ELECTRIC SHOCK THERAPY
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Published on Thu, May 5, 2011
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
In Which The Anti-Electric Guy Gets The Volt Drive Or … Why Me, Big Boss? Story by Doug Stokes Somewhere, locked in his super-secret, secluded world headquarters situated high in the mysterious, cloud-shrouded lower foothills of Monrovia, he sits, quietly sorting through a mountainous stack of requests from world automobile manufacturers large and small. Each perused sheet of paper represents a personal, hand-signed, engraved invitation from a major manufacturer, asking, bidding, almost pleading with the Big Boss at LA CAR to set one up one of the publication's ace automotive writers with the carmaker's newest and nicest.
Of course we’re talking about the enigmatic and semi-charismatic CEO, the self-acknowledged genius behind the media juggernaut that is LA CAR on line. And so, when General Motors calls and asks that Mister Big put one of his best people on an extended drive of their new baby, the plug-in electric 2011 Chevy Volt. The guy who gets the call on the hot line was … Who? Me, Stokes, mister high test gasoline-powered (or better still methanol) race car guy, the SOB (same old boy) who professes to have less than no use for hybrids, flex-fuelers, and any and all electric vehicles. (The fact that I once found myself down on all fours searching for an errant Cuban cigar under the grandstands at the Chrysler Grand Prix of Palm Springs with Robert Lutz - the man who made the Volt - had little to do with the assignment, I think.)
And so, and in time, a nice new silver and black Chevrolet Volt silently appeared at the appointed hour in my driveway a couple of weeks back. First (outward) impression is that the body design here is modern, brisk, short-nosed, (“cab-forward” in Chrysler-speak) with lots of the car occurring within its long wheelbase. There are no Jetson-style cues that will serve embarrass an owner two or three years down the line here. Wacky styling (the Nissan Cube excluded, that was intentional, right?) is pretty much a thing of the past and, thankfully, the GM folks did not choose to go all Flash Gordon funky on this one. Of course as with many machines that have started as concept/car show art works, the Volt is not quite as low and sleek as the (non-working) artist’s conceptions that the aforementioned Mister Lutz stood next to on countless auto show stages. Had any of those low-slung show queens an actual habitable interior, I doubt that the 6 foot-something Lutz would have been able to fold himself into it on a bet.
The good news about the look is that realism prevailed and GM’s Chevy division built a real car that, that real people actually fit into. The other bit of reality is the fact that this is powered by electricity … And not an “electric car” with all the compromises and conditions that that expression has come to mean. The fact that very few people noticed we were driving such a significant (and scarce at this point) automobile was something of an indication to me that the future really is here. We’ve lately driven a number of new-age cars with multi-speed transmission that shift through their close-ratio gears with remarkable smoothness. In my native motorsports parlance, the Volt put all of them on the trailer. In days of yore, we motoring journos, would go into paroxysms of ecstasy over “electric-motor-like” seamless acceleration. We should have saved all that excitement for the Volt. And … You have a choice of acceleration standard and sport. Thus this much accelerator tip-in makes this much acceleration, and (set to Sport) that same throttle position makes for whole bunch more acceleration. This is a relatively heavy, four-door sedan, but you’ll never have to fear a long uphill onramp. I personally like hatchbacks and the Volt has one, and, friends and neighbors I’m here to tell you that it is huge. The hatch itself, I mean. Luckily it is very well-balanced and the lift-over is reasonable. The trunk area is adequate (you can get an average-big golf bag in, but at an angle) if not quite the cavern-like space that we’ve come to expect from most modern four door front wheel drive sedans.
Not that I’d really suggest getting in through the hatch (there are four perfectly adequate doors) but, as long as we’re in here let’s take a look around. One slight oddity is the fact that there’s no partition between the Volt’s “trunk” (the area under the rear hatch) and the rear seats. I rode in the back seat (with any four-door machine that I write about I always try to get a hop in the rear seat area) and noticed that I could see my wife’s dragon boat paddle and gear bobbing around in there … not terrible, but odd. The other oddity is how the Chevy designers found headroom for backseat dwellers. They used the (relative) thinness of the ginormous hatch glass to scrounge a bit of headspace where an insulated roof section would cause five foot-sixes to crank their noggins forward about 90 degrees just to sit down. Later, we’ll call this a real world electric car … Not like some electrified production car, its trunk and back seat filled to bursting with heavy lead-acid batteries, and an advertised range that was a fib, pure and simple.
There’s one thing that I had a little personal problem with: I’m an open window driver. I know, I know, old fashioned. Well, the Volt was obviously not made to be driven with the driver’s window open. At any speed above about 45 miles an hour the wind buffeting is reminiscent of Chuck Yeager’s bumpy ride through the sound barrier way back in 1947. There appears to be a venturi formed between the cool-looking rear view mirror and the small front window because putting my hand up between the two surfaces stalled the flow and stopped the nasty blast. They just don’t want us to drive with the window open, do they? I’ve see pictures of other colors, but our silver ice metallic Volt with the shiny black roof and side accent panel seemed the perfect choice for the sort of understatement that this landmark car exudes. This is the future that’s understandable. I’ll say it right here: This is the first real electric car of the modern era. All the rest have been, and especially in the case of hybrids, must now be considered mere compromises. I charged up the car every night off a long(ish) extension cord from my garage. Using standard San Gabriel Valley 120v electricity, the dash would show a 30-35 mile range in the AM. Each time I drove it I got the number of electric miles promised …But when the wattage runs out and then the real magic begins. A small gasoline engine (4 cylinder, 1.4 liter – 80 horsepower) comes on line almost imperceptibly and simply starts powering a generator which makes electricity and which in turn powers the car.
