2011 Chevrolet Volt HD Video Review

Before this very extensive look at the 2011 Chevrolet Volt begins, let me set a scene- I am in Sausalito, CA for the press launch taking static video of the Volt when a woman in a second generation Prius silently rolls up.  She rolls down her window.  She pauses.  She stares.  She scowls.  “Is this that new plug-in Chevy?”  I nod my head yes.  Squinting disdainfully, she sniffs and with an electric whine followed by the usual burst of internal combustion patter, she skulks off.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Is she always this way or was she hacked off at being out-Priused?  I’ll never know.  But one thing is clear, Prius has been out teched by a Chevy.  Who’d a thunk that?  Now, before chants of “The eco king is dead, long live the eco king” begin, let’s get something strait, Volt is not perfect and in some situations Prius is a more practical and efficient tool (if you just have to compare the two).  Volt is expensive, only seats four and for now only sold in limited numbers in limited markets.  But the Chevy is a very impressive collection of engineering and technology, and the car General Motors needed to build. Huzzahs all around.

If you live in New York, California or the five other states Volt is sold in, the base price of cutting edge automotive tech is $41,000.  Maxed out with leather interior and backup camera and it reaches 43K.  Remember, that’s before a $7,500 tax credit.  Feel free to travel out of state to buy one, but know that service may be tough to come by.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

What It Is

In case you’ve been isolated in a yurt distilling organic fuel for your bio-diesel hybrid, this is a simplified description of how Volt works:  Fully charged (it takes 4 hours with 240 current, 11 with a standard 120 household outlet), the 435 pound lithium-ion battery provides enough juice for around forty miles of emission-free electric driving.

Once the battery is depleted (in reality a 30 percent charge) an 84 horsepower 1.4-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine kicks on to run a generator.  The electricity it makes powers the 149 HP electric primary drive motor and it will carry Volt an additional 344 miles if the gas tank is full.  Want to drive across the country without charging?  You can, on required premium gasoline.  This range-extender eliminates the famed “range anxiety”, which is a very real thing if you’ve ever lived with an electric car.  It also makes Volt a candidate for one-car households.

2011 Ecotec 1.4L I-4 VVT (LUU) and 2011 Voltec Drive Unit 4ET50

The EPA officially rates Volt at 93 MPG equivalent in electric mode, 37 MPG in gas mode and 60 combined.  Ultimately it’s a math equation that depends on how often an owner plugs in and how far they drive.  As for true battery range, push it hard or cruise near Volt’s 100 MPH governed limit and electric operation shrinks toward 25 miles.  Go very easy and you’ll see 50.  Owners won’t suffer from range anxiety since there’s always the generator to fall back on.   Brilliant.

A Bit of Controversy

Chevrolet calls Volt an extended range electric vehicle.  Some call it a series or plug-in hybrid but Chevy insists that is wrong because the car will not move without electric power.  In October 2010, the infamous headline “GM Lied” appeared on Edmund’s Inside Line website, since during development we were all told the internal combustion engine was in no way connected to the drive wheels.

Well… that’s changed somewhat on the production Volt, the gas engine will assist the electric motor in demanding situations through a planetary gear set.  During development, engineers found that having the engine chip in to help the motor made the car more efficient.  They sat on this detail, claiming they were trying to protect the technology until patents were granted.  Only you can determine if it will keep you from buying this car.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

So How’s It Drive?

Like a normal car really but very quiet.  Volt has keyless ignition.  Push the button and a melodic whooshing chime replaces engine start-up cranking.  A familiar transmission lever is used to select “drive”.  Pull back another notch on the selector for “low” and there’s more aggressive regenerative brake drag.  Overall, the dynamic is very similar to driving a Prius until you notice that the internal combustion engine doesn’t kick in at 10 MPH.

There are three drive modes. “Sport” gives quicker throttle response.  “Mountain” kicks the generator on early to save battery power if a high load is anticipated up the road.   Bill Nye the Science Guy, an avid electric car fanatic, has been test driving Volt for two months now and he says Mountain mode really helps.   It revs up the generator to keep the battery at a level where it can provide the juice necessary to keep momentum up.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Sssshhhhhh and Whooooossshhhh

Electric cars are of course very quiet but that doesn’t mean Volt is anemic.  0-60 happens in a respectable 8.5 seconds and the torque feels satisfying off the line.  Regenerative braking helps top the battery off between charges.  I prefer the car in Sport and Low (sounds like a sweetener, huh?) because of the sharper throttle response and the increased drag from power regeneration means I can stay off the brakes.

