Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Canadian Driver: First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

I am very curious to see how the Volt will perform in a winter, this is a great read....
Review and photos by Grant Yoxon

Detroit, Michigan – While driving silently through Detroit on a cold day in January, I am reminded of a comic book quote from my childhood, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!”
In this case, the Chevrolet Volt is neither a bird nor a plane. It is not a hybrid, although it does have both an electric drive unit and a gasoline engine. But it is not a battery electric vehicle either because it does have that gasoline engine on board.

The Chevrolet Volt is an electric vehicle with extended range, meaning it is propelled by an all-electric drive unit, but with the assistance of a gasoline engine that generates electricity for the electric drive system, can be driven without a recharge or fill up for up to 610 kilometres. Amongst electric vehicles, it truly is Superman.

The Chevrolet Volt is powered by GM’s unique Voltec propulsion system which, in simple terms (for a more detailed explanation, see the accompanying feature, “Deeper into the technology: the Voltec electric drive system”) consists of a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and 149-hp electric drive unit that propels the car exclusively on electricity for up to 80 kilometres, depending on terrain, driving style and climate. When the car’s battery reaches a minimum charge, a 1.4-litre gasoline engine starts up to maintain the minimum charge of the battery enabling the Volt to continue on its way for an additional 530 kilometres, give or take.

On this blustery winter day, we drove approximately 40 kilometres before the driving mode graphic in the driver’s display indicated we had switched from pure electric to extended driving range mode. Not until we came to a stop light, however, did we hear the engine.

Once tuned into the sound of the engine, you realize that it seems to operate with a life of its own. Unlike a gasoline powered car or a hybrid, the rise and fall of the engine speed is not related to the action of your right foot. RPMs increase or decrease according to the needs of the battery pack. It is an unusual feeling to be sitting at the same stop light and hear the engine accelerate while the car is sitting still!

While driving exclusively in electric mode, the driver’s display indicates that we are achieving 250+ miles per gallon (the display can be easily switched to metric) or infinity in other words, but once the car switches to extended driving mode, the fuel consumption figure begins to drop. Over a full 610 kilometre drive, it is expected that the Volt will achieve, according to the US EPA, 37 mpg (6.3 L/100 km) in extended range mode and 60 mpg (3.9 L/100 km) in combined electric and extended range modes. However, if used locally and charged regularly, the Volt will use little to no fuel at all.

The Volt can be charged using either a household 120-volt plug in or a dedicated 240-volt charging station. The Volt comes equipped for the former with a 20-foot charging cord stowed in the back. Charging time takes 10-12 hours on 120V, but only four hours on 240V. Owners can schedule immediate charging or coordinate the charging for their departure time or to take advantage of lower-cost off-peak electric rates. If the vehicle is plugged in, recharging can be controlled remotely using an OnStar mobile app for iPhones and Android smart phones or by accessing an application at MyVolt.com.

While the Volt may not be range limited, our time in the Volt was, with about an hour and a half inside the car, so naturally our driving impressions are somewhat limited. Our drive took us on Detroit’s freeways and suburban streets on our way to GM’s Hamtramck Assembly Plant where the Volt is built along side the Cadillac STS and the Buick Lucerne (although it shares nothing in common with these two).

The Volt has three drive modes – ‘normal’, ‘sport’ and ‘mountain’. The latter, which limits electric range and maximum drive output – the Volt has a maximum speed of about 160 km/h – ensures the Volt has the power to drive up sustained grades. ‘Sport’ mode reconfigures the accelerator settings to provide quicker accelerator response, with zero to 60 mph (96.5 km/h) estimated to be less than nine seconds. Although maximum output is unaffected, the Volt feels more powerful and accelerates quicker. Call this the ‘fun’ mode.

The transmission has a ‘low’ setting, which is not low in the conventional sense of selecting a lower gear for descending steep grades. It is no different than the normal ‘drive’ setting with one exception – regenerative braking, where electrical power is captured and stored in the battery, is dramatically increased. The car decelerates rapidly when the accelerator is released. When combined with ‘sport’ mode, it is the perfect combination for stop-and-go driving.

On the freeways and streets we drove on, the Volt performed no differently, although much more quietly, than any other mid-sized sedan. Power is excellent, although, the more rapidly you accelerate, the more quickly the battery will deplete. Driving style is one factor that affects electric range. (kinda figured that)

The driver is presented with a full range of information and functionality displayed on two seven-inch screens, one behind the steering wheel, the other mounted on the centre stack. A full-colour, high resolution display replaces the speedometer and other gauges found in conventional vehicles and provides information on the battery state of charge and electric range, speedometer, fuel level and extended mode range, driving efficiency, trip information, tire pressure, oil life, and vehicle system messages. The second screen is the primary interface for infotainment, climate controls and efficiency. This latter function is multi-faceted including information on energy usage and energy efficiency, power flow and charging routines. Through this screen the owner can select a charging mode – immediate, delayed departure time and delayed rate and departure time mode, in which the Volt calculates the charging start time based on utility rates, rate preference and the programmed departure time. In this mode, the Volt will charge during the least expensive rate periods.

Surrounding the centre stack screen is a variety of touch-sensitive redundant controls for infotainment and climate, selecting drive modes, programmable charge modes, power door lock and unlock and the electric parking brake actuation and release.

The Volt’s advanced technology is not simply under the hood, but evident throughout the vehicle. Touch-sensitive controls, full-colour graphic displays, Bluetooth connectivity, navigation radio with 60-GB hard drive (30 GB for music storage), AM/FM/DVD-ROM/MP3 playback capability, voice recognition, XM satellite radio with XM NavTraffic/Weather, premium energy saving Bose sound system with six speakers and sub-woofer is the kind of technology one would expect in a premium, near luxury sedan.

The Volt is equipped with standard Jet Black premium cloth seats with Ceramic White accents, but can be ordered with leather seating and heated front seats. Only two option packages are available – a rear camera and park assist package and a premium trim package consisting of leather seating, premium door trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and heated front seats.

In the US, the Volt starts at $41,695, not unexpected for a premium sedan. The rear camera option is priced at $695 while the premium trim package can be added for $1,395. While the Volt is available now in select U.S. markets, it will not be released in Canada until mid-summer 2011. Canadian pricing will be announced closer to its release, but expect a base MSRP in the mid-forties.

Some may balk at that kind of pricing, but the Volt is not a compact battery electric commuter or just a well-equipped hybrid. It is an extended range electric vehicle that is also a premium sedan, one that you will use 365 days of the year, a vehicle that you will drive to work or to a city 400 miles away, that is equipped with luxury appointments and the latest information and entertainment technology as well as the only range extending electric powertrain available on the planet.

If the battery electric vehicle is the bird and the hybrid is the plane, the Volt really is Superman.


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