Test Driving a Chevy Volt

June 9th, 2009 at 11:52am

I got the chance yesterday to go to the GM Tech Center to drive one of the Volt mules. You may have read something about these cars already. They’re actually Chevrolet Cruze’s with all Volt technology in them. Well, almost all of the Volt technology. These mules did not have the engines hooked up that recharge the batteries. More on that in a minute.

In case you’re not familiar with term, a “mule” refers to a car that’s been cobbled together for development purposes. Since the Volt and all the technology that’s going in it is still under development, GM took production versions of the Chevrolet Cruze and bolted in the Volt powertrain and batteries. They used the Cruze because it’s roughly the same size as the Volt. This allows them to test the powertrain more quickly rather than waiting for the final engineering on the Volt body to be done.

When we went outside to drive the mules the GM people told me that the car was already “on.” At this stage of development, it takes over 20 seconds to boot up everything in the car before it’s ready to drive. GM says it can reduce that delay but I still got the sense they’re still going to be some boot up time required even with the final production version.

As I pulled the away from the curb I was pleased to notice how quiet the car is. In acceleration mode you don’t hear any gear whine. In fact you become much more aware of road and wind noise. The mule I drove had decent throttle response, but not great. The GM people told me they deliberately detuned these mules so that hot foots in the media wouldn’t try to do burnouts at every chance they got. I’d estimate the mule was about a 10 to 12 second 0-to-60 mph car, while the production versions will be down around 9 seconds.

Mid-throttle acceleration response is pretty decent. But you have to train yourself to really observe what’s going on. You can be lulled into thinking this car is slower than it is since you don’t hear any engine revving up or transmission shifting gears. All your normal audio cues are pretty much gone.

The only time you really hear any noise is during deceleration. And that mainly comes from the regeneration unit. If you pull the gear shift lever one notch behind D, the car goes into a more aggressive regeneration mode. The GM people say that in some stop and go traffic situations you don’t even need to use the brakes, all you have to do is back off the throttle. But as an enthusiast I’d like to see them make the regeneration mode even more aggressive.

There really wasn’t much of a chance to get this car up the highway speeds on the GM Tech Center grounds. But I was able to go fast enough to observe there’s no such thing as a “passing gear.” Once you’re cruising along at around 60 miles an hour there isn’t a whole lot of ooomph left. The car will definitely go a lot faster than that, but it will take some time to build up the speed. I can only imagine that out on two-lane country roads you’re going to have to plan your passes well in advance.

GM did not have the regenerative engines hooked up to these mules, because they’re still having issues with the calibration. If you’re driving up a long grade or traveling down the highway at 70 miles an hour and you run out of battery power the engine comes on at 4,500 rpm. So instead of tooling down the road in a whisper quiet EV, you’re suddenly assaulted by the sound of a roaring engine. The easy solution, of course, would be to bring the engine on at low rpm well before the batteries are drained. But the EPA frowns on this idea, the GM people say. If they want to get a spectacular fuel economy rating for this car, the EPA doesn’t want to see it spending a lot of its time converting gasoline into electricity. So GM is still playing around with calibration strategies and that’s why no one in the media has had a chance to drive one of these mules with the engine hooked up.

I’m still skeptical that we’re going to see the Volt in Chevy show rooms by the end of next year. Not in any big numbers. GM freely admits it’s not going to make any money on the first generation of this car. It’s already well into the development of the second generation, and the R&D labs have already started work on a third-generation. My guess is that this car will not enter mass production until at least the second generation, and maybe not even until the third. As important as this car is for GM, it truly cannot afford to build cars that can’t turn a profit.

Even so, I’m a convert. I’d really like to see this car succeed, to the point that I’m ready to buy one. I just hope my chance comes sooner rather than later.

27 Comments to “Test Driving a Chevy Volt”

  1. Alex Kajdi Says:

    John,

    I agree with you. The Volt is a necessary component for the future viability of GM. My question is why do they need to use a one litre automotive engine to recharge the batteries? Wouldn’t a simplier lawn mower size engine running continuously give the Voltec System the necessary charging capability plus introduce a sound factor to the driving experience?

