The Volt and Leaf, One Year Away

The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, and the Nissan Leaf pure electric car, are both about one year away from reaching car dealerships. The two vehicles are much anticipated, and literally pivotal—as the auto industry shifts its direction from large gas-consuming vehicles, to smaller cars that are powered in varying degrees by electricity.

Expect every step of the 12-month journey, from engineering lab to showroom, to be examined, scrutinized, and parsed. At the “T minus one year” mark, top-tier auto journalists are finding small faults with the cars, but are pronouncing them in great shape for a rollout in one year.

Volt, Refined (With Caveat)

The New York Times’ Lindsay Brooke got time behind the wheel of the Chevy Volt last week. He wondered, “Will it be a slug? How annoying will the noise of the generator’s engine be in an otherwise mute car?” Brooke is referring to the moment—after about 40 miles of silent electric driving—when the Volt’s battery pack runs low. At that point, the computer calls the onboard generator into service to sustain the battery’s minimum charge level, for perhaps hundreds of more miles until the Volt can receive another charge.

The 40-mile moment arrives, and Brooke misses it. “The engine’s initial engagement is inaudible and seamless. I’m impressed.” But a few hundred yards later, the state of charge dips again, causing the engine’s rpm to sharply rise. “The sound is disconcerting,” Brooke writes. The problem subsides but then returns. “A few times later in our test, the generator behaved in similar fashion—too loud and too unruly for production—but there is time for the programmers to find solutions.”

Tony Posawatz, the Volt’s vehicle line director, explains, “The charge-sustaining mode is clearly not where we want it to be yet…We have nine months to work this out.”

Besides the post-40-mile generator sound, Brooke enjoys the ride quality, and calls the Volt “an extremely refined vehicle.”

New Leaf

Dan Neil, of the Los Angeles Times, is similarly impressed with the Nissan Leaf. He calls it, “nothing short of elegant.” As a pure electric car, the Leaf’s computer system doesn’t have to worry about transitions from all-electric to charge-sustaining modes. (On the other hand, the Leaf’s range will be limited to about 100 miles between full charges.)

Neil extols the virtues of electric drive, explaining how all cars on today’s roads have become increasingly electrified. “Two decades of computerization of the automobile have created a kind of well-oiled semiautonomous being, half semiconductor, half metal and glass. Many cars today have electric steering, electric brakes, virtual gauges, video camera mirrors, even virtual bumpers. In other words, cars are nearly electrified already.”

But how does the Leaf drive? Neil writes, “During my all-too-brief drive, the Leaf prototype (clad in Nissan Versa bodywork), with three people on board, shot across the stadium parking lot like it had been pinged with a BB gun. Zero-to-40 mph acceleration, I estimate, is in the mid-5-second range, which would suit a decently sporty little car.”

In his usual poetic style, Neil concludes, “The Leaf is definitely Car 2.0. Sweet, glycerin smooth, techy, frisky and even a little bit beautiful. It just feels like tomorrow.”

For the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf—and their growing legion of fans—the next 12 months will be one long tomorrow, filled with anticipation and hope.

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  • Annie

    Someday over the Rainbow!

  • Anonymous

    But a few hundred yards later, the state of charge dips again, causing the engine’s rpm to sharply rise. “The sound is disconcerting,” Brooke writes.

    I know!! It’s so annoying how disconcerting the sound of todays extremely quite gasoline engines are!!

    Gotta find something to complain about!! Maybe he’d prefer a old muscle car V8 engine in there! Or get some good after market exhaust and lets get some good engine noise going!

    Me? I like a little engine noise… and I don’t like how quiet some modern cars are. Boring! I especially like the soft purr of VW’s TDI engines. I guess this guy is a prime candidate for an electric car since he can’t stand the sound of a running engine…

  • Shines

    The generator kicking in and revving up reminds me of climbing a long hill with a crumby transmission. As the car slows down on the steep grade the trans downshifts and the engine revs and the car picks up speed and then the trans upshifts and the car begins slowing down again untill the trans downshifts again. this becomes annoying when the hill is long enough (think getting over a mountain pass). Makes me wonder how well the Volt will do on a journey over the mountains with a full load of passengers and luggage. Will the generator engine provide enough charge for the batterty to make it over the pass or will I have to pull over and wait while the engine charges the battery enough to allow me to continue?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    If you like noise, I’ll give you a playing card and a clothespin to hold it in your spokes to make a real cool sounding engine noise.
    Good question about the volt’s ability to climb a mountain. Digging into my freshman physics books:
    Assuming the Volt has a 16 kWh battery, weighs about 5000 lbs, consumes .25 KWh/mile at 60 mph and is climbing a 10% grade at 60 mph; it will need 2.36 kWh to climb 1000 ft. This means it can climb about 6,700 ft elevation on a full battery alone.
    Now, how does this work with the ICE? Can it sustain the climb?
    Assuming a 75 hp = 55 kW engine. At this rate, it will generate about 1.8 kWh for every 1000 ft of climb. Since the Volt is using 2.36 kWh for every 1000 ft of climb, it will only generate about half (1.8/2.36=0.75 which I round down to half) of the necessary energy to sustain this 60 mph climb without using the battery. This would mean the Volt would with a half full battery could climb about 6,700 ft with the ICE running.
    To climb higher, you’d have to slow down in order to make it.
    Think about it though: The opportunities to climb a 10% sustained grade for 6,700 ft at 60 mph are very rare at best. There may be a few places in Colorado where this is possible but I wouldn’t bet on even that. For reference Donner Pass in CA is at 6,000 ft. but a Volt could make it if my computations are true.
    PHEV manufacturers talk about using GPS to predict optimal charging for trips as well. This would allow the car to ensure plenty of battery charge to make it at a desired speed or it could warn you on those rare occasions where you had to slow down a bit. The good news with the Volt is that you’re not going to destroy your transmission as I did once in Wyoming driving an overloaded station wagon under conditions as you describe.

  • Alex Martin

    My key question involving the Volt is what type of gasoline-powered generator are they using? If it is a typical generator, it will end up producing more air pollution than a gasoline-powered vehicle ever would. They would have to create a more efficient generator if they are going to sell this effectively.

    In addition, electric vehicles will put more strain on the power generation circuit which relies heavily upon coal-consuming electric generation.

  • Roy

    Alex, What?? Did you think that GM with almost 100 years experience in building car engines, would go out and buy somebody else’s 2 stroke lawnmower engine for the Volt? They use their smallest, high tech CAR motor for the Volt. It is a 75 hp generator, try finding that much power at your local Home Depo.