With its massive lithium-ion battery mounted on the floor between the seats, Volt has a low center of gravity and handles quite nicely with a touch of sport.  Luxury car quiet, it feels hefty and solid, even at highway speeds.   ChevroletVoltBattery04.jpg

There’s plenty of information on the LCD screens that shows what’s happening with the Voltec powertrain.  For maximum efficiency, there’s a green ball in the main LCD “gauge cluster”.   Keep it centered to get the most of the battery.  Accelerate or brake too hard and it leaves its Zen space.

Break On Through To The Other Side

My drive partner Michael Coates, a contributor with PlugInCars.com and I are most curious about the transition from battery to range-extender mode.  GM’s Kevin Kelly is riding in the back as we cross the threshold.  About the only way to tell the switch is happening is to watch the depleted battery icon flip over to a gas pump.

As Michael and I gush about how seamless the transition is, Kevin just smiles.  No doubt he’s seen how people react and it doesn’t seem to get old for him.  Electric-to-gas does not feel like the transition in a hybrid, it is much smoother, mostly imperceptible.  In case you’re wondering, Michael and I are seeing about 35 MPG in gas operation during highway driving.  The generator only provides power to the drive wheels and electrical system, it generally does not charge the battery.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

At slow steady driving speeds the generator is barely heard and when coming to a stop sign it shuts down much like a hybrid.  Even in extended range mode, Volt pulls away on electric power alone before the engine kicks back on to provide electric juice.   The only time passengers really hear the gas powered side of the Voltec powerplant is under very hard throttle or going up a steep grade.  RPMs raise and lower depending on how much current is needed, sounding a little like a car equipped with a continuously variable transmission. In other words there’s an elastic disconnect between revs and the cars speed.

Electric Cars Have a Comfortable Advantage

Live in an extreme climate?  The heater works immediately since it doesn’t have to wait for the engine to warm up.  Also, there’s a smartphone app for the Android and iPhone that allows you to remotely heat or cool the Volts cabin, good when it’s plugged in because that helps extend its range (remember, anything electric draws battery power).  Volt gets a special lightweight and power efficient Bose sound system.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Looks like Steve Jobs was the interior decorator, the smooth white center stack recalls classic iPods.  The stylish touch surface has no distinct buttons and that makes it a bit cryptic to operate.  Satellite navigation is standard on Volt since getting lost is not fuel efficient.  Both its screen and the “gauge cluster” are LCDs that can be configured to display different info.  The distinctive split cockpit design evokes both the classic Corvette and, with it’s hip mod printed door panels, Disney’s Tomorrow Land.

There are plenty of places to put small items and to plug in electronics.  The glove box is aptly named, that’s about all that will fit there.  As you might imagine iPod integration and Bluetooth are standard.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Every Passenger Gets Their Own Door

Volt is a four-passenger car because the battery pack runs down the spine of the car and “T”s under the rear seats.  As an average sized guy I’m OK in back, the seats are quite comfortable.  Bigger taller folks will want to ride up front.  Those who do sit in the rear get cupholders, map pockets and a charge port.

Volt is a hatchback and the cargo space is very useful though not huge.  One writer at my dinner table used a Volt to transport a classic VW Sirocco engine block that he’s working on if that gives you an idea of its ability.  Under the load floor there’s space for an extra charger.  You’ll also find a standard 12V battery back here, used for door locks and to safely wake up the electronics before the high voltage battery takes over.  There’s a tire repair kit but no spare.

Attention Car And Tech Geeks

This is a very different car, here are a few Volt fun facts.  Transmission fluid is pumped around and through the electric motors to lubricate and keep the temperature down.  While the car is very complex, standard maintenance should be reduced since regenerative braking keeps wear off the brake pads and oil changes are suggested every two years. GM engineer Trent Warnke has 11,000 miles on his Volt and has 80 percent oil life.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Seldom use the generator?  After a year, sensors will detect old fuel and force the driver to burn it off.   EVs are very quiet, pop the hood and as a warning the gas engine starts up if Volt is powered on.  Why?  It’s sending a signal that messing with live 360 volt cables is a losing proposition.