  2. mpgomatic Says:

    The Volt will take off … but its initial altitude will be determined by the cost (and availability) of the batteries. I’d tend to agree that the initial quantities may be limited, but it’s taken Tesla how long to build 500 Roadsters?

    The big question is how will the aftermarket react … will we see modded Volts at SEMA 2010? Will the black boxes be sealed or will owners have the ability to upgrade the electric motor and battery pack?

    And perhaps more importantly, how long will it take for the Volt technology to migrate into pickup trucks and SUVs? Will the aftermarket beat the New GM to the punch? It would be wicked cool to see Jonathan Goodwin’s work on LincVolt migrate into production as a turnkey kit …

  3. Rumblestrip Says:

    And once again here is where a small diesel motor running at very low rpms could accomplish the mission. By nature a diesel will use 30+% less fuel, and it can take much more of a load to recharge the batteries depending on how they gear the generator to the motor.

    I’m sure the eco-terrorists out there would frown on a diesel being under the hood though.

  4. John Cuyle Says:

    Agreed. Why have all those batteries as well? If they ran the generator at a constant speed all the time they could probably get by with a quarter of the battery capacity. That would reduce weight significantly. Since all the power comes from the gas motor anyway (unless you have electrical outlets in the parking garage at your apartment complex) it would seem like optimizing for running on the generator continuously would make a lot more sense than the somewhat arbitrary and useless 40 mile electric only range.

    I’m also slightly baffled as to why they didn’t put the electric motor in the back, driving the rear wheels. Seems like that would have made the platrom more useful. They could have amortized the cost across more cars since they could have done a sporty two seater on a shortened chassis, possibly a higher output version with a bigger electric motor and larger generator, etc. Probably would have made servicing it easier as the drivetrain would have been more spread out.

    I’d like to support the tech but I’m going to wait for something with way fewer batteries and the drive in the back.

  5. Alex Kovnat Says:

    I look forward to the Volt taking to the highways and byways of America, but I can’t help but question if 40 mile range on battery only is really necessary or desirable. For all we know, plugging the car into the nearest electric outlet and never using the engine might contribute more CO2 to our atmosphere than using the engine, especially if one’s electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant.

    It might be best to settle for a more moderate battery-only range, i.e. 20 miles or so, and use the batteries mainly for regenerative breaking, launch assist, and driving at low speed within a suburban subdivision or within a parking lot. Before we go full-tilt to plug-in hybrids, we need to ask what effect millions of such cars might have on emissions (which include mercury as well as nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide) from coal-burning power plants.

  6. TEST DRIVING A CHEVY VOLT Says:

    [...] Original post by John’s Journal [...]

  7. Mike Cleary Says:

    Has GM investigated alternate generator sources? It seems they are using the Cruze motor because of Cruze production considerations, while the engine may not be the most efficient for electrical generation. Likewise using a small diesel. What about running on E85?
    An engine coming on at 4500 rpm could produce some human “exhaust” as well, it could scare the “human exhaust” out of you.I hope EPA changes their minds.

  8. sp Says:

    Actually we do know that using coal fired power plant electricity results in less co2 emissions than using gas. It has already been studied. Moving the motors to the back would be trivial in a vehicle like this. That is the advantage of serial hybrids, you just need a wire to deliver electricity, not a driveshaft and transmission and all kinds of other stuff. Thus you can change the design more easily.

  9. Gordon Says:

    The Volt is untenable:

    1. It can never be profitable. GM can only justify its existence through political means.

    2. Only tree-huggers will buy it at the $40k price point. No taxpayer subsidy can make it competitive as an economy car.

    3. Consumers will hate babysitting their car. Bootup time and the 2-fuel requirement (gasoline + overnight charging) will be a pain. Apartment dwellers can’t own one.

    4. Drivers will hate the uneven performance between the gas and electric, which may end up being a safety issue when merging. The gas engine performance must be pretty poor since no journalist has yet been permitted to experience it. Those who don’t charge the car will be left with a 1-L sled at mile 41.

    5. Bankrupt GM ought to be focusing on building profitable economy cars rather than soaking the taxpayers for research-grade products nobody will buy.

