A Car of the Future You Can Drive Today
“I expected a science fair experiment. But this is a moonshot.”
Chris Theodore is a wily veteran of the auto business, a seasoned development engineer whose impressive resume includes vehicles as thoughtfully executed as the Chrysler minivan and as tightly focused as the Ford GT.
As one of the consultant judges on this year’s COTY panel, Chris brought the deep insight and professional skepticism you’d expect of someone who’s spent his entire working life making cars. But our 2011 Car of the Year, Chevrolet’s ground-breaking Volt, has blown him away.
“This is a fully developed vehicle with seamlessly integrated systems and software, a real car that provides a unique driving experience. And commuters may never need to buy gas!”
Like all of us on the staff at Motor Trend, Chris is an enthusiast, a man who’ll keep a thundering high-performance V-8 in his garage no matter how high gas prices go. But he nailed the Volt’s place in automotive history: “If this is the brave new world, then it’s an acceptable definition.”
In the 61-year history of the Car of the Year award, there have been few contenders as hyped — or as controversial — as the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt started life an Old GM project, then arrived fully formed as a symbol of New GM, carrying all the emotional and political baggage of that profound and painful transition. As a result, a lot of the sound and fury that has surrounded the Volt’s launchhas tended to obscure a simple truth: This automobile is a game-changer.
The Volt boasts some of the most advanced engineering ever seen in a mainstream American automobile. The powertrain allows the car to run as an EV, a series hybrid, or a parallel hybrid, depending on how far you drive and how you drive. The secret sauce is how GM controls the powerflow between the 149-horse electricmotor, the generator, and the 84-horse,1.4-liter naturally aspirated internal-combustion engine. It’s fundamentally different from the way Toyota handles things in the Prius.
Attention to detail is impressive. The Volt’s wheels, for example, are forged aluminum to reduce weight, shod with specially developed low-rolling-resistance tires. While some consumers may never need to regularly put gas in the car, the internal combustion engine will fire automatically from time to time to ensure the integrity of the fueling system, and to prevent the vehicle being stuck with a tank full of stale gas. And finally, the Volt is built on GM’s highly flexible Global Compact Vehicle Architecture (other GCVA vehicles include the Chevy Cruze, the Opel Astra, and the forthcoming Opel Zafira minivan), which means its advanced powertrain can be easily adapted to other vehicle formats.
ADVANCEMENT IN DESIGN
As Toyota discovered with the Camry Hybrid, people who want to buy a vehicle with a highly efficient powertrain want everyone else to know they’re driving a car with a highly efficient powertrain. Chevy clearly has watched and learned. The Volt’s exterior design brings a unique look to the Chevy lineup. It’s a compact that’s clearly different from other small Chevys, yet clearly still one of the family. The front end graphic is outstanding — strong, confident, and tastefully upscale.
Much of the exterior design obviously has been driven by the pursuit of aerodynamic efficiency. The sharp rear corners and high decklid with integrated spoiler are all about managing the airflow at the rear of the car. But the black graphic under the side windows and the heat-soaking black roof-both artifacts designed to link the car with the fundamentally different Volt Concept-seem somewhat gratuitous.
The interior is relatively conventional, save for the impressive high-resolution-and highly interactive-instrument and center stack LCD screens, and the center stack itself, whose shiny, white surfacing and slightly hard-to-see, touch-sensitive switchgear seems like an obvious homage to Apple’s iPod. (If you can’t stand Steve Jobs, the center stack can also be finished in dark gray.) Plastic panels in the front doors allow an effective, low-cost means of changing the Volt’s interior colorway.
The Volt’s unique powertrain not only defies established labels; it also defies established methods of determining fuel economy. After all, this is a vehicle that will complete the standard EPA fuel economy test in full EV mode, making conventional mileage calculations impossible.
While it is entirely possible that a consumer able to use the Volt in pure EV mode most of the time could use no more than a tank of gas-9.3 gallons-a year (because as noted earlier the car will automatically start the internal-combustion engine at regular intervals to keep the fuel system functional and the gas fresh), it is not a perpetual-motion machine. It requires energy to move.
Our testing showed that, in EV mode, the Volt uses energy at the rate 32.0 kW-hr/100 miles or a notional 105 mpg (based on the EPA calculation that a gallon of gas contains 33.7 kW-hr of energy). The internal-combustion engine sips gas at the rate of about 40 mpg.
