Home Car/Bike Reviews 2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

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It looks like we have a new automotive phrase to add to the popular lexicon: "range anxiety". This occurs when people driving electric automobiles refuse to venture out of their comfort zone for fear the car�s batteries will run out and they�ll be stranded.

For General Motors� technology planning manager, Tom Odell, this has particular significance, as it was one of the things the company dealt with when it introduced the ill-fated EV-1 electric car, back in the late 1990s. "We found that even though we added more charging stations with the EV-1," he explains, " people just didn�t use the ones that were further away. They took comfort in knowing there were there, yes, but usage increased by only 20 per cent."

Odell, who was very much involved in the EV-1 program and concedes that his company "blew it" with that one, is stick-handling GM�s Chevy Volt these days, and was in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics to take part in Chevrolet�s preview program for the new gas-electric hybrid car.

The Volt is a completely different animal from conventional hybrid and electrical vehicles. Where the EV-1 was 100 per cent electric, it has a 1.4 litre gasoline engine on board to supplement the car�s lithium-ion battery pack. Located under the car�s firewall and along the centre console, the T-shaped battery pack feeds an A/C electric motor and together, they give the Volt a range of at least 60 kilometres on pure battery power. Unlike other hybrid cars – the Toyota Prius, for example – the Volt runs on battery power alone for 60 kilometres before the auxiliary gas engine cuts in. In other words, when you get in the car and drive, those first 60 klicks will be emission-free, regardless of the conditions. City or highway driving, it makes no difference, although the harder you drive it, the sooner the batteries discharge. When that happens, the gas engine comes into play and continuously recharges the battery pack while giving the car a total driving range of some 640 kilometres. GM doesn�t even describe the gas engine as such, but refers to it as an "on-board gasoline-powered generator". It�s main purpose is to keep the batteries charged, as opposed to providing motivation.

The Volt is also distinguished by the fact that the batteries can be re-charged by plugging in to either a 110 or 240 volt outlet. The plug socket is located on the left front fender, and it takes about eight hours with the former, and three with the latter. When you plug in, the car�s on-board computer "shakes hands" with the electrical supply and performs a kind of mini-diagnostic. Any flaws or anomalies in the electrical supply – short circuit, low voltage, etc – are displayed and you can also communicate with it to check on its state of charge. "If you�re upstairs in your condo, for example, and you need to go out suddenly" explains Odell, "you can call the car downstairs and it�ll tell you how things are, and you can also re-program it to charge itself during off-peak hours."

Featuring "underpinnings" and various bits and pieces from the new Chevy Cruze compact, the Volt will seat four and when running on battery power, offers the driver a special "Mountain" setting, which increases the rate of charge back to the battery pack. It slows the car down perceptibly, but at the same time, can extend its electrical range. Like virtually all hybrids, the Volt has regenerative braking and when it decelerates, energy is "captured" and fed back into the batteries. There is also a "Sport" setting that gives the car an extra shot of performance when climbing hills or overtaking, for example. "Once you figure things out," explains senior project engineer, Tim Perzanowski, "you can sort of fiddle around with the system and get both maximum performance and driving range out of it." During a quick couple of loops around Stanley Park, the Volt displayed reasonable power and acceleration, but this is definitely not a performance car in any way, shape, or form. Interestingly, it is one of the most streamlined cars GM has ever put forward, with better aerodynamics than the Corvette, for example.

Production for the Volt is set for the end of 2010 and it�s scheduled to hit showrooms in early 2011. GM has eight (out of some 80) cars already built and making the rounds. The ones we drove were "65 per centers", which means that they�re pre-production models, and the final version may be slightly different. Crash tests are pending, according to Tom Odell, but the car will get a five star rating. "It has to," he adds.

No prices have officially been released for the Volt at this time, but it�s expect to start in the $30,000 neighbourhood, going up to $40,000 with all the goodies. Who will buy it? "We hope and expect environmentalists to like it," says Odell, "and if we pass muster with them, it�ll definitely go mainstream."