  10. Scott L Says:

    @Rumblestrip

    The “eco-terrorists” would love it — With diesel, there would be absolutely no need for the dinosaur juice. Just go to your nearest chinese restaurant and fill up with used cooking oil…

    @John Cuyle

    Anyone who lives in a city that gets more than 12″ of snow annually can tell you why a RWD platform is not a very practical platform for anything other than work vehicles… Also, if you look at any car company’s model line up, you’ll see that there are far more FWD vehicles. I would argue a FWD platform could be used in alot more vehicles than a RWD these days (unless you are just looking at GMC’s line up) A 40 mile ranged FWD vehicle is perfect for the many MANY millions of residents of cities like Chicago, NY, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc. who drive in many short trips (through snow for about 6 months a year), as opposed to few long ones….

  11. Ken Hissong Says:

    Interesting review. Just wondering how many people will be rundown by the Volt, et al because they didn’t hear it coming.

  12. Dave E. Says:

    Is the Cruze out dated before it’s sold in the US?
    I test drove a honda EV for a year and people were so happy to see it’s development. I recieved many of the obvious comments about how environmentally friendly it was, but I also received a few comments about how little noise pollution it emitted. The thing was pretty ugly, yet alot of folks were interested in buying it.

  13. XA351GT Says:

    John,
    If Gm is pinning their future on this car it maybe a bleak short future. While “Green ” cars are needed who is going to buy theses cars knowing that they will have almost no resale ability as who will buy it in 6 years knowing that the battery will cost a estimated 9K to replace. Also with the 40 K asking price it will take way too much time for most people to recoup the benefit of saved fuel cost. I mean buy a Volt for 40 K or a Civic for 20 K. How long will it take to make up the 20 K difference? Longer than most will ever own the car is my guess. The math just doesn’t add up. Even at $4 a gallon gas it just doesn’t work . It’s a great concept ,but the execution is a worry .

  14. Larry Kimura Says:

    Has GM said anything about the relibility of the Volt? I would think reliability would be much higher because power mostly comes directly from an electric motor thereby eliminating the clutch, transmission, u-joints and differential. I believe electric motors are much more reliable than internal combustion engines (ICE) because their construction is much simpler with fewer moving parts (really only one!) and of course they don’t have to put up with the hot exhaust gases, nor all the other shortcomings of our familar ICE. It seems to me the Volt should be a pretty bullit proof car.

  15. Julius Says:

    @Gordon:

    “2. Only tree-huggers will buy it at the $40k price point. No taxpayer subsidy can make it competitive as an economy car.”

    The same was said of the Prius it its first generation as well.

    “3. Consumers will hate babysitting their car. Bootup time and the 2-fuel requirement (gasoline + overnight charging) will be a pain. Apartment dwellers can’t own one.”

    Then they just buy the gasoline and have the engine charge the car.

    “4. Drivers will hate the uneven performance between the gas and electric, which may end up being a safety issue when merging. The gas engine performance must be pretty poor since no journalist has yet been permitted to experience it. Those who don’t charge the car will be left with a 1-L sled at mile 41.”

    The point of the series hybrid/range-extened EV (and why the batteries cost so much) is that the batteries won’t go through a full charge/discharge cycle in 40 miles, for the sake of battery life. The batteries will have some residual capacity left when “empty” and have to recharge with the gasoline engine. And a 1L gas engine has enough energy to cruise at 65 mph AND recharge the battery. Therefore, at “mile 41″, all people should notice is the engine coming on. The only issue where that may not hold up is if the car is towing a trailer uphill for hundreds of miles.

  16. Alan Andrews Says:

    I predict the Volt will be right up there in history with the Corvair and Vega.
    The problem is the series hybrid concept.
    Batteries are far from 100% efficient when draining and again when being charged.
    Parallel hybrids (like the Prius) have less than 5% in gear train loss whenever the engine is running.
    Combine the major loss of efficiency with the engine seldom running plus the $40K price tag and you have another loser that GM (and environmentalists) cannot see coming.

  17. GW Says:

    Volt isn’t meant to be practical, it’s meant to be cool. If you don’t get why, it’s not for you.

