Poker faces…

me and the "Voltkeeper"

me and the "Voltkeeper"

From the first Volt unveiling over two years ago, I’ve wanted to drive one. At some point last year, Tony Posawatz’s first words upon seeing me ceased to be “Hey, chels”, and became “I know, I know”. Given the history, I’ve all but made a nuisance of myself for this company, seeking evidence of their sincerity about doing another plug-in car- “fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice” and all of that. I eventually came to believe they mean it, but I haven’t been sure that they really “get it” when it comes to what people love about electric cars- worrisome when they’re staking the future of the company on another one. That they still trash the EV1 to make the case for the Volt doesn’t help- beyond the fact that they are different cars meant for very different markets.  While the EV1 wasn’t flawless, it became the benchmark of what GM was capable of in both engineering and consumer passion. As a result, they’re now known for building a car people are willing to get arrested for- no small act to follow. And at a time when the company is fighting just to survive, I wouldn’t be the only one wondering if the Volt would be nickel-and-dimed to a shadow of its potential.

So when I got a surprise call a few Fridays ago inviting me to fly to Detroit for a test drive, I hopped a red-eye and was there- with “Revenge of the Electric Car” film crew in tow, of course. If the Volt drive wasn’t enough, the Milford Proving Grounds is like Disneyland to a girl like me (though my description of it being filled with gearhead porn made my hosts blush a little!) After a quick tour of the property, we arrived at the section of course that had been closed for us. Standing in the middle of nothing but alternating stripes of grass and road, was a white Chevy Cruze emblazoned with large blue “Volt” graphics, like the smallest kid standing on his toes for the class picture.

Next to the car was Frank Weber, looking more proud and hopeful than I’ve ever seen. Self-described with the statement “I am German, I am an engineer- I do not feel”, Frank has always seemed pessimistic to me against the aspirational backdrop of the Volt team- but even he couldn’t completely disguise his thrill at finally having something functional to show after two years of talking. I’d had enough of the talking, myself- so with little fanfare, I was pointed toward the track and let loose. After the first few of many laps, Jim, “the Voltkeeper” who tended the car all day from a technical standpoint, asked if might stop smiling anytime soon. I think Frank just wondered if all EV people drive that fast…

I drove the Volt off and on all day long (stopping not because the car needed to, but because we were also interviewing GM folks in-between driving segments). It is more refined than many production cars I’ve driven, a fact that ironically breeds impatience- it’s hard not to drive it and think, “oh, this is fine, let’s just get on with production already”. It’s also the quietest full-performance plug-in I’ve seen so far- they must’ve beaten every bit of motor whine out of that car, because it sounds more docile than it is. It’s incredibly smooth, and very solid-feeling, even on the intentionally rough proving ground roads. Because it’s still a mule, Frank assured me that the car is only at about 80% of the final version’s performance capability, and that the extra bit of low-end torque I came away wanting would be there. While the acceleration is quite good (0-60 in 9 seconds), I was admittedly spoiled by the “off the line” performance of GM’s last EV, and the Volt doesn’t quite have the initial surge I was expecting as its progeny.

In fairness, the Volt can’t rightfully be compared to the EV1 (I myself have badgered GM not to do it) but I am aware that it and the other EVs of the 1990s are the frame of reference for many folks. I will say simply that this is not that. It is not a hand built car, so lacks all of the quirks, noises, and yes- individuality- that implies. Undoubtedly, some will be disappointed by that fact- but GM is clearly betting that the masses will be thrilled by it. Most folks love what they can do with the iPhone but don’t give a rip about what’s actually inside. It’s the functionality and flexibility that allows personalization and is most appealing; I suspect a similar line of thinking is informing the Volt.

I also failed to talk the guys into letting me drive the Volt in range-extended mode- I’d really been hoping to put to rest all the conjecture that because no one’s been allowed to drive it that way, there must be something wrong with it. Alas, Frank was typically insistent that it just wasn’t ready. I persisted, assuring him I’m familiar with pre-production systems, but he remained stoic, until I finally pinned him- “what is so wrong with this car that you won’t let anyone drive it with the engine on?” He paused, and admitted almost sheepishly, “well, when the engine comes on, you can hear it.” I kept waiting for more, but that was it-the big mystery… you can hear the engine. I started to note how that would be, oh, I don’t know, standard for an internal combustion engine in any car and that some people prefer it that way, but I was chastened by my own admiration for the position he took. While there’s absolutely a point where you have to stop engineering and start building, Frank’s statement is indicative of the attention to detail being paid to the Volt.

