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2011 Chevrolet Volt
After years of hype, the Chevrolet Volt is finally here, on time and as promised. The big question is will there be an electrical storm?

By Malcolm Gunn

It might be powered by electricity, but the 2011 Chevrolet Volt is hardly a weird and impractical science experiment built in someone's basement. Billions of dollars of investment have yielded a car with cargo space, the usual back seat and a reasonable pricetag.A real automobile revolution is upon us and the Chevrolet Volt is literally leading the charge.

The Volt is one of the most talked-about and eagerly anticipated automobiles of all time since it will be the first truly practical electrical vehicle available for public consumption.

By now, nearly everyone on the planet has heard about the Chevrolet Volt, an innocuous-looking front-wheel-drive hatchback sedan that features a revolutionary electric powertrain with a built-in travel-insurance policy in the form of a gasoline-engine generator.

The production Volt is a far cry from the flashier 2007 concept version that toured the auto-show circuit. What has emerged is a fairly conservative compact-sized four-door with a steeply raked windshield, Malibu-inspired nose and a squared-off rear deck. The designers claim that the car looks the way it does so as to slice the air as cleanly as possible, aided by a set of low-rolling-resistance tires.

The Volt concept is simple. The onboard batteries power the electric motor for about 65 kilometres of combined city/highway driving, after which a 1.4-litre four-cylinder gasoline generator engine kicks in to charge the lithium-ion battery pack. Total range is about 480 kilometres before either refuelling the generator engine with premium-grade pump gas or recharging the 180-kilogram T-shaped battery pack that extends along the car's spine between the front and rear wheels.

The generator itself is rated at 60 kilowatts, or the equivalent of 80 horsepower, while the electric motor produces 111 kilowatts (150 horsepower) and 273 pound-feet of torque.

To be clear, the Volt differs from hybrid models such as the Toyota Prius in that the on-board gasoline engine has zero direct involvement in turning the front wheels. The electric motor alone performs that function, even when the gas-power-generator engine is running.

The one aspect of the Volt that's similar to a hybrid is its system that helps recharge the batteries from the energy captured (converted to electricity) whenever the brakes are applied.

Since the Volt is electrically powered, there's no transmission per se, but it uses a single-speed controller to engage the drive wheels. However, the operator can select Normal, Sport or Mountain mode with the latter providing extra power on steep grades.

The inner workings of the Chevrolet Volt catapult the four-door sedan into another world of engineering. This would be fine for a one-off show car, but the fact the tooling exists to mass-produce this car -- to the tune of 45,000 in the first year -- is simply mind-boggling.Commuters who want to simply charge up the Volt each night for the next day's drive, need no special gear; they can plug right into a standard 120-volt electrical outlet. But where a typical gas fill-up at the service station might take 10 minutes, charging takes 10 hours, however that time is cut to three to four hours when using the optional 240-volt charging station. GM estimates that the energy consumed by recharging the batteries on a daily basis won't exceed the amount used by a typical refrigerator. In this case, if the cost was converted into fuel dollars, GM touts that the Volt would be rated at 230 miles of travel per U.S. gallon of gas, or about 1.0 l/100 km.

The Volt replaces typical instrumentation with a screen that, among other things, provides the driver with the total range remaining as well as battery life, fuel level and average fuel economy.

On the road, the only sound comes from the whirring electric motor, and even that noise is muted through the use of special sound-deadening materials. However, drivers can activate a warning horn "chirp" to alert pedestrians that the silent-running Volt is nearby. Expect this to be an issue as the use of electric vehicles increases.

Beyond electric operation, the Volt is really just like any other car you might buy. Standard features include climate control, cruise control, premium Bose audio system, navigation package and eight standard airbags (including front-passenger knee bags).

The few available options encompass perforated-leather seats (heated in front), front and rear park-assist camera and polished aluminum wheels.
Although Volt sales won't likely begin in Canada until sometime in mid-2011, General Motors is planning to find homes for as many as 45,000 units in North America in the car's full year on the market.

There's also no official word on what the car will sell for Canada, but since a base price of $41,000 (before federal and state rebates) has been announced in the U.S., a best guess would be somewhere in the $48,000-$50,000 range.

That's pretty pricey for most buyers, but some of that cost will be offset through significant fuel savings, not to mention the value attached to piloting the most electrifying vehicle on the road.

What you should know: 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact hatchback sedan
Engines (hp): 111-kilowatt electric drive (150)
Transmission: Single-speed controller
Market position: The Volt is the first electric vehicle to be supported by a range-extending four-cylinder internal-combustion engine. The Volt eliminates most of the negatives associated with electric cars, from range to practical use.
Points: Brilliant engineering for mass production; Compared to a traditional hybrid where the electric motor helps the gas engine, the job of the Volt's gas engine is to charge the batteries when they run low; Normal styling means this is a normal car, too; Extreme cold weather adversely affects battery performance; 240-volt charging station not included in price; Eight-year/160,000-kilometre battery warranty is comforting.
Safety: Front airbags; front knee airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy): 1.0 l/100 km (est.)
Base price (incl. dest.): $49,000 (est., excl. govt. rebates)

By comparison:

Mitsubishi i-MiEV
Base price: $25,000 (est.)
Electric sub-compact ideally suited for inner-city use arrives in late 2011.

Toyota Prius
Base price: $23,600
Popular fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid will offer plug-in version in 2011.

Nissan Leaf
Base price: $32,800
Electric-only model will likely sell in mid-$20,000 range after rebate.

Malcolm Gunn is an automotive writer based in Moncton, NB, and a regular contributor to CarTest!

Posted Oct. 2, 2010. © TM


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