Top Five Insights from Our First Drive of Chevy Volt

General Motors yesterday gave electric car enthusiasts and a handful of journalists an opportunity to spin the Chevy Volt around a parking lot next to San Francisco’s AT&T Park. HybridCars.com had its first two or three minutes behind the wheel, spoke with the Volt team, and came away with these insights.

1The EV miles are the easy ones. Charge sustaining mode is the tough part.

Tony Posawatz, Volt vehicle line director

Tony Posawatz, Volt vehicle line director. (Photos: Bradley Berman. All rights reserved.)

The most widely known fact about the Volt is that it can travel for up to 40 miles using only electricity, before the engine comes on to maintain the battery pack’s state of charge. During those first 40 miles, the Volt behaves just like a pure electric car. There’s simply not much more to say about the driving experience and handling than it drives like an electric car: speedy, smooth, and whisper-quiet. (It will take some more time behind the wheel to determine if we like the dashboard instrumentation, which at first blush seemed slightly overwhelming.)

So, the unique proposition, and technical challenge, of the Volt is what happens after those 40 electric miles. “The EV mode was the easy thing,” said Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Chevy Volt. The hard part, according to Posawatz, was using the vehicle’s sophisticated software to “blend and smooth out” how and when the engine is employed to extend the driving range.

“At low speeds, the engine almost never comes on in charge sustaining mode. At high speeds, we take advantage of running the RPMs a little bit higher, but never to a point where it affects the pleasability of the car. The engine is never roaring.”

2Additional driver controls are in the works.

We reported a few weeks ago that the Volt will have a “mountain mode,” allowing drivers to set a higher level of battery charge to provide extra resources for long steep uphill journeys. Posawatz told HybridCars.com that the European version of the Volt will probably offer a “hold” feature, although the name of the feature could change. “You can hit a button and wherever you’re at on your state of charge, it will hold the charge sustain at that point. It’s like saving your EV miles,” said Posawatz. This feature could be ideal for saving your EV miles after a long highway commute into a congested city, where the EV miles may be more useful.

3Car connectivity is key.

General Motors yesterday provided more details about its relationship with Google, and demonstrated that its Volt mobile app will allow drivers to monitor and schedule charging from a distance—as well as do tricks like open and close doors (from across the country) or download web directions to the car’s navigation system.

But there’s more to it than that. “If you understand a person’s driving patterns, you can perhaps in the future modify the operation of the vehicle, contoured to his or her driving pattern,” Posawatz said. He explained that it’s all about better understanding the customer’s needs and real-life behaviors, including potentially where to locate charging stations.

4GM is making the big shift to the customer buying process.

In the coming months, don’t expect any news flashes about how the Volt works or drives. GM has move on to the sales process. “We’re at the point where the vehicle and the technology are pretty much locked in,” said Rob Peterson, General Motors spokesperson. “Instead, we’re going to start seeing a lot of activity around how people actually put the car in their driveway.”

Peterson explained that the company has built about 130 Volt units so far, and those are almost all in the hands of engineers. That means consumer test drives are a ways off, because there simply are not yet enough cars to go around. In the coming weeks, these Volt-driving GM employees will begin the process of outfitting their own private garages with charging equipment, so the company can learn about any potential issues with the process.

The model year 2011 Chevy Volt will be produced “in the thousands,” according to Peterson, and by “the tens of thousands” in the following years. Sales of the 2011 Chevy Volt will take place from November 2010 to summer 2011, when the 2012 model year Volt will go on sale, mostly likely with few design and technology changes.

5The ultra-quiet Volt provides clues to let pedestrians and technicians know it’s on.

Much has been made about the potential threat of nearly silent hybrid and electric cars to blind (or unaware) pedestrians. Volt engineers solved the problem by allowing drivers to pull on the bright lights control to issue a chirp-like sound from the hood. It’s a lot less jarring than the horn, but loud enough to signal the car’s approach. In addition, mechanics and technicians popping open the hood might not know the car is on—that’s how quiet it is—so the engine comes on when the hood is opened.


