2014 VIA VTRUX Test Drive Review

After a couple years of pilot testing and now as emissions certification are being completed, VIA Motors anticipates launching its VTRUX series hybrid vans around June and pickup trucks around this September.

When – after some delays – it’s finally given the green light, the Utah-based company spun off in 2010 will begin filling multiple-unit purchase orders from around 70 fleet accounts who’ve thus far committed to the work trucks that operate much like a Chevy Volt.

VIA frequently quotes “100 mpg” based on around 60 miles per day, or 40 miles of pure electric drive, plus another 20 miles from the truck’s generator, a stock 4.3-liter GM ECOTEC3 V6 engine.

Vehicles are set to run on gas, but natural gas is also a possibility.

Vehicles are set to run on gas, but natural gas is also a possibility.

This estimate does not count electricity cost, but that averages around two bucks at industrial utility rates. Depending on distance driven, fuel economy can average below or well above 100 mpg – indeed if the vehicle is kept in the e-zone, no gas need be used.

Last week in Indianapolis we had opportunity to get behind the wheel of one of the company’s well-sorted vehicles based on a Silverado 1500 pickup. It’s propelled by a representative sample of a powertrain that will see duty in Chevrolet-based pickups, vans, and later possibly SUVs that for now are fleet only, and off limits to individual buyers.

VIA’s production facility is in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, about 107 miles from GM’s assembly plant in Silao, Mexico. VIA is classified as a second-stage manufacturer, supplying new warranted vehicles first titled to those who buy or lease them.

Production involves removal of the stock transmission, and installation of the electrified portion of the powertrain. The Chevy’s V6 engine – VIA’s early “alpha” model specified a smaller Pontiac four-cylinder – is left unmodified.

Conveniently, GM’s new ECOTEC3 features fuel-saving direct injection, variable valve timing, and active fuel management – ability to run on four cylinders under low-load situations.

Series Hybrid

The underlying principle of a series plug-in hybrid is it runs all electrically all the time, with gas engine running at optimal rpm as a generator making its VTRUX, as VIA calls it, an “extended range electric vehicle” (eREV).

For approximately the first 35-40 miles, the eREV’s liquid-cooled, 22-kwh A123 Systems lithium nanophosphate batteries provide energy to its “VR150” traction motor in either two- or four-wheel-drive.

Truck-on-Chasis-Overhead-Angle1

Earlier versions were equipped with a 24-kwh battery and claimed 40 miles, but VIA materials now alternately quote 35 miles – for the van, though we were told the pickup is 40 – with a little less juice.

Trucks equipped as four-wheel drive utilize the standard transfer case mated to the electric motor.

Once the battery is depleted, the system’s motor controller seamlessly switches on the 4.3-liter Chevrolet generator. The gas-powered system operates like that of a diesel locomotive to provide up to 300 miles more range.

In this “charge sustaining” mode, the generator delivers power to keep the batteries charged at 20-percent and drive the electric motor in a “load following” strategy. Essentially engine rpms increase when the truck encounters high loads – like going up a hill or accelerating harder – and rpms decrease, such as at a stop sign.

Estimated mpg is around 30 mpg with depleted battery being sustained by the generator.

VIA’s online Savings Calculator assumes a conventional V8 pickup truck would net around 11 mpg in real world driving. It cites “idle time” from heavy traffic and stop and go driving which can reduce mpg potential. This figure may be true, but the EPA estimates the stock two-wheel-drive 2014 Silverado with 4.3-liter V6 as good for 18 mpg city, 24 mpg highway.

Power-Export

The VR150 generator can deliver 100 kilowatts continuously, or a peak of 150 kw, which is plenty for the truck which only needs 50 kw to propel it.

With extra energy on board, VIA is equipping these work vehicles with a multiple-outlet panel to provide clean AC power by way of 115-volt, and 220-volt plugs. Called the VTRUX power export module, this option provides 10 kw at 50 amps. VIA is also working on a utility grade output module to deliver 50 kw.

Drives Like a Big Chevy Volt

Former GM Vice Chairman, and “father of the Chevy Volt,” Bob Lutz is VIA’s chairman of the board, and in recent months was quoted saying GM should have done what VIA is doing instead of electrifying a compact car.

As it is, the big 5,500 pound curb weight truck operates remarkably like a Volt. Propelled by its basketball-sized motor, it whooshes from a standstill in characteristic EV fashion. It is relatively quiet with only some motor and tire noise to accompany the 415 Nm (306 pounds-feet) of torque.

