Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt
There's something to be said for being at the right place at the right time. Had our primordial ancestors evolved legs and lungs while the entire globe was still awash in warm sea water, they would have gone belly up and we might have never made it to the top of the food chain. At this point in history, our entire species can thank generations of ancestors for not being squished, drowned, beaten, eaten or stabbed before cranking out offspring that would further the human race. One misstep to the left could have been all it took to eradicate entire lines of Homo sapiens progress.
Those same laws of luck and fortune dictate which automotive traits will survive into the future and which will be left to be bookmarks of curiosity in the mechanical fossil record. General Motors knows this all too well. The company infamously birthed the EV1 in the mid-'90s only to find that its high costs of development meant the short-range electric couldn't keep its head above water in a sea of relatively cheap fuel prices. At the time, there just wasn't any land in sight for the electric movement.
What a difference 15 years make. Thanks to the trailblazing efforts of the hybrid fleet, more and more Americans now associate efficiency with electric power, and General Motors has given rise to what could possibly be the perfect evolutionary species to bridge the gap between hybrid and full-electric motivation – the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.
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Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL
It's been four years since General Motors first pulled back the sheets on the original Chevrolet Volt Concept. As you likely recall, that vehicle was a stylized dream that wore a vertical nose, high belt-line, chopped roof and massive wheels for a look that was, in a word, awesome. The concept was downright muscular and served as an excellent counterpoint to the econo-blob styling of the Toyota Prius at the time. Unfortunately, nearly all of the brawny build of the Volt Concept never quite made it to the production world.
Instead, the designers at GM were confined by the laws of aerodynamics, which means that the production Volt wears a shape that's very similar to what Toyota came up with for its battery-assisted wonder child. At 177.1-inches long, the Volt is around four inches shorter than its platform mate, the compact Chevrolet Cruze, and 1.5 inches longer than the current generation Prius. The front fascia is appropriately swept into the hood and fenders with wrapped projector headlamps and a shield grille help to give the electrified four-door one of the lowest drag coefficients of any vehicle GM has ever produced. Only the low-slung Corvette rivals the 0.287 Cd of the Volt.
Even with all of its slippery concessions, the Volt is an attractive enough vehicle. Our tester came with 17-inch chrome-clad wheels that added a splash of style to the judicious use of chrome and piano-black plastic along the window line. The vehicle's tall, abrupt Kamm tail rear takes some getting used to, especially with its slit brake lamps and somewhat awkward spoiler, but the design does have the effect of differentiating the Volt from the rest of North America's roadgoing hardware.
Jump inside and it's even clearer that you aren't driving a run-of-the-mill internal-combustion mule. The center stack is awash in capacitive-touch controls that are simple to navigate if not difficult to read during daylight hours. At night, excellent back-lighting makes the small text labels somewhat easier to translate. A large LCD touchscreen handles everything from climate, navigation and audio information to data on the vehicle's state of charge and efficiency, and the interface is perfectly intuitive.
Unfortunately, in what must have been a quest to skimp on weight and cost, GM built the cabin of the Volt with materials that would be more at home on a humble Cobalt. Hard, dark plastics abound as far as the eye can see, and while they're nicely grained, they do little to make drivers feel any better about the vehicle's lofty price tag.
We do have to give GM praise for the location of the vehicle's start button, though. Mounted just north and to the left of the shifter, the button is at perfect thumb level. There's no fumbling around or craning your neck in an attempt to find switchgear stashed behind the steering wheel. Here's hoping that little trick begins finding its way to other products soon.
GM has also opted for a complete LCD gauge cluster in place of any standard dials. Those nostalgic for the old kit can give it up. The screen organizes and displays a wealth of information clearly and accurately, with vehicle speed represented in large, easy to read numerals above all else. We have to imagine that even if the Volt drivetrain doesn't spread to the rest of the GM fleet, elements of its instrument cluster surely will.
We were treated to optional leather seating in our time with the Volt, and the light cream-colored thrones did much to brighten the otherwise dark interior. GM hasn't skimped on details with the Volt, and the double-stitched seats include one line of electric blue thread that's a particularly nice touch. Rear passengers will find somewhat cramped leg room and no comfortable place to put their inboard elbows, but there's enough space up top to keep even the cast of Jersey Shore from scraping their hair on the headliner.
Interestingly enough, GM has opted to build the Volt as a hatchback. The rear cargo area offers around 10.6 cubic feet of room, which is plenty for stashing groceries and the like. Our only real issue with the design is that the hatch weighs a ton. Even with gas struts to assist in lifting and lowering the piece, it's difficult to keep from slamming the door without using both hands. Additionally, with no partition to separate the cabin from the aft area, tire noise is especially prominent at highway speeds.
Under the hood, GM has stashed a tangle of technological wizardry. At its heart, the Volt uses a three powerplant system to get down the road. With a fully charged battery, the vehicle gets its gusto from an 111kw traction motor. Additionally, a 55kw electric generator is also onboard. Clutched to a 84-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine, the generator can jump in to provide power to both the battery and the traction motor at the same time should conditions warrant an extra push of power. Should the batteries drop to a certain predetermined state of charge, the internal combustion mill will jump in to generate electricity to power the front wheels.
GM has graced the Volt with a lithium-ion battery system that the company claims has no memory. That means that it doesn't have to be fully drained in order to receive the most efficient charge possible. The tech also allows for rapid energy release – something that's essential for all-electric power at highway speeds. The Volt can be charged using either a 120v plug or a 240v outlet. We were only able to dabble with the first option, and as such, we saw complete-drain charge times of around 10 hours through a standard household outlet. That's a long time, especially considering that you're only rewarded about 36 miles of all-electric range for your patience. The good news is that the 240v option will top off the cells in right around four hours. If you're going to be parking a Volt in your garage with any frequency, make sure there's a 240v plug nearby.