  • Sandra Coombs

    Please hurry and get this car on the roads in Texas! I’ve been driving my old Volvo now for 10 years at 135,000 miles waiting on this car. Although, I love my Volvo, I will not purchase any other gasoline vehicle EVER again, so I’m at your mercy right now, just waiting. Looking forward to driving a Chevy Volt!

  • ex-EV1 driver

    “. . . technical challenge, of the Volt is what happens after those 40 electric miles”

    Yep, its that lousy ICE that makes automobile design so hard. No wonder those few who have actually mastered that archaic art are fighting the introduction of EVs that aren’t so hard. It reminds me of the stories about how hard the sailing ship schooled naval officers fought against steam power in the early 1800′s.

  • Carl

    What happens when the car is used in electric mode for months?
    Does the fuel break down?

  • Anonymous

    I suspect there will be some sort of feature that starts up the engine every so often to keep things lubricated and the fuel moving around.

  • DAVE BLACK

    I would still rather have a Prius or Camry Hybrid

  • Samie

    I agree ex-EV1 driver about your historical perspective, as humans we like to keep running into brick walls before the light comes on…, but I have to say the author of this story was just being a bit cautious as should all journalists do in their reporting. Maybe I am too optimistic and hopeful but, if markets are allowed to innovate (unlike the old EVs) the future for batteries and renewable energy that powers the vehicle is endless!

    I know I am getting ahead of myself but what will the next generation Volt look like? Will it continue to have a gas powered generator with say 100 miles of pure electric capacity or will battery tech improve enough to make the Volt a pure EV? Anyways a good re-start by GM and hopefully they will devote more money in advancing this vehicle as a true leader of next generation cars, instead of old over-hyping marketing schemes that could leave the Volt underfunded. Say what you will about Toyota but over time through development, the Prius became a world class car and this is what GM must do with the Volt.

  • MrEnergyCzar

    In charge sustaining mode the generator powers the electric motor directly (not through the battery first) to move the wheels ….the generator also charges the battery to keep it maintained at the pre-set state of charge level, 30% approx…..most articles miss this point of what the generator actually does…

  • ex-EV1 driver

    @Dave Black,
    May I ask why you think you’d prefer the Camry or Prius? Do you like having to buy gasoline all the time?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    @Samie,
    One good thing about the Volt baseline is that if a future battery technology comes along with good specific energy density (Wh/kg) or energy cost ($/Wh) without sufficient power density (W/kg) to give the car good performance, it can simply replace the ICE in the 1st generation volt, using the 1st generation battery to get good performance.
    Likewise, should other alternative energy storage mechanisms, such as fuel cells or turbines, which also lack power density but have good energy density become slightly feasible, the Volt platform can be a good, flexible starting place.

  • DownUnder

    Can’t wait for the Volt be on sale and then compare it against the Prius at the time (may be the next gen) to see which one is the winner, taking into account space, usability, etc

  • usbseawolf2000

    Volt’s gas engine will turn on if:

    - The hood is open
    - The battery pack is too cold
    - Every 60 days

  • Anonymous

    “I would still rather have a Prius or Camry Hybrid” – Dave Black

    That’s only because you haven’t driven the Fusion Hybrid yet!

    We’re a three-car family, Prius (grandma), Camry Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid. All of us are in violent agreement: Fusion Hybrid, no contest.

    Why? The Fusion is easily the most well mannered, quiet, smooth, and luxurious of the three. It’s hybrid system is also capable of besting even the Prius in the heavy stop-and-go driving in Washington Metro due to its superior motor/generator hybrid system. And the electronics? The Ford Hybrid Sync system is a true joy for any technology freak.

  • JG

    I chose the Prius over the Fusion for 3 reasons:

    1) I wanted the highest MPG vehicle available.
    2) The Prius’s hatchback design provides for much more flexible cargo space.
    3) Price.

    From what I have heard, the Fusion hybrid is a great car, but there is no one car that is the best for everyone.

  • bernard christensen

    hope we get them in Canada soon.

  • Bill H

    I use a fuel preservative in my motorcycle when I store it over the winter. If you found that because of your driving habits that you were using very little gas then this fuel preservative could be added at every fill up. However gas will stay good for a few months when stored in large quantities, over 20 liters. Make sure that you buy good quality gas with additives as opposed to econo gas or gas with ethinol as it has a shorter life.