Kurt: When Mike Musto called me, I was in the press room at the South Florida Auto Show, eating free donuts and drinking Cuban coffee so thick you could stand a spoon up in it. In other words, it was perfectly brewed. “Can you be in New York by Monday”, he asked, “Chevy wants us to drive the Volt from New York to Detroit”. I pondered it for a second or two, since I’d missed the opportunity to drive the Volt in Miami last month. I was curious about the Volt, since it seemed like the first practical compromise between a tree-hugging ecomobile and a car you could actually drive for something other than a 10 mile commute. My answer was, of course, “See you on Sunday night.”
Mike: Let’s see now: 425 + 415 + 510 = 1350. That’s the amount of horsepower that currently resides in my garage, so when the opportunity came up last week to drive the new 2011 Chevy Volt 700 miles, my first question was obvious. Horsepower, or more importantly, how much of it did it possess. The answer, however, was not quite as simple as one would have thought, as this sucker is electric. You see the Volt’s electric motor puts out 149 hp, but then you’ve also got the 1.4-liter inline-four which charges the battery pack like a generator, and that little bugger pumps out an additional 84 hp, but it doesn’t power the front wheels, the electric motor does. So… wait a minute, how does this thing work again?
Kurt: We left New York City in a wintry mix of sleet and hail, which reminded me of why I moved to Florida. Saddling up for the trip, we learned that we’d be accompanied by an assortment of GM engineers who worked on the Volt. Officially, they were there to answer our questions; unofficially, they were there to gauge our reactions to the car. The Volt is, after all, perhaps the most significant car ever built by General Motors. It’s the forerunner to a host of vehicles to come, and the springboard for a whole new type of vehicle. Get the product and launch right, and you validate that electric cars can be practical. Get it wrong, and you’ll have a tough time getting consumers to give you another chance.
Powering up the Volt’s information screen, we got some bad news. The charger tripped a circuit breaker in the hotel’s garage overnight, so the battery was nearly depleted. We had enough range to get through the Lincoln Tunnel, but that was it. Had we been driving a Nissan Leaf, we’d have postponed the start by another day while the car was charged up; in the Volt, we soldiered on with heated leather seats set to full warm.
Mike: I was excited for this trip. I mean it’s not everyday you get to drive a car that is considered to be one of the most significant vehicles of the last 50 years. Upon entering the Volt’s cabin, the first thing I noticed was that this was actually a real car, and not something that looked as though it came out of an iPod commercial. The leather seats were comfy and supportive, with all the manual adjustments you could want. There was also more than enough head, leg and shoulder room for my 6’4″, 240 lb. body. Once situated I hit the little blue starter button on the console and was greeted with an XBOX style light show as the Volt powered up. The strange thing, though, is that this car is silent, and I mean like dead silent. In fact I wasn’t even sure if it was on. You see in a normal car you’ve got engine noise, a tachometer and a bit of vibration, but in the Volt, there is absolutely nothing.
A dead battery… seriously? Kurt and I looked at each other with a bit of confused amusement on our faces. The battery readout on our XBOX style dashboard flashed a whopping 6 miles to empty, which was not exactly the intro to the Volt we were looking for. Alan, our first ride-along engineer assured us that there was nothing to worry about, so, based on his word (he did help create the thing after all) we headed out in complete silence through the cold, dreary streets of Manhattan.
Kurt: In city traffic, driving a Volt is a bizarre experience. Stopped, the car is utterly silent and vibration free. Only the glow of the information display lets you know that something is going on deep within the Volt’s electronics. Step on the accelerator, and only the click of a relay and the hum of an electric motor tells you that motion is imminent. Acceleration is surprisingly brisk and seamless, since electric motors develop peak torque at zero RPM. Since the Volt uses regenerative brakes, modulating the brake pedal takes some getting used to. There’s a very fine line between “not enough brake pressure” and “too much brake pressure”, but you get used to it rather quickly.
Mike: This is true, but not so much that it should bother anyone. The fact is, this is an entirely new breed of automobile and with that comes some new quirks to get used to. Keep in mind now that we had three grown men sitting in the Volt, and truth be told, we were all pretty damn comfortable. When the final images of the Volt first surfaced, my main concern was space and usability, something that turned out to be a non-existent issue as the Volt has more than enough of both.
Kurt: Somewhere west of the Lincoln Tunnel, the Volt ran out of charge. The switch to the gasoline motor, which powers the Volt’s generator, was seamless. In fact, the only clue was the disappearance of the battery charge indicator on the instrument panel. Whether running on battery power or generator power (through the batteries), the Volt is an eerily quiet car: low rolling resistance tires (developed especially for the Volt by Goodyear) don’t transmit much road noise, and the car’s aerodynamic profile kept wind noise to a minimum. Driving through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we drove through substantial crosswinds, but the Volt never wandered within its lane. At speed, it’s a remarkably stable car, and the Volt is perfectly content to hum along at whatever speed you want. Want the best fuel economy? Set the cruise control for the speed limit. Want to make time? The Volt is perfectly happy to spend all day at 85 mph. Or so we’re told, since we’d never actually break the law.
