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.