Chevy Volt

October 14, 2010

I finally drove a "99.9% production" Chevy Volt this morning in San Francisco. It was a nice long drive on real streets. Hills, straights, curves. And while many people assume - because of my past GM EV1 experience - that I would head into this with a negative attitude or a chip on my shoulder, that was not the case. I WANT to see good alternative cars. From every maker. And make no mistake - this car is better than "good."

When I arrived at my appointed time in my snappy EV1 shirt, I was immediately and warmly greeted by Dave Barthmuss who treated me with an almost alarming amount of respect. I was introduced to the engineer who would accompany me in the passenger seat, and shown to my car - and I was the first one to drive off for the day. High points for pre- (maybe post?-) customer appreciation, certainly.

Let me warn you right up front that I can't help but compare the Volt to the Toyota Prius. Several reasons for that: I am intimately familiar with the Prius, the Volt and Prius are similar-sized hatchbacks, and they are both hybrids of a sort. In broad terms, these cars are after the same green-minded, gadget-oriented market of transportation seekers.

After getting through all the happy jingles and lit displays (that won't impress current Prius drivers much, though they are certainly more 3D-ish), we were off. Just like in a Prius, there is a proximity fob, and a button to press on the dash that "starts" the car. No old-school ignition key here! At this point, the first Volt benefit over the Prius becomes clear: The gas engine doesn't fire after a few seconds. Doesn't even fire after flooring the go pedal and flying along at 80 mph. Yay! As I pulled away from the parking area, I immediately noticed the near-perfect modulation of low-speed power. Nothing lumpy or cogging as I eased off at impulse power. I've driven nine or ten "production" EVs to date, and none of them achieved this level of low speed refinement. Truly, the 0-2mph and 2-0mph performance is beautiful to behold. Creeping around shopping centers, parking lots and the driveway will be a thing of rare beauty with this car. Not many people realize how bad that transition is in most other cars... until it works perfectly like in the Volt. The rest of the drive was, in a word, uneventful. And that's good and bad. Some folks want visceral feedback from their transportation. Others want to be coddled and just get to point B with the least amount of fuss. The Volt is all about the latter. The car did everything I asked of it, and did it all without hesitation or complaint. More than enough acceleration. Confidence-inspiring brakes. Solid cornering. The car is quiet to a fault, and composed in ever situation. The generous visibility impressed me. This car offers competent high-quality, comfortable, smooth and quiet transportation. If you are looking for raw, blistering excitement in your green car, you'll want to go talk to my friends at Tesla.

What surprised me most about the experience was the level of luxury offered by the Volt. This is the Lexus (probably I should say Cadillac?) of the Chevy line, it seems. When sitting and driving in the car, I got the expensive feeling of insulated, heavy luxury - to a level that cheaper cars can't seem to match. The problem of course is that the purchase price does a good job of matching that elevated level of luxury... in a Chevy. But for those seeking the plush ride, the Volt has it. The Prius is somewhat of tin can in comparison. Road noise, rough road feedback, the feel of the ICE kicking on and off, some plastic rattles from the dash. Where the Prius is all about utilitarian (ok, and some nice toys), the Volt is all about being a plush people mover. Love it or hate it, the Volt isolates the occupants from the exterior realities... even having the ICE kick on and off is a barely discernable event from inside the vehicle.

The car is more sedan than hatchback, though the whole rear window lifts up as in a typical hatchback (Prius!). The cargo area has a "well" that goes down somewhat deep, though it doesn't extend very far forward before the back of the rear seats stops the party. The cargo floor is not level (the Prius is a great example of a level cargo area), there is a relatively high lip to lift cargo over (as in a traditional trunk) and the opening is relatively narrow. In comparison, the Prius has a wide, flat, and longer cargo area. Though I didn't actually attempt it, I can't believe that a full-size bicycle with wheels attached would fit in the Volt's cargo area (while one, and even two complete bikes fit easily in the back of the Prius). For my practical use, this is one of the biggest bummers of the Volt. My long range car has to hold as much cargo as easily as possible. And this goes back to why I call the Volt more sedan than hatchback - the car is a luxurious way to transport four people (yes, only four as the battery tunnel down the middle precludes a middle seat in the rear), but is not optimized for cargo, or interior space in general.

My favorite subtle feature: The pedestrian alert. Pull the "flash to pass" stalk on the left of the steering wheel, and at low speeds, the headlights flash, and the car emits a warble tone. This is used to alert pedestrians to your presence at low speed without making them jump out of their skin. This is the perfect implementation of a pedestrian alert - drive activated when needed! The operation and sound are basically identical to the EV1's implementation. The phrase, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind here! In the video below, you can hear the warble at 6:09.

Bottom line? The Volt is a unique solution to a problem that many people think they have: Needing one car that can be totally electric for most trips... and can also have virtually limitless gasoline range when desired. GM decided to go relatively high end with the interior and driving feel. It is plush to a fault, and allows the driver to pretty much forget that he's driving a whole new type of car - the integration of the EV portion and the Extended Range portion is that seamless. I enjoyed the car quite a bit more than I thought I would. The purchase price is about the only tough pill to swallow here.

Enthusiast Site * Official Volt Site * Owner's Manual Purchase

177 inch exterior length and it’s weight is 3790 pounds



Aesthetics are totally subjective of course... but I was surprised at how attractive I found the car. Fit and finish are superb.

It would seem that there's no hope of installing a hitch (for bike rack duty) due to the low, center placement of the reverse light.

Cargo access not optimized. High lift-over lip, narrow opening. Oh and look! One of those retro incandescent interior lamps too!

Two data screens with more information than most humans will want. Unfortunately, they lack a few items that this human will need. The glossy "stack" is a big miss for me. Buttons aren't randomly placed... but how to find them with eyes on the road? Almost impossible. Blue button above and to the left of the shift lever is the "start" button.

The door has all the normal controls for windows, locks and mirrors. And also has the hatch controls for the charge port and the gas flap. What a pain to have to open the door to access the charge port! There's no reason to lock it. Nobody can siphon the electrons, or stuff sugar in the battery tank. This "feature" makes it hard to share a charger. Nobody can plug you in when they come back to their car and find you waiting for a charge.

The rear seats. I'm almost 6' tall, and didn't hit my head back here. The rear passenger heads benefit from fitting up behind the headliner where the glass starts... and is much higher. Knee room was a bit tight with a full-size adult in the front seat, however.

Wow. This shot makes the cargo area look somewhat large. Notice that it is only two seats wide though!

Lift the floor, and there is storage for the 120V charger. And access to the Aux battery terminals. Neat, clean package!

The J1772 input. On the left front panel just ahead of the door.

Yes... the world's first EV with an exhaust system. Well hidden. I had to get dirty to take this shot!

And the engine bay.

120V charger hanging on display. And the connector on the car end of it.

Wait. Where's the camera?

Video from the back seat. Listen to the audio at your own risk. Several conversations going on at the same time. Marc Geller and I are in the back goofing off... I mean studying the finer details of the car.

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