Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review - Chevy Volt

As I scramble around the boat launch in Vanier Park, photographing what is likely the most important vehicle to ever come from the General, a crowd of onlookers gathers around Michael Lelli intent on learning more about the Volt I am photographing. Lelli is the Volt's Project Manager at GM, and is relishing the positive attention he and the technology his team worked so hard to create, are garnering so soon to the cars mid-2011 Canadian release.

It's been a long three years for GM as they have endured through the criticism for canceling the EV1 project, that was popularized by the documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” then surviving bankruptcy late last year. GM then took quite a bit of criticism when they unveiled the Volt concept car soon after the documentary came out, as they were accused of “greenwashing,” that the Volt was purely a PR exercise, and GM had no real interest in jumping back into the EV game.

Well, it is now 2010, Chevrolet is still alive, and have chosen the Olympics in which to display they're commitment to battery powered motoring. GM calls the Volt an “extended-range electric vehicle” (or E-REV.) This distinguishes the Volts difference from other hybrids, as it operates entirely as an electric car for the first 64 km after a full charge. After the batteries are depleted to 30% the Volts 1.4L European sourced gasoline powered engine then ignites and works as a generator to keep the batteries charged, extending the range to over 500 km.

With Nissan and Mitsubishi jumping out of the gates in the coming EV revolution, skipping the plug-in hybrid phase and opting to launch full electric vehicles, one may ask why GM are choosing not to release their grasp of the internal combustion engine? Lelli says they are not jumping to electric only drive because the Volt is marketed for use in North America, where the average commute is much higher than other markets around the world. The short range of the Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) means your destinations may also be limited. BEV's work great in an urban environment, but when it comes to long distance travel, a E-REV driver will not have the anxiety of long drives, as the Volt has the capability of any gasoline powered car.

This has been a major focus point with GM in the design of the Volt. They want the transition from ICE to E-REV to be seamless, and this is something that shined through when I tested a preproduction version of the Volt just prior to the Olympic opening ceremonies. Other than the way its powered, the Volt drives just like any other car, if not better due to its electric motors, that produce an extremely quiet and smooth ride.

Like most modern cars, the key fob tells the car when the driver is in, and with the push of the start button, the two display screens, one for HVAC and the other for instrumentation, spark to life. The interior has a very iPodish feel to it with white and black contrasts and will sit four very comfortably with the cargo room, functionality and amenities of a typical compact sedan. The digital screen behind the steering wheel gives the driver the usual vehicular vitals but is also interactive, displaying a eco-driving gauge that shows power use as well as active hints that will pop up and help the driver become a much more efficient energy saver.

Another piece of cool-tech is the new OnStar mobile app which Volt owners can use a smartphone to access their vehicle’s current electric range and fuel efficiency. You will also be able to look up the battery’s charge level, check on what time your Volt will be finished charging, or even change charging priorities remotely with just a couple of taps. This app can also turn your phone into a key by unlocking doors or activating the remote start, once a password is punched in of course.

The cars energy is stored in a 16-kWh, “T”-shaped lithium-ion battery pack situated in what would be the transmission tunnel and under the rear seats. The Volt can be charged via its SAE approved outlet in the drivers front fender, and takes up to 8 hours to fully charge with a standard 120V outlet, or three hours with a 240V outlet and charger. With the cost of electricity in B.C. being ten cents per kWh, the Volt can be fully charged at a cost of about .50-.80 cents a day.

A major concern with building any hybrid vehicle is the sacrifice of performance for fuel efficiency. Dedicated hybrids like the Prius and Insight suffer from poor handling and acceleration due to the added weight of batteries, addition of low-resistant tires and relatively low power outputs. The shape of the Volt has a major factor in the efficiency of the vehicle. Every inch of the bodywork, underbody included has been shaped to optimally direct wind around the car in the most efficient manner, making it the most aerodynamic GM product behind the EV1. And its not to hard on the eye's either. Driving the Volt, there is a sense that this car has a fair amount of weight to it, however, the power of the electric motors more than makes up for the added weight of the batteries. Couple this with good suspension tuning and tires that sacrifice less grip, the Volt really does drive like a regular car.

With a chance for a short drive in one of the developmental test mules I was impressed with the Volts abilities. Having driven other hybrids and even BEV's, the Volt is a little more spirited. With the help of a performance mode, torque is instantaneous and fluid. GM don't have a price figure for us yet, have a goal between $30,000 and $40,000 in the US, meaning a Canadian version could start reaching north of that. Lelli also says that the Volt will not be the only E-REV to come from the company. GM are putting a lot of their cards into this technology as they have invested heavily in terms of cost and resources into the R&D. This means to recoup the costs, several other vehicles will become available in the near future with the same technology.  


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