Chevrolet Volt review, test drive
7th Dec 2011 10:22 pm
Chevrolet's range extender, the Volt, could be the blueprint for the car of the future. So what's it like under the skin and what's it like to drive?
Chevrolet built the Volt to deal with one problem and one problem alone - range anxiety. Engineered to override the nagging fear you have in an electric car, when the charge in your battery is running low, the Volt is an electric car whose range can be infinitely extended by using a petrol engine as an electric generator.
Powered by GM’s unique Voltec propulsion system which consists of a lithium-ion battery pack and electric drive unit coupled together, the Volt can be driven as a pure electric for a range of around 40 to 80 kilometres. And for most folks that will be the preferred mode of travel. Once the charge is partially depleted however, and here’s the unique part, a 1.4-litre petrol engine kicks in, charges the battery and extends the range by a massive 550 kilometres. And if you want to travel even further, just top up the tank.
This, of course, means that you can use the Volt both as a city car and as a long distance vehicle, giving it flexibility no other production electric car currently enjoys. And you can use it as you will. You can charge the car off a wall socket at night and use it as an electric car all week, not consuming even a drop of fuel. The Volt, however, also gives you the flexibility to make unscheduled long excursions and even cross country trips. So basically, the penalties for driving an electric are almost nil.
The Volt’s battery can be charged using a household electrical outlet, or much faster via purpose-built 240V charging posts which are being set up at convenient locations across the USA (we use 240 volts in India in any case). Once the vehicle is plugged in, owners can schedule either immediate or delayed charges (to take advantage of off-peak electricity rates) and the Volt can even be monitored remotely via computer on MyVolt.com or an exclusive smartphone app.
While you could argue that the Volt is similar to a hybrid in some ways, one key differentiator is that GM claims there is no direct connection between the petrol engine and the wheels of the car. And this makes a huge difference to the car’s architecture. The Volt’s largest component is the battery, which is more than five feet long. The 16kWh lithium-ion battery pack weighs almost 200kg, is T-shaped and actually sits in a spine between the seats, allowing the Volt to have a real boot. The petrol motor is mounted in the nose and drive from the electric motors is sent to the front wheels. Why two motors? Chevy engineers say the second motor is used to provide the Volt additional thrust when you need more power, and it’s also used
as a force multiplier, much like one would use a gearbox to drop rpm at higher road speeds.
Up close and in the flesh the Volt looks impressively cutting-edge. The faux grille instantly tells you that all is not normal here, it’s clear a lot of attention has been paid to refining aerodynamics and, truth be told, this really is a well balanced, good looking car with no odd quirks included just to make the design stand out as something different.
Getting behind the wheel of the Volt sparks more curiosity than excitement. There are all sorts of three-dimensional graphics on the touch screens, plenty of new controls and options to learn and several driving modes to understand. There are Normal and Sport modes, but since this is an electric, I stick it in Normal and set off seamlessly. The Volt pulls away easily, as any torque rich electric should, and the step-off is very impressive. It feels easy and fluid to drive, and getting up to speed is almost effortless. The smooth torque makes this 1.7-tonne car feel like it weighs substantially less and the Chevy just seems to sail along effortlessly. There’s very little of the rubber-band effect you normally associate with an electric and the silence of the drivetrain actually makes the journey really enjoyable. The relaxed demeanor continues even when you pull the car harder; must have something to do with all those hundreds of millions of relaxed but potent V8s Chevy’s built in the past. In comparison, something like a Prius feels [link for tech pics] strained and wheezy.
Only under hard acceleration above, say, 80kph does the engine cut in and become quite audible. It’s not got the nicest of engine notes and sounds strained and a bit long in the tooth [old?], which doesn’t really fit the character of this car of the future. And the engine doesn’t just chug along at one speed. Pull the Volt hard and the revs rise, the second motor also cutting in at higher speeds and adding to the whine. The performance, however, is quite strong and the Volt easily breezes along at speeds in excess of 120kph.
What makes the experience even more rewarding is fact the Volt actually drives quite nicely. The car is based on GM’s new Delta platform, which also underpins the Chevy Cruze, and it uses the same basic MacPherson suspension. The Volt also gets lightweight wheels and specific Goodyear low-friction tyres for a lower rolling resistance. The chassis feels reasonably stiffened, the steering feels very connected once you get away from the straight ahead position, and with weight of the batteries sitting low in the car, body control is quite good too. So it’s fun to drive, even around on a challenging road, which comes as a bit of a surprise. “It was essential to make the Volt funa to drive so that we could connect with people who really like cars”, said one of the engineers Lawrence Ziehr.
The regenerative brakes, that return some of the power to the batteries, however, feel typically wooden, and that spoils the driving experience a bit. Also not too impressive is ride quality. Though comfortable, the suspension is quite audible and you hear a few thumps without getting tossed around too much. The car’s central spine of lithium-ion batteries means the Volt can only be had with two seats in the rear, but they are comfortable enough for average passengers. What you do get is large boot that makes the Volt quite a practical car to own.
Chevrolet wants the message of the Volt to be spread far and wide. A right hand drive version has been made for countries like the UK and Japan, the car will soon be in China and Chevrolet India is working on a plan to get the car here as well. In half a decade or so, we could also see a diesel version of the Volt or something smaller, targeted at European and Indian markets. And wouldn’t that be great? Just imagine how low your running costs could be. Something to definitely look forward to.