2011 Chevrolet Volt: Worth the long wait


There’s an expression that says “good things come to those who wait.”  As that expression relates to the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, it is certainly true.

I remember several years ago, when I saw the first concept of the Volt, and was duly impressed.  It seemed as if Chevy had trumped the competition by bringing the mass produced electric car to market faster that other manufacturers.  But as time moved forward, it seemed as if the Volt was taking forever to make it to market, and other carmakers with their own “green” cars were stepping up their game.  Ford perfected the Escape and Fusion hybrids, Honda supplemented its hybrid models with the FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.  Nissan made noise with the Altima Hybrid and announcements of its own electric, the Leaf.  And VW marched forward with stellar fuel economy from its superb TDI vehicles.

So is the Volt late to the dance?  No way.  General Motors, parent company for Chevy, has taken their time to get the Volt right.  We recently had the opportunity to drive a pre- production Volt on a test track in Washington, D.C.  The track was the former circuit for the Grand Prix of D.C., which only lasted a year.  So while the drive was in a controlled environment, I had the chance to drive it hard to see if the Volt “charged” my emotions.

My initial walk around the Volt revealed very tight body construction.  The Volt is a well-penned design, with smooth, fluid lines from front to rear.  Styling sort of reminds me of the late, lamented Subaru SVX sports car, but is not quite as dramatic.  I especially like the rear deck treatment, with high mounted tail lights and an integrated spoiler.  Volt side panels feature a deep door crease, and either black or chrome strips just below side glass, depending on your exterior color choice.  The front view features a prominent grille and blue accented headlight clusters.  Exterior fit and finish is superb.

Good things continued inside, as the materials for seating, door panels, console, dash and headliner are first rate.  While not a luxe interior, this is no Chevette, as Chevy put time and thought into interior execution.  Dash seams are tight, the doors close with an authoritative sound and the cabin seems bright and airy, even with a dark color package on my tester.   In front of the driver is a command screen that gives you real time and stored data.  Speed, range, current MPG and other parameters show here.  The center console allows operation of climate settings, as well as XM radio and access to the Volt’s music hard drive.  You can also program charge settings via the console touch screen, and get a full readout of economy data.  The journalist who drove the car before me was able to achieve 522 mpg on a four mile run through the test loop! My returns were just under 100 mpg. My only interior quibble was I found the color choice on the center stack a bit odd.  It was an off white metallic, which seems like it will be prone to scratches and was just weird looking.  Chevy’s rep on scene told me a charcoal version was also available, and in field testing, folks were split about 50-50 on the white metallic as a color choice.

Techwise, the Volt is an electric car with a range extender gasoline engine.  This means the Volt runs on electricity from its battery pack, and when that is depleted, runs on electricity it generates from its 1.4-liter, four-cylinder, gasoline engine.

Congratulations Chevrolet, the Volt is quiet, accelerates well and most important to me, was pretty seamless in the switch from electric to gasoline generated electric power.  This car feels totally different from Tesla or Fisker electrics, as they are built for luxury and speed.  Speed is good, but speed can zap a battery pretty quickly.  I would rate Volt acceleration on par with a big four cylinder or small V6 gasoline engine.  It’s more than adequate.

Handling was also “normal.”  A special chicane was part of the test track, and the Volt blazed through it with no issues or excessive tire squeal.  By the way, the tires are specially developed by Goodyear to maximize fuel economy by decreasing rolling resistance.

Volt’s chassis features the propulsion gear up front, and the 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the rear seat.  Development of the lithium-ion pack is what has slowed production of the Volt, and is the major developmental hurdle for all companies coming to market with electrics.  Nickel metal hydride batteries were first considered for electrics, but do not provide the range necessary for the cars to be usable on a daily basis.

Chevy claims a 40 mile range on electric power alone, enough for the average commuter.  Do keep in mind that range estimate is based on the best of conditions:  No air conditioning, full lighting, defrosters or other power sapping accessories being used.  In full electric mode, the Volt is totally emissions free.  In electricity generating mode, Chevy estimates a 300 mile range for the Volt.  The Volt can run on gasoline or E85 ethanol.

So how does the Volt compare to other electric vehicles?  Well, true electrics rely on battery power.  Once you use the juice onboard, you must find a plug to recharge.  So that noise you hear in the bushes at night may not be a burglar, it could be an electricity rustler tapping your 115 volt outlet so he can get home!

The Volt’s unique powertrain also differs from hybrids like the Toyota Prius as they rely on regenerative energy from braking to help recharge onboard batteries.  When the hybrids run low, they switch to gasoline (or diesel with some manufacturers) power only.  Efficient, but not as efficient or environmentally clean as the Volt’s “extender” solution.

Another unique feature about the Volt is that you do not have to plug it in everyday in order to use it.  Maximum fuel economy will be achieved if you do plug it in daily, but Volt can go weeks or months without you plugging it in based on its internal ability to recharge the batteries onboard.  Charging times with a standard 115 volt outlet are about eight hours, three hours if you install a 240 volt outlet.

So what’s the real cost of running the Volt?  Without factoring in the cost of purchase, you can run the Volt 40 miles for about a dollar.   That figure comes from Chevy’s Web site and assumes a 12 cent per kilowatt hour electricity charge.

And Chevrolet is determined to make Volt ownership a unique and fun experience.  Working with OnStar, a GM subsidiary, you can use your iPhone, Droid or Blackberry Storm to manage your Volt’s recharging.  When not driving, you can access the Volt’s data to see what you current range and fuel efficiency numbers are.  You can even program what time you want your Volt to begin recharging to take advantage of lower overnight electric rates.  You can also lock and unlock the doors, and remotely start your Volt.

We were not allowed to photograph under the hood during the test drive as the final production trim pieces have not yet been set, but I visited the D.C. Auto Show and gathered a few pictures there of a Volt display skeleton.

I was totally impressed with the two hours I spent with the Chevy Volt.  Prices are not yet set, but expect the Volt to retail for about $40,000 (about $32,500 if you are a U.S. purchaser who qualifies for the $7500 tax credit from the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act passed in 2008).

The Volt was certainly worth the long wait.  Expect the 2011 Volt to launch in November.


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