It accelerates with a big husky twist of its electric motor. Actually, you can even chirp the front tires if you push the go-button hard enough -- very unlike a golf cart. It corners confidently and brakes crisply and, if it’s no Ferrari, it certainly won’t embarrass itself on the 110 Freeway, otherwise known as the Pasadena Grand Prix.
It’s comfortable, practical and -- graded on the curve of five-seat family hatchbacks -- reasonably attractive. Think German-made-dishwasher pretty.
But the question remains: Will the Chevrolet Volt -- General Motors’ radical electric vehicle with a range-extending gas generator on board, due in November 2010 -- really work? Will it help GM leapfrog Toyota -- currently experiencing its own woes -- as a grandmaster of green-car technology? Will it help win back legions of disaffected customers? Will it wow EV enthusiasts in Southern California, who still haven’t forgiven GM for building the Hummer H2 or forgotten the murder of its charismatic little electric car of the 1990s, the EV1?
The high-tech, Earth-friendly Volt could provide a bridgehead for GM in California, where the company’s sales have plummeted about 50% from September 2008.
And by the way, while the Volt is saving GM, will it save gasoline?
“Absolutely,” says Andrew Farah, the Volt’s chief engineer. “It’s going to work and work better than people realize. . . . I’m proud as hell of this thing.”
The Volt is a series hybrid EV that is propelled by a 120-kilowatt (160-horsepower) electric motor. Drawing on energy stored in its 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, the Volt has an all-electric range of about 40 miles. If the battery is depleted, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder generator kicks in to supply electricity to the traction motor.
The advantage of this design is that if drivers don’t exceed 40 miles of driving daily (and most don’t), and if they plug in at night, they won’t use any gas at all. If they need to go farther, they can, burning gasoline.
The Volt splits the difference between the greenness of an EV and the freedom of a gas-powered car. It will be the first such car to come to market.
GM hasn’t announced pricing, but it’s widely speculated the car will sell for under $40,000. Buyers will get a $7,500 tax credit on the car, for a net cost of $32,500 or less. That would still make the Volt thousands more expensive than a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight hybrid.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Volt to the image of GM -- not least because GM, battered by bankruptcy and a lingering reputation as the Darth Vader of fuel economy, has been trumpeting the car in advertising for well over a year. That strategy carries its own risks.
“GM likely feels the massive pre-intro hype for the Volt is probably more valuable than any post-intro disappointment it may yield,” said Karl Brauer, editor of Edmunds.com, the consumer auto research website. “The company is well into its second year of cashing in on the car’s promise of near-zero emissions and 200-plus mpg. Will there be a year plus of scolding by the press if the car ultimately bombs? No, a few weeks at most.”
Behind the wheel
Farah was in Los Angeles this weekend taking a hand-built Volt prototype on a goodwill tour of sorts, visiting Jay Leno’s garage and car enthusiast events. The tour included a stop at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, when journalists had a chance to drive the car for themselves.
I spent 45 minutes behind the wheel, weaving through a four-tenths-mile course marked off by cones in one of the parking lots. This was one of the first opportunities for anyone outside of GM engineering to test the car.
The Volt -- a four-door sedan with a hatchback, about the same size as a Toyota Prius -- is filled with cheery, next-generation textures: the Mac computer-like finish on the touch-sensitive center console; a bright, animated information panel with readouts for battery life and fuel consumption.
As with all electric cars, the sensation of hard acceleration feels slightly empty since there’s no accompanying pitch of a snarling internal-combustion engine. The absence of engine noise tends to amplify other sounds, such as the squealing of the special low-rolling-resistance tires.
The Volt has a sport mode that boosts battery/motor output by 27 horsepower. In sport mode, the Volt acceleration feels well within the reported 8 seconds to 60 mph, perhaps a little better.
The critical moment arrives when the Volt exhausts its supply of onboard electrons and the range-extending gas generator kicks in. During my test drive, this moment came and went without much of a mechanical inflection. The output of the electric motor, and therefore the performance, remains the same. The engine noise is distant and muted.
If the car encounters a steep uphill grade, or the driver really floors it, the gas generator does rev up to keep up with the electrical demand, sounding much like a conventional car. The engine noise is still too noticeable, according to Farah. The complex power management software will be evolving until the day the car goes to market.
Still, even in this rough prototype, the Volt vibe is spacious, comfortable and lively. The whole car seems lit from within by the ambitions of its builders.
The job ahead
The Volt will not be an easy sell. Because it is, in Farah’s words, a “discontinuous product” -- which is to say, unlike anything else on the market -- the public is still unsure how the Volt works or how it differs from a hybrid or a pure electric vehicle. “People hear what their brain tells them they already know.”
For example: Unlike electric cars like Nissan’s Leaf, due late next year, the Volt has essentially unlimited range, since it can run on gasoline.
And yet, many fret that the Volt will leave them stranded with a dead battery. So-called range anxiety is one of the big obstacles facing battery-electric vehicles in the U.S. “One message we’re trying to get out is that there’s life after 40 [miles],” Farah said.
Another challenge: Not everyone will have a place to plug the car in. Apartment dwellers need not apply.
The Volt’s technical approach has won fans in the environmental community.
“Combining battery electric drive with an internal combustion range extender is an elegant solution that provides enough electric-only range for most people, while offering unlimited hybrid range when required,” said Ron Cogan, publisher of Green Car Journal and editor of GreenCar.com.
However, some in the industry are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“It’s a new kind of technology and an unknown quantity,” says Michael Omotoso, director of powertrain forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates.
“The fact that there’s an engine on board might give people confidence in the car’s range,” he said. “On the other hand, people might say, ‘Wait a minute. I want an electric car. If I wanted something with an engine on board, why wouldn’t I just buy a hybrid like a Prius or the Honda Insight?’ ”
To complicate matters, the federal government isn’t quite sure how to calculate fuel economy for the Volt and other range-extended EVs (such as the proposed Fisker Karma). In August, GM announced that the Volt got 230 miles per gallon in city driving -- which is accurate by the numbers but not really representative of real-world driving.
Farah said GM and the government are working toward a mileage methodology. “We want a clear, understandable and communicable number,” he said.
Based on a national average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, GM estimates it will cost about 80 cents per day to fully charge the Volt. In electric mode, that works out to about two cents per mile. A comparable gas-powered car would cost about 12 cents per mile to operate, according to GM’s figures.
In any event, GM figures the Volt will average more than 100 miles per gallon for most consumers. “I drove it for over 200 miles one weekend and used two-tenths of a gallon of gas,” Farah said.