2011 Chevrolet Volt
In the military, they call it shock and awe. In the automobile business, call it the Chevrolet Volt.
Never mind the sporadic carping over whether this highly hyped new car is a true electric or a plug-in hybrid, the bottom line is that only picky pedants will care because it works exceptionally well.
The front-wheel drive Volt is a real car with real performance, full safety, comfort and convenience equipment, a quality look and feel, near sports-sedan handling and braking, exceptional economy, long range, low pollution and an endearing personality.The main downside is a steep price for what barely qualifies as a compact. But buyers are warming up to premium-quality small cars. Moreover, the Volt’s $41,000 price—as tested, $44,680—is softened by a $7,500 federal tax credit as well as state and local government tax breaks because of its minimal environmental impact.
It’s making its debut in an era when electric-powered vehicles are drawing the attention of manufacturers and consumers alike. They’re not likely to be anything more than a fragment of the market for many years but they hold hope for a future of resource-friendly, low-pollution vehicles.
Nissan has its new Leaf, Mitsubishi has been shopping its charming Japanese-market iMiEV around the U.S. to gauge reaction, and there are experimental fleets of Mercedes-Benz Smart cars and BMW Mini Coopers humming silently on American roads.
All of those cars are pure electrics, distinguished from hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, which combine electric and gasoline power.
The unique Volt four-door hatchback works differently. Its designers prefer “extended range electric.” It’s an apt description.
Its main motive force is an electric traction motor aided by a smaller electric generator motor and an 84-horsepower, four-cylinder gasoline engine. Combined, the electric motors deliver 149 horsepower. A set of gears automatically apportions power to the front wheels from the two electric motors and, under some circumstances, the gasoline engine as well. There is no transmission because electric motors deliver maximum torque, or twisting power, as soon as they are turned on.
The generator motor, along with the gasoline engine, also recharges the 16-kilowatt lithium-ion battery pack, which is housed in the drive-train tunnel. Because the battery divides the passenger area, there are seats for only four people. The pack drops from underneath for servicing.
To maximize battery life and enable an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty, the Volt’s battery operates in a window of about 65% of its capacity, never fully charging nor discharging. From top to bottom of the window, according to Chevrolet, it can deliver 25 to 50 miles of driving, depending on temperature, terrain and how heavy-footed the driver is. The battery is recharged partially by regenerative braking and deceleration.
When the battery pack discharges down to a point, called the buffer, where only about five miles of electric driving would be left, the gasoline engine and generator automatically kick in to maintain the battery at that level indefinitely with periodic refueling for the gasoline engine. You can activate a reserve for mountain driving uphill. But fully recharging requires plugging in.Using a regular 120-volt household outlet, it takes about 10-12 hours. With a 240-volt outlet that costs $490, with installation extra, it can drop as low as about four hours. Owners also can program their Volts to charge at designated times to take advantage of lower night rates. Regularly recharging, you could drive locally on electricity alone.
The Volt with this driver traveled more than 46 miles on electric power in stop-and-start, mostly city and suburban driving at reasonable speeds. Others, whose feather footed drivers risked enraging following motorists, got up to 58 miles. If you don’t care about quickly depleting the charge, you can run the Volt on battery power all the way up to its top speed of 100 miles an hour.
Freeway driving presents no challenge. The Volt not only kept up easily with traffic, there was plenty of punch for passing. Stoplight acceleration also is strong.
After the 46 miles, the gasoline engine seamlessly and imperceptibly kicked in. It runs at a nearly constant speed for improved efficiency—also the reason it requires premium fuel. But you have to listen carefully to hear it and the Volt continues to run, as before, on its electric propulsion. GM says combined electric driving and gasoline-engine charging yields a range of about 350 miles. You can motor across the country stopping for gas and recharging.
An efficiency hookup, according to the engineers, happens in leisurely highway cruising after the battery is discharged down to the buffer. In that situation, the gasoline engine and both electric motors drive the wheels. It is this characteristic that has prompted some nit-pickers to grouse that the Volt is a plug-in hybrid. So what?
The biggest Volt shortcoming is its center stack, which houses tiny touch controls with nearly unreadable labels for navigation, climate and audio systems. It’s distracting and too easy to inadvertently brush a button and get something you don’t want.