Home > Just For Fun, Reviews, Video, Video Reviews > 2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

August 18th, 2011

Love At First Charge

    It’s not often that we anticipate testing a vehicle as much as we did with Chevrolet’s Volt. That’s because it’s not often that a vehicle comes along packing a powertrain as revolutionary as GM’s Voltec system. And it was because of this advanced propulsion system and its lightning paced development that we were preparing ourselves to overlook a few rough spots in the days before the vehicle’s delivery. We figured that if mighty Toyota still hadn’t sanded off all the sharp edges on its hybrid powertrain after three generations of Prius development the Volt and its more advanced, but still first gen, technology could be a bit of a half-baked science experiment in the real-world hands of our editors. The truth, it turns out, is that GM has managed to surprise our jaded staff with the level of refinement we enjoyed in our production-spec Volt. It’s so astonishing that it’s difficult to put into words, but we’re confident that after digesting both our written and video reviews you’ll understand our level of admiration for what the General’s best and brightest have accomplished with the world’s first extended-range electric vehicle.
     We should start with what makes the Volt truly special. Unlike other hybrid offerings in the marketplace wherein the electric motor aides in acceleration only at low speeds before a gas engine takes over to do the bulk of the work, the Volt is electrically driven all of the time (like any rule, there are a few exceptions such as driving above 70 mph in range extender mode wherein the gas engine is turning the generator to create electricity but will also couple to the drive motor to help maximize efficiency. Electric purists tried to slander GM for this but in our opinion engineers rightly chose to utilize the most efficient option, which is the ultimate goal of a vehicle like this.) and the gas engine’s sole purpose is to generate electricity to power the electric drive motor after the large battery is depleted.

     The hardware required to make all of that happen is worth covering and also what causes this small 2+2 sedan to weigh in at a portly 3,781 pounds—more than 200 pounds heavier than the 23-inch longer full-size Impala. The main holdup for the electrification of the automobile has always been the battery technology. The liquid-cooled Lithium-Ion pack in the Volt is the result of a partnership between General Motors and LG Chem and is manufactured at a new GM plant in Michigan. The 16-kWh battery runs from the firewall under the center console and splays under the rear seats, effectively forming a 5.5-foot-long “T”. It weighs 435-pounds but mounting the battery low in the chassis benefits the Volt’s handling by keeping the center of gravity low and giving the Volt a planted feel in the corners. To prolong the life of the battery, and comfortably make the 8-year or 100,000 mile warranty, the car will operate within 65% of its actual capacity, never fully charging or depleting the battery. At the end of the day when the Volt is resting comfortably in your garage recharging is as simple as utilizing the standard 120-volt charger stowed under the rear hatch floor. Plug it in to any grounded outlet and click the charge port connector in to the Volt’s front left flank and verify you’re done when a dash-top light turns green and the horn chirps a quick confirmation. It’ll take a good 10 hours under these conditions but most Volt owners will have installed a dedicated 240-volt charger that can do the job in less than 4 hours. You can even program the Volt to charge only during times of the cheapest electricity if you have variable energy rates in your neck of the woods.
     Of course, a big battery isn’t enough to get a car around in the real world; you need a big electric motor too. And the Volt’s main drive motor is rated at 149 hp and, more significantly, 273 lb-ft of torque; plus, as an electric motor that torque is available instantly giving the Volt a punchy demeanor around town. GM likes to say it feels like you’re driving a V6 and they’re right on the money. The Volt’s direct electric drive makes the car feel significantly stronger than the asthmatic Prius at any speed largely because it doesn’t use a CVT transmission like most of today’s hybrids.

      GM lists an official battery range of 25-50 miles because a number of factors beyond their control influence battery discharge including ambient temperature, driving style, terrain and climate control usage. We can tell you that our week with the Volt came as Michigan was experiencing triple digit temperatures and after a full charge we were seeing an average range of about 42 miles before the 1.4-liter 84 hp engine subtly fired up to spin the generator (you’ll return about 37 mpg when the engine is running). Let us be clear that when we say subtly we mean exactly that. The Volt handles the transition from gas engine off to gas engine on with less noise, vibration and harshness than the less refined Prius powertrain. In fact, if you’re cruising the highway when it happens and have your favorite song on the specially-designed BOSE audio system the only way you’d know is because the battery on the screen behind your steering wheel has been replaced with a gas pump. The seamlessness of this complicated transition is what surprised us most about the Volt and really drove home the engineering feat that GM has achieved with this new powertrain.
     In range-extended mode the gas engine will vary rpms (up to about 4,800 rpm) depending on the power needs and this is the only time the I4 becomes intrusive enough to notice in the cabin, although it’s still not any louder than your average compact car. In fact, the main noise you’ll hear, certainly in electric mode, is the wind noise around the large side mirrors. There is a button on the dash to change the Volt from its default setting to a Sport mode which serves to sharpen the throttle—oops, we meant accelerator pedal—response and a Mountain Mode that ideally would be activated 15 minutes before climbing into hill country. This mode will reconfigure a number of parameters but will likely fire the engine to build a buffer of battery power to ensure adequate reserve under the demanding conditions of the anticipated mountainous driving. We were more than happy with the regenerative braking system, which is easily the most traditional feeling of all such systems we’ve used and magnitudes better than the Prius. The electric power steering also surprised us with a linear response and syrupy weight in all conditions. Specially developed Goodyear tires keep road noise minimal and a faint electric motor wine makes the Volt a very agreeable road tripper.
     Of course, that’s only if your family doesn’t add up to more than the 2+2 seating configuration the Volt can handle, and it helps if any rear passengers haven’t hit their growth spurts yet. While the front seats are plenty spacious in all directions, the back seats suffer from limited legroom and tight headroom (almost 2 inches less than the Chevrolet Cruze). Still, we found all seats to be above the compact class average in comfort and the interior is certainly at the top of the class in terms of features. Our car had a $695 option package bundling front and rear parking sensors and a rear backup camera on top of the Volt’s already generous standard equipment including navigation, 30gb hard drive for recording radio, Bluetooth, Onstar and cutting-edge touch-sensitive center console controls, which we could frankly do without.
     Of course the standard equipment list needs to be generous since the Volt starts at $41,000 before any tax incentives (a $7,500 tax credit is available and possibly more depending on your location) and fully loaded like ours is near as makes no difference to $45 grand. But early adopters always pay a premium to call the latest and greatest technology their own and that’s no different here. The payoff is that the Volt isn’t a sometimes-it-works-sometimes-it-doesn’t science experiment like we feared. It’s a marvelous engineering achievement and the highest compliment we can pay it is to declare that it drives so normally anyone could jump in and pull away without cracking the owner’s manual. If they didn’t want to mess with the charging business they’d be just fine as long as you kept some 91 octane in the gas tank. However, once you drive past the first gas station with its ever increasing price sign and realize that you might not need to make a pit stop for a few more months you’ll understand our opinion of the Volt. It’s love at first charge.

The Good:
Five years of Onstar included, most natural regenerative brakes we’ve ever used, easy to load rear hatch, sophisticated smartphone app, smart styling, sharp graphics on the informative twin LCD screens, brilliant built-in flashlight function on the charge connector.
The Bad:
Visibility could be better thanks to massive A and C-pillars, tires give up early in spirited cornering, requires premium, not extremely efficient when the gas engine is running.
The Verdict:
A great new option in the exciting world of automotive powertrains.  

Photos by Jason Muxlow


Comments are closed.