Mike: This is true; we did, however, notice that one of the other Volts in our convoy would have its go-pedal firmly planted to the floor mat from time to time. Sure you can cruise at 55 mph, but who the hell wants to do that? The dash readout has this cool little graphic that looks like a basketball on a ladder. Hit the pedal and the ball goes up indicating you’re obviously not in eco-mode, roll out of the throttle and the ball drops down. Believe it or not, but it’s actually quite fun to see if you can keep the ball at dead center, so as to keep your economy level up. On a side note though, slam dunking the ball is no problem if you so choose.
Kurt: When Chevy was developing the Volt, they had some specific goals for performance. First, the car had to accelerate from zero to sixty in under nine seconds, and had to have a top speed of 100 miles per hour. Let’s just say “check” and “check” for both of those points, and recognize that the Volt does rather well in roll-on acceleration, too. The Volt’s got a wide stance, but the low rolling resistance tires (undoubtedly made from a very hard rubber compound) and 3,781 pound weight don’t do it any favors in the handling department. Push the Volt hard in a corner, and you’ll get predictable understeer. Even in quick left – right transitions, the back end of the car never got loose, so the handling is best described as “predictable”. This isn’t a sport sedan, so nobody will be disappointed by the Volt’s twisty road manners.
Mike: Kurt does indeed speak the truth. I do have a concern, though, in the way that the public is perceiving what the Volt is. If you read the message boards and forums you’ll see that everyone seems to think that the Volt is a sports sedan, which it is not. The Volt is an electric plug-in car that will give you great range, wonderfully predictable road manners and all day long driving comfort. People have to start looking at this car for what it is, and not for what they “think” it should be.
Kurt: We had hoped to start out day two, Pittsburgh to Detroit, with a full battery. The cars were plugged into a 110v outlet at the hotel overnight, but we ran into another issue. The extension cord used to power the Volt’s portable charger (level one) wasn’t a large enough gauge, so the cars again got only a partial charge. The battery indicator told me I could go 26 miles before it switched to the generator; actually, I got just over 21. Why the difference? In the pre-dawn darkness, we were driving with headlights on. It was also cold enough to warrant the use of the cabin heater, rear defrost and heated seats. In other words, we did everything you’re not supposed to to decrease mileage, short of opening the door and dragging our feet on the road. A mileage reduction of 20% from the Volt’s projected maximum isn’t bad, and it would set the “real world” range of the Volt on full charge at around 32 miles. Chevy conservatively claims a range of 25 – 40 miles on a full charge.
Mike: Remember, it’s an ELECTRIC car. What that means is that every time you put on the stereo, air conditioner, heat, defroster and so on, you’re using juice. So if, for example, you’re stuck in traffic with a full charge in the dead of summer and just chillin’ with the A/C on, you will see your battery life go down. The beauty of the Volt over cars like the Nissan Leaf or Tesla Roadster is that you won’t be sweating, wondering if your battery is going to die before the traffic starts moving again. That piece of mind alone is worth its weight in gold.
Kurt: After two days of highway driving, our net result was a combined battery and gas fuel economy of 38.8 miles per gallon. That puts the Volt on par with some of the more fuel efficient hybrid sedans, and also on par with turbo diesel options from Audi and VW. Critics will complain that nearly 40 mpg isn’t good enough , and that the Volt still uses fossil fuel. That’s true, but only on long trips: if your commute is under 35 miles per day, and you don’t crank the A/C or heat, you should be able to go back and forth on battery power alone. In fact, you should seriously consider adding a fuel stabilizer to your gasoline, just to ensure it doesn’t turn to varnish in the Volt’s 9 gallon gas tank. The Volt’s smart enough to help you with this, as it will occasionally cycle the motor even on battery power, just to keep the fuel from getting stale.
Mike: Exactly, and this is where the beauty of the Volt lies over the other electrics on the market, as this is a usable car in every sense of the word. If you have a reasonable commute, then it’s quite possible that you could go months without ever having to fuel up the Volt. On the flip side, if you decide to road trip across the country then have no fear, cause’ the Volt will do that as well.
Kurt: On the road, the Volt is a very comfortable car to drive or ride in. I was struck by the car’s lack of vibration, which made for nearly fatigue-free days behind the wheel. Between the Volt’s ride and interior space, I’d have no problem in taking the car from coast to coast; as a matter of fact, I’d probably put it near the very top of my list. You do occasionally hear the 1.4 liter engine at full song, usually when the batteries are at a low state of charge and you’ve been giving the car the beans. There’s no correlation between the accelerator pedal and engine speed, so hearing a motor near redline when you’re only applying a partial throttle is an odd sensation. Chevy will get more than one call about the “transmission slipping” until customers get used to the car.
