The direction to the solution
I love the business I'm in and would not trade it for the world. I've been waxing on about the times we are in and how exciting they are as we are currently making history. In fifty years from now, the onset of the 21st Century will be considered a pivotal point in automotive history where the internal-combustion engine's supremacy was challenged for the first time in nearly 100 years.
If hybrids are old news these days, it's EVs that are hogging most of the limelight. You may be privy to the fact that electric vehicles predate hybrids by roughly three-quarters of a Century so, in actuality, both ideas are old.
What is far newer than both is the blending, if you will, of both concepts. I vividly recall being at a GM dinner 5 years ago, during the course of the Canadian Auto Show, where I was carrying on a fascinating conversation with one of the engineers responsible for the Volt project.
I was hanging on his every word. In his mind, and in mine, the sheer brilliance of the Volt and its Voltec technology (then called E-Flex) was the complete modularity of the powertrain. The on-board engine, responsible for maintaining momentum as a generator once the batteries are out, could run on gas, diesel, wiener schnitzels, anything. Not only that, but the Volt's platform could be used as a base for a wide variety of vehicular applications.
I was smitten, even excited. At the time, the concept was making the rounds and it was promising as it was quite the looker, inside and out.
The car you see in the gallery is a few months shy of being a 4-year old design. It's a funny, yet sad state of affairs. The 2012 Chevrolet Volt is a good looking, aerodynamic and dynamically styled car but it has aged prematurely. That is a personal opinion, of course, but that may also be the reason why the car is instantly recognized, or at least was, when I was driving it around.
This may also, in part, explain why there aren't anywhere near as many on the road as there should be. The lesser-known Nissan LEAF has been outselling the Volt in most North American markets. Could it be that the "newness" factor or more obscure nature of the LEAF make it more appealing? Its design is quirky and unique as well. Is it more than that?
Trying too hard
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt's cabin also plays a role in the car's less-than-stellar sale performance, in my book. Sometimes trying too hard bites back and this is what I feel about the Volt's super-plastic moulded one-piece centre-stack.
The majority of controls are defined only by the small writing but thankfully, the touchscreen display is straightforward enough for easy use. As well, the instrumentation or gauges are presented on a similar screen which allows for clear reading of the state of charge, range and other important nuggets of info.
Unfortunately, the entire dashboard looks to me as though pulled from a '70s or '80s concept. The fact that the car is only a four-seater (because the batteries run down the middle of the car) cannot help. In both cases, the LEAF wins out with a cleaner, more conventional user interface and 5 seating spots. Both, by the way, have good sized trunks.
Onwards and forwards
Despite my many misgivings on the Volt's packaging, it's what you don't see and the drive that matters most.
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt goes about getting around with a very complex yet efficient powertrain.
Here goes: It has a Voltec Electric Drive Unit which generates a total of 149 hp (111 kW) and 273 torques of motoring power. The range-extending generator is an 84 hp (55 kW) 1.4L ECOTEC 4-cylinder gasoline engine which requires premium fuel. The battery is a 16-kWh lithium-ion rechargeable storage system.
I encourage you to read how this ingenious system works. My colleague Mike Deslauriers explains the Chevrolet Volt's Voltec system in great detail.
General Motors says that the Volt is an electric car with a range extender. Because it is possible to drive with depleted batteries thanks to a gasoline engine, I prefer to call it a Super-Hybrid. You can draw your own conclusions.
A typical day with the Volt
Here is a synapse of my morning commute with the Chevrolet Volt.
After a 10-hour charge at 120 V, the battery level indicator displays a 45-km range. Potential EV autonomy varies between 40 and 80 km. The ambient temperature is just below freezing. Moments after I start the car, the gas engine springs to life. The instruments tell me "Engine Running Due to Temperature."
Throttle response is snappy, very much like most other EVs. Once under way, the gas engine shuts off and I travel in full EV mode. To merge on the highway, under heavier acceleration, the 1.4L comes to life. Engine speed increases incrementally to match throttle demand but revs do not drop instantly when it is released.
Merging into traffic and travelling at only 50 km/h, the gas engine turns on. The indicated outside temperature is of -6° Celsius. Brake pedal response is lackadaisical and only once near the end of its travel does the car come to a stop. In stop-and-go traffic, it is a lesson I quickly learn.
Once the entire propulsion system is warmed up, the 1.4L only starts up in high power demand situations. In the event the engine runs, it will cleverly and smartly shuts off when the gas pedal is released. Handling is good and the ride, cosseting yet almost sporty.
As with any other EV, maintaining highway speeds is murderous to the battery. Overall, the car is very quiet and so it is difficult to distinguish road and tire noise from the rumble of the engine.
My work commute is 25 km of which 80% is highway. On this morning, my particular traffic jam lasted under 5 minutes and my average speed hovered around 60 km/h. Once at the office, I plugged in the 2012 Chevrolet Volt while the remaining indicated range was of 16 km.
At no time, at temperatures below zero degrees Celsius, was I able to travel more than 5 km without the engine turning on. Whether the battery was 70% or 100% full, at startup and between -5 at -10°, the generator would run. Because of this, I observed a fuel consumption average of 6.5L/100km, which is no better than a typical midsize hybrid or diesel powered car. In colder Canadian conditions, range and performance are severely affected.
A full charge (10 hours at 120 V, 4 hours at 240 V) loses a large portion of its usefulness, which forces the engine to supply energy. It is important to note that most transitions between drive modes are seamless, or just about. It is possible to enjoy driving the Volt as total maximum range, with a tank of gas, is of nearly 600 km.
In a warmer, more clement climate, the Volt might be able to return the proposed potential average of under 2.0L/100km, but 4 to 6 months out of the year, it will not happen in Canada.
The great debate
I will not have it here as my editor will have a conniption.
The question is whether the 2012 Chevrolet Volt is worth the $41,545 asking price (minus the $5,000 to $8,000 provincial rebate). If you factor in performance, depreciation, fuel consumption and styling (should that be an issue), I know that most will be better off in a Chevrolet Cruze. The green gesture that could be purchasing the Volt seems hardly worth it.
I conclude with the following: the Chevrolet Volt is the nearest any car has come to being anything close to a real solution to our energy and mobility needs. Full EVs are not, nor are hybrids, CNG cars or FCVs. If the General is reading, don't stop the R&D. Consumers, get a compact car and wait for Volt Gen II.
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