good review but I wonder how long it will be before the Volt's technology is made obsolete by foreign competition.

      Here's another story about the DBM-Lekker Audi A2 BEV 350+ mile test drive in Germany (in German with video):


        • 4 Years Ago
        Since all they'd have to is put in the more efficient batteries, I don't see the technology becoming obsolete-- at least not until the energy density of batteries can get close to the energy density (and cost) of gasoline.

        I'm curious, however, how much of the 275,000 euros contributed to the project went into the battery pack.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yes but, aside from the A2 test platform, it's too early to write off the DBM effort completely.

        I'm remaining skeptical until independent mainstream lab data becomes available. On the other hand, maybe DBM's team have been quietly working toward a patent?

        • 4 Years Ago
        I want my EV to last longer than 60k miles. I'll pass on the Audi. Everyone knows that Audi/VW cars are a joke after 60k. Just ask my ex-girlfriend about her 2002 Jetta.
        • 4 Years Ago
        ufgrat said:

        "Since all they'd have to is put in the more efficient batteries, I don't see the technology becoming obsolete."

        I agree with that, and I'll add that they also need to put in the smaller, more efficient ICE engine they originally planned to use. That along with smaller more efficient batteries that can use more than just 60% of their capacity will greatly improve this technology.

        All of these changes are realistic upgrades for the Gen 2 Volt, and may even drive DOWN the price at the same time!

        It will be a while before this technology becomes obsolete.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Sounds great, now where is a 5+ passenger version?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Totally agree! GM needs to wedge in a full bench seat in the rear of the car regardless the lack of leg room for the middle passenger.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Hopefully the next generation. (fingers crossed)
      • 4 Years Ago
      The engine still needs oil. It's far too complex...and the Prius already has the performance of this car most of the time.

      Why would I pay $41K for this car when I can get a Prius that gets almost the same overall mileage for $22K?

      And honestly, does anyone think Honda and Toyota have been standing still all this while GM has been pissing away decades of time making crap?

      Let's here it from the GM fanboys.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Even the Prius PHEV price will be $30k+.
        The current Prius top two models are $31k and $32k without being plug-ins.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Honda and Toyota have not moved in this direction. I frankly attribute this to being because this technology produces a very expensive car that it's going to be difficult to sell.

        The Prius cannot match this car, because it has no useful zero-emissions (EV) range. Even the plug-in version is short range and limited to 62mph in EV mode.
        • 4 Years Ago
        The current stock 2010 Prius is not comparable to the Volt... The Volt operates for 40+ miles on electric only. The Prius NEVER can run without gas.

        Even the coming PHEV Prius (13miles EV) is less than the Volt (40miles EV).

        Only once the packs are emptied is the Prius (48mpg) better than the Volt (?35mpg?) technically we still dont absolutely know the Volt's CS mode mpg.
        • 4 Years Ago
        To add on to Dan's comment,
        Stories I've read pin the price of a Prius Plug-in at $5k over a comparable standard Prius.
        • 4 Years Ago
        And again...you think Honda and Toyota are standing still while GM comes out with a Volt?

        Seriously..don't be GM's best customers...the gullible kind.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Oh and Dan....I can get a Prius for about $22K or less.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The gearset is a downside?
      Are you kidding.

      Like in the Prius it is a very simple but clever solution combining seamlessly electric power and gas power, and blending them what is working nicely due to your report.

      I like it in my Prius.
      which i like to floor, and still get a decent milage :D
      I hope we see the Ampera in Germany soon
        • 4 Years Ago
        Josh, you're referring to that infamous "lets try to make the Prius look bad" test, where they had those two cars racing around a track at 100 mph - with the BMW drafting behind the Prius. But even though the Prius fuel economy dropped dramatically at that speed, it still got better fuel economy than the BMW drafting along behind it!
        • 4 Years Ago
        Funny story: If you're pushing a Prius as hard as it goes, you get worse mileage than a BMW M3 doing the same performance. So you're not really still getting good mileage unless you mean overall.
      • 4 Years Ago
      they should drop small 1.4 TDI engine in this car, those clean diesels (used widely in europe) can get 40-60MPG
        • 4 Years Ago
        There's no such thing as a clean diesel. Clean diesels are a myth. Just the nitrous oxide emitted by a typical Euro 5 compliant European diesel will increase the effective greenhouse forcing of its emissions by something like 50% compared with a similarly economical gasoline engine.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The Volt and the Prius have very similar drive-trains. The Volt is a slightly different and more refined configuration, but not radically different. Top speed on electricity is not determining factor of whether a car is electric or not.

      Even if GM made the Volt with absolutely no mechanical connection between the engine and the wheels, it would still be a PHEV. It fits the definition exactly, not loosely. I can't understand why some people can't get that simple concept straight.

      @why not the LS2LS7?
      Automobile is synonymous with vehicle and car which he used. Just as electric vehicle is synonymous with Battery Electric Vehicle, which the Volt is not.

      I grew up on a farm and we did much more towing than toeing. I'll try to get it right next time. :)
        • 4 Years Ago
        Automobile is not actually synonymous with car. Cars are automobiles, all automobiles are not cars. That was kind of my point, he uses some terms, not others.

        He called it a hybrid, which it is. It's also a PHEV. It's also an EREV.

        He doesn't have to list all the names for the vehicle in order to describe it or give it a fair shake. And it doesn't mean GM told him what to say when he doesn't mention one term.
      • 4 Years Ago
      GM please forgive me but you couldn't bring out a 5-seat sedan that goes at least 40 EV miles under moderately heavy driving conditions, and with at least a minimum 40 mpg in ICE/ RE mode. This car is going to go out with a whimper at a cost of over 40K when the tax breaks expire. The first mid-size sedan with room for 5 that is a True 40+Mi.EV(minimum) / 40+MPG=ICE / -40K US$rebate free / 400+mi. range, will rule the day in a soon to be realized $4.00/gal. 2012 gas economy. Who will be the first to launch a true series PHEV 4X4X4X4 vehicle for the mass market. The unlikely Govt. Motors?
        • 4 Years Ago
        We just need Prius to put in the PHEV infrastructure in there. Once that's done, it will be a fairly easy engineering task to add more batteries. And batteries are quite cheap. Even now you can go to Jungle Motors and buy 10 kWh of lithium iron phosphate batteries for $4,300+tax & shipping, RETAIL.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Make a bunch of signs and picket the auto shows, I'll join you.
        "40/40/400 for $40k!"

        I think GM can easily achieve that in a Volt II with a better ICE. PHEV Prius could too if Toyota adds a lot more batteries in the trunk.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I think you are right, but will the next GM Volt or Voltage be the one to really meet and beat the 40X4X400 mark and threshold? I think it could come from a more unlikely place within the auto segment. Looks like the LA auto show might be a good place to start. Any guesses anybody? Maybe an X prize with a $444,444. winning purse for the one who gets it on this Blog. Progressive where are you when we really need you.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Prius plug in van should come out with a 16 kwh pack so it qualifies for the government incentives. It needs to sell at a loss. Say 35k tops. 26.5k net price to the consumer.
      • 4 Years Ago
      If the car only gets 26 - 34 MPG in "charge-sustaining" mode, wouldn't the Plug-In Prius' configuration (i.e., a system where the engine directly drives the wheels) be more efficient than the Volt?
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