Mike: I’ve been asked how does the car feel, does it have any soul and can you connect with it. As mentioned, the Volt drives great with predictable road manners. As for soul and connectivity, well, I’d like to say yes and yes. You see the Volt, in my opinion, is a good looking car that doesn’t tell the world that you are driving an electric car. It’s not plastered with electric car stickers, hybrid badges or some bullshit “Save the Chickens” propaganda. So in that respect, I absolutely connected with the car and enjoyed rolling silently by people at highway speeds in a car that I knew was electric, but didn’t look it. It was like the Volt was playing a dirty little trick on the rest of the automotive world.
I should also mention how simple the Volt is to charge. Pop the rear hatch and raise the carpeted floor covering and you will be greeted to a long, 22′ foot charging cord and small air-compressor (the Volt does not have a traditional spare). Simply uncoil the cord and plug one end into your standard 120V plug wall outlet, and the other into the Volt and presto! Charging has begun – it’s that simple. A standard 120V should bring the Volt to a full charge in about 10 hours, opt for the 220V and you’re looking at 4 hours.
Kurt: GM caught a lot of flack when they killed the EV-1, and their engineers are still sensitive about that. Conspiracy theorists may argue this point, but there was no malice in GM reclaiming and crushing the EV-1s leased by customers. Instead, the EV-1 had primitive lead-acid batteries, and it was virtually impossible to service the car at the end of battery life. One of the most popular displays in GM’s Battery Lab is a comparison between the battery compartment in the EV-1 and the battery compartment in the Volt: the Volt’s lithium ion batteries are about half the size and a third of the weight of the batteries used in the EV-1. I still wouldn’t call the Volt’s batteries “easily serviceable”, but a lot of effort went into ensuring they’d be durable across a wide range of environments. Chevy warranties the Volt’s batteries for 8 years or 100,000 miles, and I think that’s a conservative estimate. In fact, GM needs to do more to educate the public on the amount of R&D effort they put into battery development. To say I was impressed by their efforts is a gross understatement.
Mike: Over the last 3 years GM has been touting the Volt as a revolutionary car, and for the most part, it really is. The problem, though, is that no one seems to know it. Sure you’ve seen the ads and read the blogs and magazines, but I doubt anyone out there has an idea of the amount of technology and testing that actually goes into these machines. In fact, instead of GM running those crappy “Chevy Runs Deep” ads, they should simply shoot an ad in their battery development center, to educate the public as to what really goes on with these cars behind the scenes. I know that after touring the facility we were both blown away by what we saw. People have no idea how passionate the engineers working on this car are, and that’s something we’d have never believed if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes.
Kurt: So is the Volt a perfect car? No, it’s not, but even my complaints wouldn’t be enough to prevent me from buying one if I had the need. First and foremost is the center stack, which features a pressure sensitive control panel. You control HVAC, audio, nav and information functions from this panel, but there is no color coding by function as on Ford’s Synch system. The net result is utter confusion until you’re used to the car’s controls. What does AS 1-2 mean? How about TD? Teaching yourself as you roll down the highway at seventy miles per hour isn’t going to end well.
I also wasn’t fond of some of the Volt’s styling elements. The taillights feature embedded hash marks, like leaves of grass. What’s the purpose? Are they functional, or is it style for the sake of style? The interior graphics are another point of contention; in gray, they’re ugly, but in fluorescent green they’re the stuff of nightmares. I actually offered to fix the problem, but the GM engineers refused to stop at WalMart for a can of Krylon matte black paint and some masking tape.
Mike: I pretty much agree with Kurt on the above in regards to the styling and confusing center stack. So now for the big question… would I buy the 2011 Chevrolet Volt? The answer: no, as the Volt simply doesn’t fit my lifestyle. Keep in mind, however, that this does not mean that I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who was in the market for a car like this. In fact I would throw a “SOLID RECOMMENDATION” behind this car for those who are considering cars like the Lexus HS 250h, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion Hybrid. It’s a great car, a solid performer and a wonderful view of what is to come in the way of future automotive technology. You can read all the reviews and opinions you wish, at the end of the day though, you simply need to drive it. Do that, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Kurt: After two days behind the wheel of the Volt, I was far more impressed than I expected to be. As I posted on Facebook, I expected Coors Light, but Chevy gave me Hacker Pschorr Oktoberfest. If you’re not into beer, it’s like expecting ground chuck and getting filet mignon. It’s not an exaggeration to call the Volt the most important car in GM’s history, but I’ll go one further: I believe the Volt will be among the five or ten most important cars in the history of the automobile. When you get the opportunity to drive one, jump at the chance. I’m glad I did.
Thanks to all those from GM who made this trip happen, but I’d especially like to give a shout to the ride-along engineers who put up with Mike and I for two days. Alan Holmes, Michelle Taylor, Jason Savaet and Chris Gillanders, you guys are brilliant and deserve a lot of credit for a job well done on the Volt. With engineers as passionate as you were, I can’t wait to see what’s on the horizon from GM.