In a multiday, 299-mile test that involved a mixture of normal freeway and stop/start city driving (no hypermiling) — and recharging the car overnight, as most consumers would — we used a total of 58.6 kW-hr of electrical energy, and 2.36 gallons of gas. Just counting the gas, the Volt returned 126.7 mpg. Converting the gas used to energy used (79.5 kW-hr) and adding that figure to the electrical energy used gave us a notional 72.9 mpg. That’s impressive.
The Volt’s standard passive safety equipment starts with a complement of eight airbags, including dual-stage front bags, kneebags, and side-impact bags for the driver and front passenger and roof-rail mounted head curtain bags that protect all four passengers. Active safety features include anti-lock brakes, traction control, and stability control.
The Volt chassis is nimble and responsive, and the low-rolling-resistance tires deliver better than average grip for this type of rubber. The Volt is not a sports car, but the acceleration (0-60 mph in 8.8 seconds in pure EV mode, and 8.7 in combined gas/electric mode) is competitive with conventional compacts, and more than adequate for safely merging onto fast-moving freeways.
All of that technology is expensive, which accounts for the Volt’s $41,000 price tag. Engineering the Volt required considerable investment by GM in vehicle systems integration that would normally be handed off to outside suppliers and contractors. But the cost of the Volt’s powertrain and associated systems will come down as GM perfects lower cost components and is able to amortize the development across a larger number of vehicles. Meanwhile, consumers can apply for a $7500 federal tax grant, plus state grants, where available, to offset the Volt’s relatively high purchase price. And our testing suggests that even if drivers regularly went 80 miles between charges, the Volt is significantly cheaper to run than regular hybrids.
Using EPA average figures of 12¢ per kW-hr for electricity, and $2.80 for a gallon of gas, the Volt costs just 3.8¢ a mile to run in EV mode, and 7¢ a mile with the gas engine running.
PERFORMANCE OF INTENDED FUNCTION
The Volt absolutely delivers on the promise of the vehicle concept as originally outlined by GM, combining the smooth, silent, efficient, low-emissions capability of an electric motor with the range and flexibility of an internal combustion engine.
It is a fully functional, no-compromise compact automobile that offers consumers real benefits in terms of lower running costs.
The more we think about the Volt, the more convinced we are this vehicle represents a real breakthrough. The genius of the Volt’s powertrain is that it is actually capable of operating as a pure EV, a series hybrid, or as a parallel hybrid to deliver the best possible efficiency, depending on your duty cycle. For want of a better technical descriptor, this is world’s first intelligent hybrid. And the investment in the technology that drives this car is also an investment in the long-term future of automaking in America.
Moonshot. Game-changer. A car of the future that you can drive today, and every day. So what should we call Chevrolet’s astonishing Volt? How about, simply, Motor Trend’s2011 Car of the Year.
|2011 Chevrolet Volt|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||I-4, iron block/alum head, plus AC electric motors|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||85.3 cu in/1398 cc|
|BATTERY TYPE||16-kW-hr lithium-ion|
|POWER (SAE NET)||84 (gas)/149+72 (elec)/149 (comb) hp|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||92 (gas-est)/273 (elec)/273 (comb) lb-ft|
|REDLINE||N/A (4800 rpm max)|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||25.0 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont variable auto|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIOS||2.16:1/7.01:1 (70 mph)|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; torsion beam, coil springs|
|BRAKES, F;R||11.8-in vented disc; 11.5-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||7.0 x 17-in, forged alum|
|TIRES, F;R||215/55R17 93H M+S Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max|
|TRACK, F/R||61.2/62.1 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||177.1 x 70.4 x 56.3 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||36.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3729 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||61/39%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||37.8/36.0 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.0/34.1 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.5/53.9 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||10.6 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH*|
|0-30||3.0; 3.2 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||4.9; 4.5|
|QUARTER MILE||16.9 sec @ 81.9 mph; 16.7 sec @ 86.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.78 g|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.4 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||N/A|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$44,085|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|WARRANTY, ENG; BATTERY||5; 8 yrs/100,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/100,000 miles*|
|FUEL CAPACITY||9.3 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||Not yet rated|
|MT OBS FUEL ECON||126.7 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium,
110- or 220-volt electricity
|*PURE EV; COMB GAS/ELEC MODE|