Remember the EV1?  Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack delivers the same power but it’s about a third smaller and a third lighter that the lead-acid battery in the EV1 four-seat prototype.  The pack could power an iPad for 266 days of constant use, and 112 years of nonstop music on an iPod Nano.  Party on Wayne.  Party on Garth.

Use that smartphone app that remotely operates the climate control system to schedule charging for off-peak electricity rates or receive an alert if pranksters unplug the car.  It even sends a reminder if you haven’t plugged it in.  Since it’s silent, GM has provided a manually operated chirp sound to warn distracted pedestrians and the visually impaired.  Pull back on the turn signal stalk to get the attention of that Blackberry reading jay walker.

Just How Green Is It?

Volt is emission free when running on battery power. Nationwide a full charge costs an average of $1.50 (it’s less in the hydroelectric rich Northwest where I live) saving money and the planet.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

As for its eco status I could do an entire story on the pros and cons of a car with a huge battery or coal-fired electric plants, that in a way, relocate the tailpipe emissions.   Also, for years people have talked about the large carbon footprint that it takes to build a Prius, and all of that baggage has to be true with Volt.  GM says it’s in talks with power companies who will use the recovered battery packs for electricity storage and power grid management.  So, there are complexities, but I’ll leave that environmental discussion for another day.  It’s certainly good to see the first steps being taken.

Volt will not be for everyone.  4 seats is a limiting factor for many buyers (even though most Americans seldom have more than two people in their cars).  Urban dwellers that park on the street will have a hard time charging it and really, running in gas mode all the time defeats the purpose of an extended range electric vehicle.  You’d do better in a Chevy Cruze which shares Volt’s architecture or a Prius, both of which seat five.  But if you’re like most drivers that cover 40 miles a day or less. Volt is an intriguing option.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

People Are Amped Up About Volt

Aside from the woman in the Prius, Volt is a bit of a rock star in the Bay area.  I’ve been stopped a number of times and peppered with questions.  People recognize the distinctive wedge shape and give it the thumbs up as it drives by.  Volt looks pretty much the same in pictures as it does in person.  Thick black trim here makes the greenhouse look taller than it really is.  A flexible aero skirt below the bumper diverts air from flowing under the car and scrapes the pavement often while driving.

Volt does more than just float a big green high-tech halo over GM, it drives home the fact that all of the American brands have made tremendous strides in making their cars competitive and compelling.  It also diffuses some of the criticism that it “killed the electric car” an accusation that’s silly if you understand the facts of the EV1 program.  There has been a lot of hype surrounding this car.  The impressive Chevy Volt lives up to it.

FULL GALLERY BELOW.  ALL STILL PHOTOS PROVIDED BY GM.

2 Comments

  1. Toaster says:

    Agreed. I think this is the future of the electric car and automobiles in general. You need to be able to go further than 100km sometimes, and not everyone can afford to have a second vehicle to do so. The Volt’s generator system solves that issue. The fact that GM seems to have consulted Apple on how to style their interior only highlights the high-tech, futuristic nature of this vehicle. It looks good inside and out, and uses virtually no gas.

    My only questions are:

    What happens when the battery pack needs replacement? I’ve read that the batteries cost upwards of $10,000 US, which is a pretty hefty price to pay to “fix” an 8 year old car (I think GM said 8 yrs was the warrantied life of the battery pack).

    If you decide to sell it after say, 4 years, what does it do to the resale value of the vehicle if the next owner only gets 4 or 5 more years use of the vehicle?

    How does cold weather affect the battery? Performance wise, it shouldn’t be an issue … you’ll just use a bit more gas because the generator will kick in more often, but what does it do to the life expectancy of the batteries? Does it reduce it from 8-10 years down to 6-8?

    Overall i really like this vehicle, but living in a cold weather climate, there are a few questions that I’d like to see answered that only time will tell. I’ll keep driving my Sentra SE-R for a while longer. :)

  2. crash says:

    I love this car. I think the concept is absolutely fantastic. I commute – and still think it’d make it worth while to have it.

    For me it’s not so much about the enviornment as it is about not being a whipping boy for arbitrary fuel price changes.

    Hurry up and bring it to Canada GM!