Welcome to the Future
Steve Schaefer, Wed, 02 Feb 2011 04:46:03 PST
The Chevrolet Volt is a step into the future of automobiles. Its Voltec Propulsion System provides fuel-free electric driving for local trips and short commutes while alleviating anxiety about running out of power on longer trips.
The first San Francisco Bay Area delivery of one of these revolutionary cars happened on December 18. A week later, I spoke with Patrick Wang, its happy owner, and took a short ride.
Patrick put his name on a list more than a year ago. He attended a focus group and test drove a preproduction prototype before he placed his order back in July. His quick action, and a cooperative Chevrolet dealer in Concord, put him in line for what turned out to be the 10th Volt off the assembly line.
Why a Volt?
"I was interested in the electronic technology and wanted to drive the car of the future," said Patrick.
The Berkeley resident also considered the new all-electric Nissan Leaf, but with parking at a premium, he decided that he wanted one car that would let him drive wherever he needed to go, and the Leaf's limited range became an issue.
"Also, even if range wasn't an issue, the Volt was sexier looking," he admitted.
It is a handsome vehicle, especially in glowing Viridian Joule Tricoat. The overall shape is modern and well proportioned. Unusual details include the wide black strip that runs below the side windows and some unusual cuts between the lower body panels. But it all works beautifully. Even Patrick's mother, who is not a car enthusiast, agrees that the Volt is "nice looking."
Unlike a hybrid vehicle, the Volt's Voltec propulsion system uses a plug to charge up its 435- pound onboard battery pack. That provides a range of about 25 to 50 miles of pure electric travel, depending on terrain, driving habits, and use of electric features within the car. Patrick drove to San Jose from Berkeley as carefully as he could and the car didn't switch to using its 1.4-liter gasoline engine until 43 miles had passed. On the way home, he decided to show off the car's acceleration and the battery was spent at only 28 miles.
When the Volt switches over to using the engine, it's normally only to charge the battery, which continues to power the car using the electric motor. The Volt's high-compression engine uses premium gasoline, but that helps preserve the fuel, which could sit in the tank for months unused if the driver doesn't need it.
The colorful dual information screens on the Volt's high-tech dash display how much electric power is available and what you can do to extend your driving range. The displays also indicate when the gasoline engine starts up, which you otherwise may not notice from inside the silent cabin.
Patrick installed a 240-volt charger in his garage that can repower the car in about 4 hours. Standard 120-volt current takes 10 hours, so the higher voltage is a big advantage. Thanks to California State government programs, he only had to put out $400 of the $1,600 price for installation.
The Volt comes as a sedan only, with one drivetrain, so choices are minimal. You select color and can add a few options, such as polished alloy wheels and leather seats and interior trim, which Patrick's car had. Electronic parking assist is also available.
The car seats four, with buckets front and rear. Legroom is generous up front but tight in back. The interior layout is handsome, even though most of the plastic is the hard variety. Fit and finish is fine and the doors slam with a satisfying thunk.
The Volt cruises around town nearly silently. When Patrick showed me what the car could do, it dashed forward-an eerie sensation when you hear virtually nothing. Patrick demonstrated the pedestrian courtesy horn feature, which works in tandem with the headlight flasher. A muted honk emanates from under the hood-just enough to warn walkers that you're coming.
The Volt is packed with high technology. Patrick can access car information from his smart phone-and also can contact OnStar-GM's telematics system for emergencies and guidance. He showed me information on battery life and other features and demonstrated Onstar downloadable directions. After pressing a button on the ceiling, he spoke directly to an operator, who sent the car the driving instructions, which appeared on the center stack screen.