First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

January 10, 2010

GM's audacious attempt to leapfrog the popular Toyota Prius, with its green halo, has gotten it more publicity than any General Motors car in decades.

The car is the 2011 Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle. And now we've driven it.

For more than an hour, we piloted a pre-production Chevy Volt around the roads of GM's Warren Technical Center in temperatures that never hit 20 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, we racked up 25 miles, at speeds from a crawl to numbers our hosts asked us not to specify.

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

Enlarge Photo

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

Enlarge Photo

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt wins for:

  • Normality: This is a car your mother could drive, and she might never even know it's electric
  • Near-silence: In electric mode, it accelerates remarkably quietly
  • Speed off the line: The smooth, linear 0-30 acceleration may be the car's single best feature
  • Instrumentation: The information presentation and graphics are years ahead of the Prius
  • Range: Up to 40 miles on the battery, more than 300 miles total using the range extender too

We weren't as fond of these characteristics:

  • Looks: A judgment call, but while it's distinctive, the styling feels slab-sided and chunky
  • Engine howl: Under heavy load, the 1.4-liter range-extender engine is comparatively noisy
  • Rear seat: This is a four-seat compact car; if you're 6 feet tall or more, you won't like the rear

And these are (some of) the outstanding issues, which GM will have to address this year:

  • Final engine and motor control software: Finding the right blend of smoothness and efficiency
  • Fuel volume: The physical tank is done, but how much fuel it will hold remains up in the air
  • Price: The most common question, rumored to be $40,000 before the Federal tax credit

As chief engineer Andrew Farah stressed, our car was 90 percent of the way to the production version--our headlights and taillights were placeholders, for instance--but they're still tweaking a few items.

Still, what we drove was very close to what you can buy in November. Here's how we think it stacks up.

Looks

Styling is a subjective area, and plenty of people don't like the space-age shape and interior of the 2010 Toyota Prius (or its similar looking predecessor).

But to our eyes, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt may have gone too far in the other direction. Its high cowl and slab sides make this short five-door hatchback look tall and blocky from some angles.

That said, it's distinctive, without being polarizing. Which may have been the goal.

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

2011 Chevrolet Volt pre-production prototype, January 2010

Enlarge Photo

Performance: Electric

Unlike the round "Start" buttons in some cars, the 2011 Volt has a rectangular On/Off switch. Press it, the instruments light up, a few whirring noises can be heard, and you're ready to roll.

Because electric drive is smooth and quiet, it's easy to get the Volt above your intended speed without noticing. The 0-to-30-mph acceleration may be the car's most enjoyable feature; it's more remarkable than the 0-to-60 time, which isn't final but will be "less than 10 seconds".

As we found last spring during our drive of a Volt powertrain development vehicle, it's easy to spin the inside front tire when accelerating out of a curve. The traction control prevents too much spin, but allows enough to make the car feel credibly quick.

In electric mode, the Volt is smooth and remarkably quiet. Without engine noise, tire roar and wind noise usually come to the fore, but both are admirably suppressed through careful design. We weren't able to drive the car in freeway conditions, so we can't speak to its high-speed performance.

Performance: Gasoline

In electric mode, the Volt operates like more or less any other electric car engineered by a major automaker. Our only big question: What's it like the when the gasoline engine switches on?

We started our drive with 14 miles of remaining electric range, and as it got down to 0, the battery gauge faded away, replaced by a gas-pump icon with its own range (more than 100 miles on our car).

Critically, though, that meant only that the engine could go on. We braked to a stop, accelerated out of a corner in electric mode ... and then, almost below perception level, felt a slight vibration. The engine had switched on, inaudibly.

Continuing to accelerate brought the engine speed up, and its sound to the fore. It was probably no noisier than a standard subcompact, but compared to the silence of electric drive, it was noticeable.

And then it abated, as we eased up on the accelerator and power demand dropped. As soon as we braked for the next stop sign, the engine switched off. And we repeated the cycle many times.

Flooring the accelerator at speed took the engine from its 1000-rpm minimum to maximum output around 4,000 rpm. (These are rough figures from Farah, since there's no tachometer.) There, it howled, as would any small engine propelling a heavy car under load.

Volt engineers will fine-tune the engine note, further feathering some of the transitions. We expect they'll do everything possible to make the transitions less jarring. The engine note isn't unpleasant, exactly, but it takes some getting used to.

It's also nowhere near as irritating as some cars we've tested with continuously variable constant-velocity transmissions (CVTs), where the engine notes rise and fall constantly and erratically. The Volt's tuning is more linear than that.

That's a benefit of the Volt's design since, as Farah notes, even a depleted battery pack can buffer the power draw--rather than changing engine speed every time power demand changes a tiny amount.

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