First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

By Kevin Miller

This past weekend, GM kicked off the Chevy Volt Unplugged tour, a consumer-oriented ride-and-drive event which takes the Volt on a twelve-city, cross-country tour. Seattle is the first stop on the tour, and I was able to participate in the tour’s second day.

As a brief refresher, the Chevrolet Volt is powered by GM’s Voltec propulsion system, consisting of  a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and 149 HP electric drive unit that provide pure electric range between 25 and 50 miles, and a 1.4 liter, 82 HP (63 kW) gasoline-powered engine that extends the range up to an additional 310 miles on a full tank of fuel by providing electrical power to drive the car; the gasoline engine is not mechanically coupled to the wheels.

Although I have seen Volt prototypes at the Detroit and LA Auto Shows in 2009, this was my first opportunity to see one out in the wild, and also my first opportunity to get in the driver’s seat and out on the road.  To my eyes, the production Volt has a somewhat more aggressive exterior appearance than I had expected based on the show cars I saw in 2009; it had real presence. One interesting detail is the reverse lamp, which is a single, trapezoidal-shaped lamp in the center of the lower rear bumper.

At the event, I first drove a Volt on the pre-determined four-mile course, and then I rode as a passenger in the backseat while another participant drove. Climbing into the car for the first time, I found the driver’s seat in the Volt is adjustable for height as well as the standard fore-aft and incline/recline motions. Seat upholstery was a nondescript, durable-looking, charcoal-colored cloth. Leather upholstery will be optional with the Volt’s Premium Trim Package; the Volt I drove had a heated cloth driver’s seat.

The center stack, which houses climate and infotainment controls as well as the start button and electric parking brake actuator, is made from a glossy plastic, with capacitively-coupled actuators for the controls. The top of the stack features a 7″ touchscreen display, and the instrument binnacle houses a 7″ LCD screen which displays a host of information including selected gear, charge state, fuel level, range, and speed. Similar in functional concept to the keys on the MyFord Touch system, the Volt’s actuators took a firm “touch” to work; I thought that the appearance and functionality of the Volt’s controls was not quite as refined as those in the Lincoln MKX whose myFord Touch system I recently used. As in other GM vehicles, the sound system must be on in order for the infotainment screen at the top of the center stack to provide navigation or consumption information. The car I drove had a gray-colored plastic on the center stack, and a lime-green plastic with a swirl decoration on the front door panels. The car in which I was a passenger had bright white plastic on both the center stack and the front door inserts (think iPod).

Because of the Volt’s large T-shaped battery pack, the back seat has space only for two occupants in the outboard seating positions, and a center console with molded-in drinkholders is between them. There is adequate legroom (or, there was after the in-car GM host scooted his chair forward), and it also had plenty of headroom. The seat-bottom cushion was a bit low for somebody with legs as long as mine (I’m 6′ 4″ tall). The door interiors in the back seat are uninspired black plastic affairs (with none of the bright plastic decor from the front seats). While the rear doors each have a padded armrest, there is none in the center of the car- the fixed center console is level with the trunk floor. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a hatchback-accessed cargo area that didn’t look huge; GM rates it at 10.6 cubic feet. A horizontally-split rear window (and that space between the rear seats) at least allows decent visibility out back for reversing in cars not equipped with the optional backup camera.

On the road, the Volt has a more direct feel to its propulsion than does a standard hybrid car such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid I spent a week driving last year. The fact that the Volt is always electrically-propelled means that there isn’t a transfer of propulsion from electric to internal combustion. Our dictated drive route was on suburban roads with a maximum speed limit of 35 MPH, so I didn’t get to experience the Volt at freeway speeds (though earlier in the day I did see three Volts on the freeway, on their way to the Unplugged event). That being said, around town acceleration was adequate, and on a wet corner when I mashed the throttle I felt and heard the inside front wheel spin, so there is plentiful torque. The regenerative braking (and the transition from regenerative to friction brakes) is much better-integrated than in the Camry Hybrid.

Because the vehicles on this ride-and-drive event had been continuously driven before my turn behind the wheel, their battery packs were mostly depleted, which meant that the internal combustion engine used to recharge the batteries was running.  In other words, they were in the Volt’s so-called charge-sustaining mode. While the gasoline-fueled powerplant could be heard, it was never intrusive, its characteristic was more like an idling motor than one being stresed. When underway, a fair amount of road noise makes its way in to the cabin, but you seldom hear powertrain noise. Because the car does glide silently through parking lots, GM made a light horn-sounding feature to alert pedestrians; pulling back on the turn signal stalk quietly pulses the Volt’s horn.

According to my in-car ride-and-drive host, the Volt has an approximate range of 350 miles when the batteries are charged and the fuel tank is full of premium unleaded gasoline. A depleted battery can be charged from a 220-240 V source in 4-5 hours; a full charge from 110 V supply will take 8-10 hours. GM announced that their charger will be available for $490 installation. The estimated cost of recharging the Volt daily, based on average electricity rates, is $1.50.

The Volts used for the Volt Unplugged tour are among 80 pre-production units that have been built in GM’s Hamtramck Assembly plant, and a 35-year veteran UAW assembler was one of the ride-and-drive hosts. He explained how Volt production has put idled American assemblers back to work, and how he and his team were proud to be building the most tecnologically-advanced car in GM’s history. He also explained that he was getting paid a ton of overtime for the long hours he was working on the Volt Unplugged tour, beyond the normal 4 x 10 hour weekly shifts at the plant.

The Volt will be available in selected markets (CA, TX, MI, NY, NJ, CT, and DC) by the end of 2010, with about 10,000 units available for the 2011 model year. Production is expected to ramp up to 30,000 units for MY2012, when sales expand to the rest of the nation. Pricing starts at $41,000, with anticipated tax credits as high as $7500 to reduce the effective purchase price.

If you are interested in checking out the Volt in person, and you live in California, Texas, or Florida, or near Raleigh, Washington, D.C., New York, or Chicago, you can click on this link for details about the Volt Unplugged Tour. The  tour featured a number of Volts available to drive; with GM engineers, assemblers and PR folks to answer questions. My complaints are just two: there were no Volt souvenirs handed out, and unfortunately the renowned Chevy Volt Dancers were not in attendance.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Techshake’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Techshake, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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  1. I remember the Volt dancers from L. A. Auto Show last year. Shudder. Who ever thought that was a good idea? Maybe they were put there to scare off people like me who were spending too much time at the display?

    Meanwhile, I like this car more and more. I can’t justify the cost, but that lease they offer is VERY attractive. And my 28 mile round trip to work is perfect for the plug-in. Now that it’s no longer “vaporware”, I’m going to be paying serious attention to this . . .

  2. A guy that I was chatting with in the cue was checking out the Volt in spite of the fact that he had already ordered a Leaf. In his plan the Leaf will fill in until the Tesla Model S is available. I think there will be techie car enthusiasts or electric purists, who will opt to take that route.

    The volt I drove at the drive event had heated leather seats that were quite nice. Kevin, I am glad you included a photo of the plastic door panel… it is kind of cool. Generally, I think the styling is ok except for the fake front grill.

    The car was also supplied with a California-based, veteran GM special projects engineer who was by far the best feature (yes, he work on the EV-1 project). His daily drive… a hydrogen fuel cell Equinox.

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