For all of the bellyaching that we could work up over how long it takes to fully charge the Volt, GM has done an amazing job of building an EV that drives just like any other vehicle on the road. Acceleration isn't exactly neck-snapping by any means, but if you get frisky with the accelerator, you will be rewarded with a few quick spins of the low-rolling resistance Goodyear Assurance tires. The jump to 60 miles per hour takes around 8.53 seconds in the optional Sport mode, but plan for a little more time in the Normal drive configuration.
We were pleasantly surprised to see that should you need an extra shot of power for a quick pass on the interstate, the Volt will happily oblige. Torque from the 111 kw motor is always at the ready, and while acceleration seems to level off quickly, there's enough on hand to get you out of trouble. Likewise, the engineers at GM did an excellent job working up the brakes to feel just as linear and progressive as anything you'd find on a standard vehicle. Despite being regenerative, the stoppers never felt grabby or clunky in anyway. Pedal feel is always firm and confidence-inspiring, which is great considering that the Volt tips the scales at a portly 3,781 pounds.
That's plenty of mass to carry around, and combined with the fling-averse tires, it's clear that the Volt is never going to be mixing it up on the dance floor with any sports sedans. Get too froggy with the wheel and you'll quickly be reminded of just how much this vehicle weighs.
But that's clearly not what the Volt is all about. Under a full-head of electric steam, the Volt is beautifully quiet in city driving up to around 40 mph. Once the speedometer ticks past 50 mph, there's a noticeable amount of tire and wind noise, though the vehicle never feels taxed or uncomfortable. Again, it's a level of refinement typically associated with the compact segment, not vehicles with an MSRP north of $40,000 like the Volt, but with the drone of an internal combustion powertrain absent in EV mode, outside factors like air and road noise can't help but become more prominent.
GM has aced the logic behind the range estimation for all-electric power. If the screen says you have 36 miles before the internal combustion engine kicks in, you can feel safe betting your first born that you won't run of juice before then – a small detail that builds big confidence in the viability of getting where you're going.
Once you do drain the battery cells, the 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine kicks in to generate more electricity. While the small four-cylinder isn't crude by any means, there's little insulating driver and occupants from its vibration once it gets going. We've never noticed just how harsh an internal combustion engine can be until we'd been romanced by the smoothness of 36 miles of EV driving. We almost felt embarrassed every time the engine came on, like someone had just pointed out a lengthy piece of toilet paper glued to the bottom of our shoes.
We drove the Volt over the course of four days and put around 165 miles on the clock in mixed driving. During that time, we purposefully drained the battery a few times in order to give the 1.4-liter engine a workout, but also kept the vehicle on the charger and in a climate-controlled garage when not in use. At the end of our stint, we burnt a whopping 2.064 gallons of premium fuel for a final average of 79.94 mpg. Of course, we'll have to wait for our next power bill to know exactly how much that stellar fuel economy cost us.
When GM first showed off the Volt Concept, it lurked on stage with a sexy white cord coiled daintily beside the front wheel indicating just how easy it would be to charge your car instead of filling up its tank. While the Volt is about as easy to charge as your cell phone, there is some aggravation involved. For starters, the vehicle requires a clunky adapter that roughly resembles Officer URL – the glowing face of law and order from Futurama. Coiling and uncoiling the meaty orange cord from the converter requires some coordination, especially if you happen to be juggling a bag of groceries at the same time. What you're left with is a long cord strewn in front of the driver's door just waiting to ensnare the clumsy or calamitous.
Still, it's easy to tell when the vehicle is charging thanks to a series of lights and honks from the vehicle itself. The good news is that we never had any issues charging the Volt during our time with the vehicle. Simply plug in the converter, click it into the car and go on your merry way.
We won't completely dive into the EV debate here. That's an argument best left to the well-educated pages of AutoblogGreen. While we have our reservations about digging up massive quantities of lithium and coal simply to serve our transportation needs, the Volt is nothing less than an amazing piece of engineering. Quite simply, GM has pulled off something worthy of all the accolades heaped on this vehicle's hood. Nearly 80 mpg is nothing to scoff at, and we're guessing that the figure would likely climb if we were simply using the Volt to dart back and forth from work instead of running weekend errands all over creation.
Ecological concerns aside, the only hitch in this giddyup is the price tag that the Volt carries. With optional equipment like leather, 17-inch wheels, rear-view camera and the sultry Crystal Red Metallic paint of our tester, final coin for this machine sits at $44,180 with destination. That's a fat stack of cash, especially considering that the much larger Toyota Camry Hybrid starts at $27,435 with destination and promises 33.5 mpg combined. Likewise, Hyundai only asks $26,545 with destination for its 37.5 mpg-capable Sonata Hybrid. It doesn't take any advanced mathematics to realize that the nearly $13,000 premium it takes to score a Volt over a Camry Hybrid would buy a lot of gasoline, even at Road Warrior prices.
That said, Uncle Sam really wants you to buy vehicles like the Volt, which is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax rebate, as well additional state and local rebates depending on where you live. Some residents of Lansing, Michigan, for instance, are eligible for up to $15,000 worth of rebates on the Volt. GM also plans to cut the Volt's price when production ramps up and the technology spreads to other platforms.
So where does the Volt fit in the evolutionary spectrum of personal transportation? Though it's priced for early adopters, the vehicle demands few concessions from owners coming directly from hybrid or internal combustion vehicles. We've heard word that GM is planning to up production of the vehicle to 12,000 units by 2012, which means that the automaker is anticipating steeper demand connected to ever loftier fuel prices. Though the Volt seems to be serving as the missing link between our transportation right now and full electrification, the price will have to drop before we see them wheeling around every corner.
Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL
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