2011 Chevrolet Volt Road Test Review

Jon Rosner - CAP staff
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Published on June 13, 2011

As far as four-door sedans go, the Volt is a successful design, but its styling isn't why it attracts so much attention. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

The Volt is mighty quick off the line, so this is a viewpoint of the car that surrounding motorists should get used to seeing. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

Worthy to be in the same sentence as the legendary Jaguar E Type? An argument can be made, and that can't be said for most new cars. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

What do a classic Jaguar E Type and the new Chevrolet Volt have in common? They're both significant automotive game changers. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

Both are attractive designs from the rear... ok, the Volt is nice whereas the E Type is undeniably beautiful. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

The Volt's interior is nicely put together with good materials, but some might find the pearl white centre stack a bit odd. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

It might be quick, but the Volt exists for the purpose of its superb fuel economy and ultra-low emissions. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

The Volt is more convenient to live with than a traditional sedan, being that the four-door notchback actually features a hatchback to access cargo. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Published on June 13, 2011

Under the hood is a gasoline hybrid electric system, but unlike the Prius the Volt's primary drive system is electrically powered and can be plugged in for recharging. (Photo: Jon Rosner, Canadian Auto Press)

Why was the 2011 Chevy Volt photographed next to a 1961 Jaguar E Type? Because fifty years ago the E Type was a technical revolution. In 1961 most cars had overhead valve engines to go, drum brakes to stop, the rear end was held up by leaf springs with a solid rear axle that left a bit to be desired when taking a sharp corner. Most cars were built body on frame, where racecars were about to move on to semi-monocoque or monocoque designs otherwise known as unibody construction. If your top speed was 120 mph (190 km/h nowadays… metric wasn't used much in Canada back then) you had a hot car.

Jaguar left Aston Martin, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes and Porsche in its dust with this new model that sported a semi-monocoque design with a square-tube chassis for the engine cradle. The overhead cam engine had better breathing, the disk brakes all around gave fabulous stopping power and the coil sprung independent rear end kept the car on the road. Ferrari built the GTO to compete with the E Type and Carol Shelby worked with Ford to build the Cobras to compete with the GTO.

Is the Volt that revolutionary? Yes, it is.

Up to now the star of the electric car show has been the Toyota Prius with backup offered by the various rival hybrids. The Toyotas and others are hybrids that offer superb gas mileage. And so far the durability of each has been quite good. But the truth is that the hybrid or parallel technology is obscenely complex with electric motors sometimes charging batteries (when you apply the brakes) sometimes driving the wheels alone and sometimes jointly with the fossil fuel-burning engine adding power. The amount of computer code and processing that keeps these things going is staggering. And if anything goes wrong, and it eventually will, is anyone going to be able to fix it?

With the Volt the engine never drives the wheels. The engine drives a flywheel that is connected to a motor that charges the batteries, a fairly simple concept. In the real world the Volt's 16-kilowatt battery takes about eight hours to come up to a full charge on 110V house current and is good for a max of about 80 kilometres before the engine kicks in to recharge the batteries.

The journalist who tested the Volt before me had a seventy-year-old house with poor grounds. The 110V cable said "no" and the Volt arrived with a depleted battery. This meant that the gasoline engine, that spins up the flywheel, which drives the motor, which charges the batteries, was running for the first few hours that the Volt was here. It all sounds very Rube Goldberg, but it's not.

The system was reporting that it was returning the equivalent of 6.7L/100km on gasoline in its extended range mode. The 1.4-litre engine, sipping premium, pushes 85 horses at 4,800 rpm to charge the battery. Not an impressive number considering that the similarly sized Prius uses well below 6 over the same distance. But to be fair to the Volt, this is an apples to oranges comparison as the technologies behind each are very different. With the battery fully charged and a whopping 3 litres of fuel consumed we were looking at a projected range of just over 60 kilometres on electric alone. If we were planning for a long trip we could have topped up the 35-litre tank. The very low drag coefficient of .287 makes the theoretical maximum range of over 560 kilometres (350 miles) seem possible if we ran the gas tank to empty like a regular car. Not bad.

An electric motor develops maximum torque at zero rpm where a gasoline engine won't reach maximum power until at least 1,800 rpm. A 2011 Porsche Boxster hits 214 pound feet of torque at 4,400 rpm, with far less available just off the line. Guess what? The electric motor of the Volt cranks out 150 horses and a whopping 273 pound feet of torque, with that huge pile of torque starting from the nearest green light.

