Test driving a Chevy Volt

The Chevy Volt
The Chevy Volt | Source

Test driving a Chevy Volt

LUDINGTON, MICHIGAN — There was a buzz around Urka Auto Center on a recent Thursday, an electrical one.

The cause?

The arrival for a day of what Chevrolet hopes will be a car of the future: The Chevy Volt, the North American International Auto Show’s Car of the Year for 2011.

The black, four-door beauty was plugged into an electric outlet in Urka’s Service Center in Ludington, Michigan when I arrived for a test drive offered by Service Manager Tom Urka. He, and many others at the dealership, were as excited as kids on Christmas morning to have the unexpected opportunity to tool around town in the electric-powered vehicle.

“Electrified,” is how Urka described the excitement in the building.

“I never thought I’d even like an electric car, but this is cool,” said service advisor Doug Seymour.

He was one of several employees to get a chance to drive the Volt.

“It’s something else. It’s a whisper going down the road,” he said. “With the electric motor, you hear nothing.”

A hybrid, Chevy describes the Volt as “an extended range electric vehicle” that has two modes of operation, electric and extended range.

The electric mode is billed as the primary mode. In it, the car is powered by electric energy stored in the high voltage battery. It can operate for 25 to 50 miles in this range until the battery runs low.

When the battery juice runs down, the car automatically kicks into extended range mode using a four-cylinder, 1.8-liter internal combustion engine that in essence is operating as a generator for the electric motor.


TEST DRIVE

In our test drive, the battery hadn’t been fully recharged after use all morning and we had a 14-mile range, according to the instrument panel, when we started the vehicle. While on the U.S. 31 freeway, the Volt switched modes and, had we not been looking at the mode indicator on the instrument panel when it did, we wouldn’t have noticed the changeover.

Starting the vehicle is one of those new experiences. One places the key fob near the steering column and pushes a power button to turn the Volt on. There isn’t a keyed ignition. Under Tom’s advice, I placed the fob in a beverage holder which was close enough to allow the car to power up when the button was pushed.

There was no vrooming into life. The heater fan, quiet as it was, basically was louder than the motor in electric mode. The instrument panel, as noted, indicated an estimate of distance one could go in electric mode.

The panel itself, a sleek, touch affair without buttons for the most part, offered heater controls, a GPS, and a sound system including Sirius radio with selections on of the two LCD display screens also controlled by the touch of a finger.  


RESPONSIVE

Doug and Tom both had remarked how responsive they found the Volt.

And they were right. It has fine acceleration — maybe surprisingly so since acceleration often seems to be a feature of macho, overdrive engines. The Volt did just fine around town and on the freeway. In fact, being so quiet in electric mode, getting up to 70 mph on the freeway in prompt fashion was astounding. The speedometer said 70, but without the noise of gas engine acceleration and because it is a smooth riding machine, the Volt just didn’t feel like we were going that fast. (Really, officer. I’m not kidding.) 


REGENERATIVE BRAKING

Tom explained that whenever I took my foot off the accelerator and the car slowed, or whenever I braked, the drive motor, now operating internally as an electric generator, would send electricity being created as it slowed the vehicle to the batteries. 

According to a spec sheet Tom provided, “constant communication between the power inverter module and the electronic brake control module allows the blending of regenerative braking force with hydraulic braking force.”

Yes, it has traditional brakes, too. The car stopped as responsively and smoothly as it accelerated, though at first one had to get used to that responsiveness. It quickly felt natural.

Tom, the photographer who accompanied us and I are all tall guys and a few years beyond European cut clothing. Throw in — well place carefully — the camera bag and we were making good use of the space in the Volt, but it’s notable there was space for all of us.


CHARGE IT

And yes, it can just plug into an ordinary household outlet. Tom said it would take about 10 hours to charge fully at that level of power. The car comes equipped with a charger unit for that purpose. The power outlet is on the front quarterpanel of the car in front of the driver-side door. It was a simple connection.

The plan is also to offer a larger box connection that would have to be wired into the home, cutting recharge time by about half, Tom said.

 According to news out of the auto show, only 48 were sold in December worldwide as production is just beginning. Chevy expects to produce 10,000 Volts in 2011.

The  Chevy Volt website says one can be purchased for $32,780 — a price that reflects “the full $7,500 tax credit” — but the price of the model driven Thursday wasn’t available. It further states the gas-powered onboard generator and the electric mode combine for a driving range of up to 375 miles.

Thursday, though, what likely is the first Volt in Ludington, Michigan added a jolt of energy to Urka’s excited staff. 

Every so often a new car comes along that warrants real excitement because of its innovations. 

The Volt did just that. 


www.chevrolet.com/volt/

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