[ad#post_ad]There are a few times in life when one’s hard work is rewarded, when one can get to see the fruits of one’s labor and the stuff of one’s dreams come true. Such was the day I drove the near-production Chevrolet Volt in both EV and charge-sustaining mode.
After nearly three full years of following each and every development, after discovering and discussing every detail imaginable, I drove for the first time the fully production-intent car that emerged from the back of Jon Lauckner’s and Bob Lutz’ proverbial napkin in 2006.
I may not have been the first to drive it nor the first to write about the experience, nor the least biased, but my voyage was the deepest of all.
The car was in its full production glory, with every gleaming detail full sculpted and bathed in its signature paint. It appeared far more aggressive and athletic than any show model I’d ever seen, gone the roughness notable in its integration vehicle brethren.
This car was also one of the 80 hand-built pre-production models assembled over the summer. It had reached a late stage of refinement though according to lead engineer Andrew Farah, some units were actually further refined than this one.
The refinements this car was still lacking had to do with acceleration, generator behavior, handling, and graphics and driver interface functions.
I found the egress and ingress very open and inviting. The driver’s seat was well situated and I had ample shoulder, leg and knee room; it was a very generous seating area. I drove the car with three other people in it and all had plenty of room and looked comfortably spaced. The interior was bright and cheerful and seemed very spacious including head room.
The driver’s seat position was manually controlled. Levers allowed forward and back movement, up and down positioning, as well as recline. Farah said a motorized system was left out to reduce mass.
The dashboard displays were beautiful. The screens were bright, vivid, crisp and conservatively artistic and looked to be in high definition. There were several display menu configurations on the driver dash that could be scrolled through and chosen with a dash button to the left. The center display was touch sensitive. The ipod-like white center stack had interestingly unique capacitive finger-sensing buttons that gave audio feedback in the form of a slight subtle chirp when the touching finger was detected. There was no tactile feedback, nor was it needed. The buttons were a little unreliable, something Farah said still needed work. The green leaf eco display was also not yet operational. For my task I found that I could set the display to show MPG. I reset it at the start of my drive. It read >500 MPG while in EV mode.
To start, the keyfob simply has to sit anywhere in the car and then the start button is pushed while the brake pedal is depressed. The screen then comes to life letting you know the car is on.
The test track was a 0.4 mile winding pylon flanked path set up on an uneven parking lot surface, so some slight grades were included, but nothing steep.
And so with one small step for me and one large step for all of us I hit the accelerator.
The car accelerated precisely and assertively and felt very spirited. There were two modes of operation. Normal mode offers 90 kw peak power and felt to be in the 9 second 0 to 60 range. Sport mode delivered noticeably more intense acceleration below a 9 second 0 to 60. I was not permitted to time 0 to 30 or 0 to 60. It was not an outright sports car feel, but definitely sporty. Clearly it would outrun a Prius, Insight, or Fusion hybrid all of which I’ve driven. It’s top speed of 100 MPH would also easily top the Nissan LEAF’s 85 MPH.
I did bring a decibel meter as requested, but this too was not allowed by the team. Beyond any doubt however the car was extremely quiet in EV mode. Even the whine of the electric motor that can be heard in the MINI E or Tesla was very dim and muted by what seemed to be excellent sound insulation.
I spent about 50 minutes continuously driving, but did not have enough space to go beyond about 50 MPH.
I started out with about four miles of EV range and I watched intensely for the changeover to generator mode. The only change that coud be observed was the disappearance of the battery graphic on the driver’s screen which became replaced by a fuel tank symbol. With intense critical straining I could detect the slight muted whir of the gas engine but did not find it at all unpleasant. After all we must realize the car is burning gas, that’s its advantage over pure EVs, limitless range when needed. Combustion engines make noise. Period.
Once the car enters charge sustaining mode there’s no turning back to EV mode until the car is plugged in again. The car’s central processor continuously monitors battery state of charge and the rate at which it is being depleted. It will turn on the generator whenever the low point is reached. It may go on at one of several different RPMs depending on the car’s momentary requirements and depletion rate. The engine will turn off again when no longer needed, and when the car comes to a stop.
I found that when I drove reasonably and moderately I didn’t hear the generator go on at all. When I suddenly floored it, the generator revved for a couple of seconds. I did not find the need to use the words jarring, disconcerting, or off-putting as other journalists did. My word is appropriate. You floor a gas burning car, it makes noise.
The car felt very solid and well balanced. The uniquely low center of gravity due to the four hundred pound battery in the center gave a notably beneficial hugging of the ground. Yet the car felt light and spry, the power steering was perfectly tuned and the car handled wonderfully. Farah all but admitted the car weighed 400 pounds more than a Cruze, or about 3500 pounds. He wants it to be lighter and there are plans to make it so for the next generation.
When the car switched into generator mode, I reset the MPG meter.
After about a half hour of driving with the generator the reading was between 32 and 36 MPG, and would increase if I was gentle with the accelerator. Farah claimed this wasn’t a true number and that the display wasn’t accurate, so take it as you may. He instead explained to me about how when he used it for a weekend, driving a total of 200 miles and charging the car every time he came back home with it at 240V, he used a total of .2 gallons of gas for an overall efficiency of 1000 MPG. And in fact, this is the better way of looking at it. We should not be focusing on the generator mode MPG but the car’s overall fuel consumption over time, because that’s what practically matters as it determines how much gas you will burn.
In the end, I found myself delighted and excited about this highly refined, competent and wonderful car. I would take it home as it is right now if I could. But we’ll just have to wait those 11 months and let the engineers do their final tweaking.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 1st, 2009 at 7:09 am and is filed under Test drive. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.