And that's when the fun started. The idea of consuming electrons rather than burning gasoline brought out a Flash Gordon in the 21st Century giddiness and it did not take long before the hoon in me started to take over. Add some '70s music courtesy of XM Radio's Underground Garage pouring from the really nice sound system and this author was primed. An unwary Porsche Boxter got stomped on a really, really long two lane highway entrance. Up to 70 or 80 km/h there was no way he could keep up. Yes, by 80 the game was pretty much over, but then, I wasn't in Sport Mode where a few extra electrons would have given me a longer lead. Once highway speeds were achieved the Boxter bellowed, revved up and flew past. Clearly this was going to be fun. The next exit offered a semi-twisty road. On route was a 40-km/h zone and the Volt took the speed bumps cleanly at the posted speed. The 2,692-mm wheelbase and good suspension yielded no bounce and little rebound. A surprisingly supple reaction considering the very good smoothing and control the seventeen-inch wheels offered over the previous potholes.

In the twisties the chassis and suspension held together nicely. At 1,715 kilos (3,781 pounds) it feels heavier than it is, responding like a 1,720 kilogram (3,792-pound) BMW 5 Series on slightly too skinny tires. Holding the road well, but with tires squealing in earnest protest if we got a bit too enthusiastic. As we glided along with all four windows fully recessed into the doors the only real noise came from the tires, some wind and the bird chirping. Steering felt light and there was zero road feedback, but it was easy to place the car on the road accurately. With most hybrids there is a touchy spot where the system goes from regeneration, where the electric motors are generating power back into the system, and activation of disks and drums of the mechanical brakes. Here too someone has done their homework. The transition between regeneration and the whopping big four wheel disks of the Chevrolet Volt is quite smooth and unobtrusive where it has been down and out Texas two-step disconcerting in some of the hybrids out there.

And yes, stomping at the Savoy consumed power. A projected 60-km range was shortened to considerably to more like 40 kilometers of hooning behaviour, but all this was done in the name of research to protect the public, you see. Meanwhile the gauges were telling me that I was now achieving 3.9L/100km. A bit of a fib. But who cares? 40 kilometres of bad behaviour costs pennies. The Volt is rated at 93 mpg in the U.S. (the equivalent of 2.5L/100km in Canada) for All Electric and 6.3L/100km (37 mpg) on Gas Only. Given that my house current to the garage maxes at 15 amps, we blew a max of 15 amps x .10 per kilowatt x eight hours or a whopping $1.20 for my playtime. Try that with any gasoline engine. Ain't gonna happen. That would have been at least a gallon of Saudi Arabian beverage. And hey, my money stayed right here in North America instead of going into that big black hole in the desert where they really don't like us anyway.

Just for fun I went over to visit a married couple where the first is 6'4 and the second is 6'1, tossing the taller in the front seat. The latter's head not quite touching the headliner just under the glass hatch, with both commenting how supportive and comfortable the seats were and ride was. My front seat passenger's only negative being that the A-pillar that supports the front windshield is quite thick and blocked the view a bit. Another comment was that the pearl while centre console was a bit flashy and that the door inserts were very 2011 avant garde in design, but youthful. Plus points for the excellent ease of entry through the doors (no head banging). The extensive use of high quality materials, with excellent fit and finish, and the simplicity of the touch screen controls on the console that worked like those on the typical microwave oven, were also impressive.

At a $40,280 USD list price in the U.S. (expect to pay more in Canada when the Volt goes on sale north of the 49th next spring), the four-passenger Chevrolet Volt better be impressive, and it is. Like the latest series of Chevrolet Malibu, the Volt arrived fully baked, a tasty morsel. Toyota and Ford have gone hybrid, with a full range of vehicles here or soon to arrive. Hyundai is nipping at their heels. Billions later, GM has gone with the extended range concept, an inherently simpler, more efficient system of propulsion. Ford has announced that every platform that they build around the world will be able to accommodate gasoline, diesel and hybrids. Will GM follow suit? Better still, will GM follow suit with a full range of extended range vehicles that are as well executed as the Volt ~ which stands head and shoulders above the hybrids ~ even if it they're pricier? Stay tuned. A new game is afoot. The Volt won Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year prize against some VERY stiff competition. With the Volt, GM now has two aces. What else do they have up their sleeve?

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, Chevrolet, 2011, Volt, $40,000 - $49,999, Electric, Plug-In Hybrid, Midsize,

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