22 October 2010

Review: Chevy's easy-driving Volt could be your only Car

USA Today

Chevrolet's 2011 Volt battery car, due in at least a few customers' hands in December, represents a staggering amount of engineering in order to be sure you never notice all that sophistication.

Except for the gee-whiz instrument panel, you might figure you were in a normal car. And that's stunning, because Volt combines an electric motor, a generator that itself sometimes works as a motor and a small gasoline engine to create a drivetrain that uses no gasoline for 25 to 50 miles, then sips it.

Most impressive, though, is that the Chevrolet Volt is a premium execution of a pleasant-looking, easy-driving small car — one you'd probably be satisfied to have as your only vehicle (assuming you don't need a big car or roomy back seat).

The General Motors engineers who created the Volt are reading from the right page in the reality manual: The driver should be able to behave normally and still get commendable fuel economy. The car should do the work. If the driver wants to help by motoring so gently as to create a trailing queue of aggravated, road-raged motorists, so be it. But that's not necessary to achieve low fuel consumption.

If Volt, as well as Nissan's Leaf and Mitsubishi's i-MiEV electrics and other alt-power machines due soon are to become mainstream — the only way they'll matter in the battle to cut petroleum use — they have to let drivers be drivers. Volt does.

Strongest impressions from the drives:

•Styling. Engaging, not ridiculous. Looks snazzier than the Chevy Cruze, with which it shares some underpinnings. You can even get a Volt in colors other than Boring Blue or Somber Silver. Quirky interior door-panel patterns are silly, though.

•Dynamics. Volt combined the best features of electrics and conventional vehicles.

Instant torque of the electric motor made the car quick in traffic, less so at highway speed.

Volt lacked the road racket and wind noise that mark some small cars. The drivetrain was quiet, free of the whine and other faint, unpleasant noises that accompany some electric machines. Smooth, too — electrics inherently are.

Like a good conventional car, Volt steered nicely (though you can't say the electric power steering had a lot of the beloved road feel). It rounded corners with sufficient agility to satisfy drivers whose other car isn't a Miata or Corvette. It stopped promptly (though brakes feel quite unnatural if you're new to the so-called regenerative braking used by electric and hybrid vehicles, because it helps recharge the batteries).

•Controls. Mostly normal. You're quickly at home, confident behind the wheel. It takes a few times to remember the car is on when you push the start button — no engine noise or tachometer as telltales.

You also can choose driving character.

Normal driving mode is as expected. Sport gives you the same power in the end, but delivers less pressure on the go pedal. Mountain revs the gas engine harder to keep the batteries fuller to let you cruise over passes without strain.

You can keep the shifter in Low instead of Drive for more forceful regenerative braking. That charges the battery more aggressively. It also slows the car dramatically simply by letting off the throttle. Sport/low was our favorite combo — nicely edgy, responsive.

•Gauges. Less conventional, because they're monitoring different things. How far you have left on the battery before the gas engine will kick on. How much gas you're using once it does. What that combination of electric only, then gas help translates into as a miles-per-gallon equivalent. And the normal alt-power car ability to watch a screen depict the power flow among the components.

You can choose what's shown — in other words, you can avoid having to view the silly and distracting sci-fi readouts.

•Battery. A 400-pound T-shape that fits under the floor along the center tunnel, and across under the back seat, swiping room for a middle rear seat and making rear-seat folding a bit awkward.

The plug-in charge cord is easy to use. One comes with the car for use with the common 120-volt circuit. Optional: a 240-volt set-up. It charges in about four hours, vs. more than twice that on 120.

The battery is heated, cooled to keep it at best operating temperature, so performance, Chevy says, is little affected by extreme temperatures.

•Range. Our test drives in prototype and pre-production Volts over the months suggest 35 to 40 real-world miles on a charge before the gas engine kicks in and turns a generator to keep the car going.

About 350 miles, battery and gas combined.

There's an undercurrent of criticism about that, as if Volt's somehow impure. But so what? Most of the time, you drive on battery power only. Some of the time, you burn gas to keep the juice flowing. No place to plug in to recharge? No problem. Fill the gas tank and drive on.

How, exactly, is that anything but genius?


•What? Four-seat, four-door, front-wheel-drive compact hatchback sedan powered by an electric motor. On-board gasoline engine turns a generator to provide electricity when the lithium-ion battery pack runs low. Under certain high-speed cruising conditions, some torque from the gas engine is routed to the transmission to help drive the car, but even then the electric motor is providing most of the power.

That occasional use of gas engine to help power the wheels has triggered an argument over whether Volt is really an "electric" car or should be considered a new type of gas-electric hybrid. Chevy calls it an "extended-range electric."

•When? First few in customers' hands in December.

•Where? Built at General Motors' Detroit-Hamtramck plant, which also builds GM's Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne big sedans. Lithium-ion battery packs assembled at GM plant in Brownstown Township, Mich.

•Why? Need an alternative-power machine to be taken seriously as an eco-conscientious automaker. Green image might not sell many pricey Volts, but might sell more Chevrolets through so-called halo effect. And drastic measures such as electric power needed to meet federal fuel-economy rules that could be up to 62 miles per gallon by 2025.

•How much? $41,000 including shipping, but some buyers will qualify for a federal tax credit up to $7,500 as well as state and local clean-car incentives.

•How powerful? Electric drive motor rated 149 horsepower and 273 pounds-feet of torque. Gas engine used to run a generator is 1.4-liter four-cylinder rated 84 hp.

•How big? Compact, about the same as Chevy Cruze conventional sedan on which Volt is loosely based. Volt is 177.1 inches long, 70.4 in. wide, 56.3 in. tall on a 105.7-in. wheelbase.

Weighs 3,781 lbs. Rated to carry 802 lbs. of people, cargo.

Cargo space behind rear seats: 10.6 cubic feet.

•How thirsty? Depends on how you measure.

Chevy says it'll go 25 to 50 miles on battery-only with a full charge. Our full-charge range: 35 to 37 miles.

The preproduction test vehicles' trip computers typically showed about 80 to 100 miles-per-gallon-equivalent (mpg-e, or 1 to 1.25 gallons per 100 miles) in modest trips of 50 to 100 miles, roughly — long enough to run down the batteries and rely on gas-generated electricity.

Chevy says Volt would get in the "high 30s" if you never plugged it in to recharge and simply let the onboard gas engine and generator supply the juice.

Automakers and federal regulators are hustling to come up with an index that'll let shoppers compare fuel use of a Volt and other electric-based machines with the familiar mpg ratings.

•Overall. If the size suits, what's not to like, except the price?

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