The price sheet calls the gasoline engine a “range extender” and that it does, allowing one to drive about 300 miles to the next electric outlet if that’s your deal. The transition from pure electric to gas engine is virtually seemless. There's no speeding up to move the car, no sudden gas pedal liftoffs … Just spinning at the most efficient speed possible and making voltage to drive the machine. But that, as they say “Changes everything.” And, honestly, it changed me. OK, all say this with me: “Torque is FUN!” The electric motor in the Volt has 273 pounds-feet of that what makes stuff move, and in this case torque “curve” is more an almost vertical line. It’s horsepower rating is a modest 150, but torque is what motivates and this 3,781-pound machine moves right along quite nicely. Yes, you can feel the weight in the ride; the Volt does not coquettishly bid you to dive into a tight series of bends in the road like an F1 car. On the other hand,I actually took this car for a few rapid laps on one of my favorite courses, and found it to have better than expected grip with the normal (quite controllable) front wheel drive/front motor understeer when really pushed very hard. The price tag here is an even $41K, and, save electric seats, there’s nothing I can think of that I felt was left out of the package, and plenty that only a few short years ago would have added up to the same number anyhow. The “comes standard” list on the Volt website runs over 3 pages long. Chevy has contented this one correctly, packaged the Volt to appeal nicely across the board.
As far as energy rebates go, I’ve seen numbers from $3,000 to close to $10,000. Serious buyers need to check with their dealer about which rebates are on line in their state. The superb On-Star system is standard here, more and more GM models are coming with this feature, with it, I hastily turn off the distracting nav screen in favor of a quick one-button call to a wonderfully-polite and thoroughly-knowledgeable live person who never fails to sound happy to hear from me with even the most basic of my questions. From a safety standpoint, there’s nothing like On-Star as well, and small stuff like actual directions are clean, clear, understandable and friendly. This is NOT a (damn) hybrid in the traditional sense. As often as I’m asked, I suggest only leasing if a friend or acquaintance just has to have a hybrid for some reason or another. Using the unique Volt system we averaged well-over 50 miles to the gallon of premium gas on aggregate, and that was NOT at all trying to save any of that 4-Buck+ stuff, Chuck! In the end, the most remarkable thing about the machine is its total unremarkably. There’s nothing sketchy, nothing Gyro Gearloose, nothing that requires the wearing of Birkenstocks. As I indicated earlier, this car needs not be defined by its choice of power.
In fact, it wasn’t until the nice young fellows from General Motors came to fetch their baby back from me that I realized we had been driving this machine not only over Easter weekend but during Earth Day 2011. Appropriate. Of course one still needs to wonder where the electricity that we pumped into the Volt was manufactured … Coal, Thermo, Wind, Nuclear, Solar, Hydro … has to come from somewhere right? The world is all a giant chess game, a move here, might affect something way over there. Anyone truly interested in the environment who’s not up for a certain amount of compromise is not helping. I believe that this car is helping to let people understand that. We saw an aggregate fuel mileage of nearly 57 miles per gallon, “gassing up” with electricity (120 house current) every night and getting the first 25-30 miles for about .89 cents worth of SCE’s best wattage. Everyone who took a ride, was quietly impressed with the Volt’s utter lack of outward uniqueness. They all liked the car as a car first not as some sort of a symbol or a statement. But then, that’s the real genius of this machine, its remarkable ability to change minds long made up about it. - Doug Stoked SIDEBAR COMMENT General Motors is really on to something with this "extended range" electric car. For a first effort, the Volt feels amazingly well-designed and refined (see LA CAR's RE:VOLT). If they could extend the pure electric mode a little more, they'd reach electric nirvana. It shouldn't take much. Just a few more batteries, and its electric range could be that of some of the pure electrics like the LEAF. That would really make the case for the "extended range" car. I have no doubt that GM is already working on this, perhaps for other, newer vehicles to come. When that happens, look out world. - Big Boss
SPECIFICATIONS Name of vehicle: 2011 Chevrolet Volt Vehicle type: 5-door, front-wheel-drive sedan Category: Plug-in hybrid with limited range pure electric operation Chassis: Independent MacPherson struts front, compound crank twist axle rear, four-wheel disc brakes, full regenerative brakes to maximize energy capture, electric power-assist steering Seating capacity: Four Manufacturing location: Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Performance Top speed (mph): 100 EV range, city (miles): The Volt is powered only from electricity stored in its 16-kWh lithium-ion battery for a typical range of 25-50 miles depending on terrain, driving technique, temperature and battery age. Battery system type: lithium-ion Energy (kWh): 16 Electric drive unit Power (kW / hp): 111 / 150 Torque (lb-ft / Nm): 273 / 370 Tire and wheel size: Specially developed low rolling-resistance tires on 17-inch forged aluminum wheels Dimensions Wheelbase (in / mm): 105.7 / 2685 Length (in / mm): 177 / 4404 Width (in / mm): 70.8 / 1798 Height (in / mm): 56.3 / 1430 Cargo volume (cu ft / L): 10.6 / 301