    This is going to be a low production high visibility model, like the early Prius to the nth power. And like the Prius, it probably won’t be profitable until some time into the second or third generation. In the meantime, people who use phrases like “tree hugger” or “eco-terrorists” are going to be grinding their teeth every time the media spotlights Brad driving his Volt to the Oscars, or Paris
    taking hers down Rodeo Drive. That’s a drag dittoheads, but that’s life.

    But celebrities aside, it won’t be environmentalists or penny pinchers who will be buying Volt 1.0. The car’s not going to pencil out on cost savings, especially compared to something like a Prius. The early adopters in fact are going to be…early adopters. You know, people who bought BluRay players at $1K, are sick at the thought of having to wait another ten days to upgrade their iPhone 3G to a 3GS, and need something practical for when the car pool won’t fit in the Tesla.

    Speaking of the Tesla, I was down at Google HQ in Silicon Valley last week and spotted three in the parking lot (out of total production to date of 500). And speaking of the iPhone, do you think it’s a coincidence that the Volt interior knocks off Apple design cues?

    Somehow I have a feeling that come 2011 the Google parking lot will be high Voltage (including charging stations), as will techie asphalt nationwide. Rock on nerd nation!

  18. ziv Says:

    For a car discussion, it is kind of surprising how little is known about the subject, the Volt.
    John C, the reason for all the batteries is so that you don’t need gasoline 95% of the time. Most people don’t drive more than 40 miles very often, you may, if so, the Volt isn’t for you. But most people, me included, only drive more than 40 miles two or three times a month. Using my cars tax records, I figure that I would have used just 30 gallons of gas last year if I was driving a Volt. I would fill up with gas 5 or 6 times a year.
    Mike C, I agree with you, if the engine kicks in at 4500 rpm, it would be a heck of a jolt, but I have never read that anywhere but here. What I have read, and seen repeated by GM engineers, is that the volts ICE will run a one of several preset rpm’s to recharge the battery from about 30% to 33%, then it will shut off for a few minutes, repeat as needed until you are home and can plug the car in for cheaper, cleaner electricity, frequently supplied by nuclear (20%) or hydro (8%) which make electricity a much cleaner source of energy for a car. But even if the electricity is solely supplied by coal, it is STILL cleaner than using gasoline in a car, as sp stated and has been shown repeatedly.
    A $33,000 net price is more expensive than the Prius but the Volt is going to see growing economies of scale which will continue to bring the price of the LiIon battery down. The early adopters will pay for the improvements that the Volt 2 will enjoy.
    And finally, there is no difference in Volt’s performance when the battery has reached the Customer Depletion Point, if you are at 30% and you need to merge into 65 mph traffic, the car will accelerate at 0-60 mph in 8.5 seconds, the battery will go from 30% to 29.5%, and then when you reach 65 mph the generator will recharge the battery to 33%, then it will shutoff. If you want to climb pikes peak at 90 mph, then, you might have a problem. Smaller mountains, at 65 or 70, you won’t notice.

  19. JIm Thykeson Says:

    The big killer on this car is can you take a TRIP WITH IT? They tell you about the little, 3-cyl. engine that powers the motors for a additional 300 miles, but don’t answer, what after that? Can you refill the tank and continue driving…or not? Until they can answer this, the car will remain D.O.A.

  20. John McElroy Says:

    @Jim

    Actually, the Volt has a 1.4 liter 4-cylinder engine, not 3-cylinder. And yes, you can stop and fill the tank and keep on driving the car until you need another fill-up. That’s what they mean by extended range EV (ER-EV). Based on info GM has provided, the Volt will get about 30 mpg when running solely on gasoline power.

    More info at: http://media.gm.com/volt/

  21. Bob Brooks Says:

    ro76bro@aol.com
    The VOLT is too much a hail mary move by a giant corporation in serious trouble. The market needs affordable, practical, good used value cars. And I doubt we are being told the truth about the problem of lithium supply from unstable sources. As an SAE member, I am surprised GM would put this much into a product with very limited market potential. Like HCCI, it is another nifty idea not yet practical.