VIA_drive

This torque, by the way, is about on par with the stock V6 engine which is rated at 305-pounds-feet, but the horsepower figure for the electric motor is higher at 402 compared to 285 for the stock gas engine.

If you’ve driven a modern pickup before, this vehicle doesn’t feel any different. The truck is actually engineered by Chevrolet, and VIA’s role is the powertrain replacement and refined vehicle dynamics are intact

Stock instrument panel is repurposed with new gauge functions and new coloration.

Stock instrument panel is repurposed with new gauge functions and new coloration.

Cornering and braking feel similar, although on deceleration, the VTRUX has regenerative brakes to recapture energy and send it back to the battery pack.

VIA also has an iPad installed in a custom housing that can be tasked for a variety of info relaying duties. This prototype we drove also had a data display VIA’s engineers use which will not be in the production unit.

Instruments in the dashboard are also neatly done, and VIA repurposes the existing gauges to relay some data for the electric drive.

Production units are expected to get a similar display now handled by an Apple iPad, but the lower display is for test engineers, and won't be included.

Production units are expected to get a similar display now handled by an Apple iPad, but the lower display is for test engineers, and won’t be included.

The entire truck has a finished feel to it as though GM had done the whole thing. It’s plenty satisfying to drive, and stands to save lots of fuel compared to a conventional truck.

Value Proposition

Some reviewers and Internet commenters have done a double take at the price tag of $79,000-plus for fleet buyers, around twice what a comparably equipped conventional Chevy truck would be.

The price is somewhat negotiable depending on the order, but Mark Burdge, vice president of sales and business development says it has not been a tough sell to fleet managers.

These professional buyers understand total ownership cost and that the price of a vehicle is only the beginning. They also have to pay fuel costs, which are substantially less for the eREV, and maintenance, which should be less for brakes that are used less hard, and an engine for which the same can be said.

Towing capacity is roughly on par with a standard V6 Chevy truck, or somewhere around 4,000 pounds, though the "Davis Dam" EPA test to certify it has not been finalized.

Towing capacity is roughly on par with a standard V6 Chevy truck, or somewhere around 4,000 pounds, though the “Davis Dam” EPA test to certify it has not been finalized.

The company’s interactive Saving Calculator allows prospective customers to estimate whether the vehicle will save them money.

Burdge said the breakeven point is around 12,000 miles per year. If plans are to only drive 10,000 miles or less, the eREV’s main value will be in going green, but it will cost more dollars than it saves.

Higher mileage driving is where the savings begin and these go up with mileage.

Burdge said VIA encourages the unsure to just buy or lease one or a few and see how it goes. If the truck lives up to the promise of cheaper running on lower industrial or commercial electric rates, then the fleet manager can justify getting more later. The exportable power is also a bonus in that it saves having to lug a portable generator.

Default settings for Savings Calculator. Click image to enlarge, or go to actual calculator on VIA's site.

Default settings for Savings Calculator. VIA says the average truck owner will save $16,000 per year with its VTRUX. Click image to enlarge, or go to actual calculator on VIA’s site.

VIA does incur costs at this point having to take apart a perfectly good new truck delivered by Chevrolet, and it must sell off parts like the transmission that come out.

For now, there is no plan for GM to supply partially assembled “gliders” and there won’t be unless VIA sells in higher volume.

Its plant now has capacity of around 10,000 units annually, and the first year Burdge said “several thousand” would be sold.

But combined with federal, state and even local subsidies that can vary from $10,500 to as high as $25,500 in California regions, the business case ranges from feasible to a no brainer already.

Maintenance is through Chevy dealers who are already Volt trained, and with a high customer satisfaction index rating, and good reputation with fleet buyers. Techs are already two-thirds trained, and VIA needs to only update them on its truck.

Maintenance is through Chevy dealers who are already Volt trained, and with a high customer satisfaction index rating, and good reputation with fleet buyers. Techs are already two-thirds trained, and VIA needs to only update them on its truck.

And, from an eco-car point of view, it makes sense also. As Lutz has said, the value of saving fuel from an otherwise gas guzzler is greater than making a fuel efficient car more fuel efficient.

Both eco cars and eco trucks have their value, but VIA Motors sees the lowest hanging fruit in a market where the biggest effect will be seen by business customers who will recognize when spending more can actually save money and fuel in the long run.