  22. Steven Schrier Says:

    Re comment #20: Where can we find the reference to the Volt’s 30 MPG range when running solely with the range extender? During your test drive was 30 MPG being reported with the mule test vehicles or with the fully integrated production version? If the Volt only gets 30 MPG instead of 50 MPG that’s a significant consideration for early adopters. Also, could you clarify or share additional information about the 4,500 RPMs when the range extender initially starts? Again, other Volt blog sites have suggested the gas engine is being tuned for much quieter and slower fixed RPMS, considerably less than 4,500 RPM. Some clarification of this would be appreciated. Thank you.

  23. ziv Says:

    I have been following the development of the Volt for two years and I have never heard anything that stated that the Volt would kick in at 4500 rpm. The GM engineers have all been very clear, the ICE would kick in and run at a few preset rpms. If you hit the ‘customer depletion point’, i.e. 30% of the batteries capacity, the ICE kicks on and will power the electric motor with the excess electricity flowing into the battery. The generator is going to be operating only part of the time though, if you are driving less than 45 mph, as this chart illustrates:
    http://www.gm-volt.com/i/voltchart.jpg
    The generator will supply 50-56 kW and driving around town will seldom require more than 30 kW except when you are accelerating away from a stop, and you get half that juice back when the regenerative braking slows you down at the next light. It will be difficult to get less than 45 mpg after reaching the customer depletion point and any effort will probably get you 50+ mpg.
    Here is an older link to a discussion of battery charging in the Volt.
    http://gm-volt.com/2008/09/27/how-charging-of-the-battery-works-in-the-chevy-volt/
    All of the GM engineers have been saying that the Volt will get around 50 mpg when the ICE is on, but they aren’t mentioning that it will go on and off while maintaining the battery level near 30%, which should allow the volt to get better than 50 mpg after getting to the depletion point. I doubt the All Electric Range will be 40 miles every day, especially if you use the AC, but even at 36 miles AER, nearly 80% of drivers in the US would cut their gasoline use by at least 90%.

  24. Kevin Bishop Says:

    Would it not be possible to substitute the gas (or diesel) engine in a Volt with…. a modern, compact gas turbine? Since Chrysler abandonded further development of auto gas turbines in the late 70′s, there have been huge advances in materials technologies (like ceramics) that would greatly reduce the cost of manufacture. The aircraft industry uses small gas turbines as auxilary power units to drive electrical generators for on-board power when engines aren’t running, so why wouldn’t a small turbine the size of a desktop printer not do the job in the Volt? Plus, it would be simple in design (very few moving parts), could run cleanly on a wide variety of fuels, and would give the car a “cache” not shared with any other. Would the mileage and emmisions of a turbine kill this idea?

  25. John McElroy Says:

    @ Kevin:

    One of the first interviews I ever did as a journalist was wtih Sam Williams, the founder of Williams Research, the company that makes the small turbine engines in cruise missles. This was in 1978. He assured me that Williams Research would have a gas turbine engine ready for cars in 1981. I’m still waiting.

    Turbines are terrific engines, but they are very expensive. Ask the Army. The M-1 tank uses a gas turbine, and my Army contacts tell me that’s the last time they’ll use one in a land vehicle.

  26. Loboc Says:

    Thanks for the great read.

    GM can use anything from gas to E85 to CNG to fuel cell to do the range-extender thing. Since GM already has 4-cyl gas engines ‘on the shelf’, it makes perfect sense to use what ya got. Also, what your field mechanics can fix.

    I see Volt as a higer-end car. It’s competition is not Prius or Insight. It’s more like BMW 3. Heck, it really doesn’t have any competition. It’s a new player.

    I’m willing to bet the the true out-the-door dealer price will be in the 50k range for the first 10,000 or so.

    I don’t care if they’re 30k, 40k or 50k. I just want one! I could get used to never buying gas again (except for emergencies). My commute from the burbs is only 32mi per day. Perfect!

  27. - Are You Riled Up? - » Blog Archive » Test Driving a Chevy Volt - John’s Journal on Autoline Detroit Says:

    [...] Original post by John’s Journal [...] Mike Cleary Says: June 9th, 2009 at 4:19 pm. Has GM investigated alternate generator sources? It seems they are using the Cruze motor because of Cruze production considerations, while the engine may …Continue Reading… [...]