 

That said, some of the other folks working with the other mules found out we were there and “happened” to drive by a few times, in range extended mode- the thing is already Prius quiet. And because the generator operates within certain distinct “power bands” depending on the driver’s right foot (more power requested, higher the band- if the request is at the lower end of any band, the extra energy is fed back into the batteries) any detectable sound should directly correlate with attendant ambient and road noise. Can’t speak firsthand on the power of the generator- it is on spec certainly enough to keep up with all but the heaviest loads, but time-and my next test drive- will tell.

After I’d looped myself dizzy and exhausted the car, we went over to the Tech Center to interview Tony Posawatz about the latest status of the program and how it’s been affected by GM’s current economic situation. The Volt is Tony’s baby (I actually watched his eyes well up when the production concept rolled out on the platform at the 100-yr anniversary), so I expected him to be upbeat, and he was- they’ve been hiring for the Volt program, and are otherwise keeping noses down and trying not to worry about the political noise- they have a car to build. And as if to prove it, he pointed to a digital clock on the wall in plain view to the core team- it counts down to the minute the amount of time til the next milestone: the day they start building the first 80 “actual” Volts. Just in case someone takes his eyes off the ball. The date is now just a few days away, and everyone knows it. These will still be prototypes, but they’ll be in the right body and one step closer to production. My inner MacGuyver is already plotting an “extended test-drive”…It’s professional duty and all- someone’s gotta test that low-end torque.

Driving the Volt was a mix of experiences- it was a fun day, and it’s great to see spots of hope in Detroit from folks who are excited to be working on “something cool again” (their words). And let’s face it, it was also a relief- there were certainly some years there when I wasn’t sure they’d ever get even this far on a plug-in car again. But in the end, building the car won’t be their biggest challenge- it never has been. Whether they can get behind it effectively as it hits showrooms remains to be seen. And I remain repeatedly frustrated at watching them struggle to tell their own story, or when they allow, say, Bob Lutz to go on national television. I think they’re learning, but I wonder often if the wisdom will come fast enough- and at what cost. 

I still don’t know that they entirely understand the nuances of passion people have for electric cars- but I do think that they understand just what’s at stake for this one. It is the end of the poker game for GM, and they’re all in.

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32 Comments »

  1. Paul Scott said

    Chelsea is the most articulate spokesperson in the world of plug-in vehicles. It’s a pleasure to see her long awaited blog.

    I appreciate knowing the the Volt is as good as we had been led to believe by GM. Reading Chelsea’s comments confirmed my hopes and now all I worry about is GMs ability to survive and get this car to market.

  2. MikeK said

    Somebody needs to tell Bob Lutz to put a sock in it. He doesn’t get to go on national TV and tell outright lies about the EV-1 just to help hype the Volt. What a total jackass.

    For the record, he lied on Letterman. Outright. Nobody was ever offered the opportunity to buy the EV-1. Nobody. People were arrested for protesting outside a GM facility and BEGGING to be allowed to buy it. That’s a little different from not being able to sell the car.

  3. Mark Olincy said

    I just want to comment on GM’s “Back against the wall” attitude to the whole

    EV1 to VOLT scenario. I was involved in the EV1 protest & I witnessed the

    frustration & grief of those brave individuals who had their wonderful EV1′s

    taken from them & eventually CRUSHED! GM owes them and US for that and l

    let’s hope that they are able to come to market with the VOLT or go under!

  4. holden said

    Chelsea, great writeup, very envious.

    It’s great to hear that they do seem to be serious about getting the design and user experience done right (ie. the noise of the ICE).

    Thanks for taking the time to fill us in!

  5. Jason M. Hendler said

    Chelsea,

    Fantastic blog from a qualified source. Great get learning why test drives aren’t in RE mode. I am glad u r portraying the hard working development team in such a positive light – they deserve that. I understand your hard feelings towards GM in the past, but u aren’t allowing them to color ur coverage now. Kudos to u.

  6. [...] did she find? That the car creates lots and lots of smiles. She wrote about the experience over on her new blog: It is more refined than many production cars I’ve driven, a fact that ironically breeds [...]

  7. [...] did she find? That the car creates lots and lots of smiles. She wrote about the experience over on her new blog:It is more refined than many production cars I've driven, a fact that ironically breeds impatience- [...]

  8. NickMtl said

    Congrats on the test drive. You’re one of the few with the ability to effectively communicate the advantages of E.Vs to the public. Please continue to write on your experience testing various EVs. I for one would like to know how the Volt compares to the Tesla Roadster and Model S, from the standpoint of day-to-day driving.

    Man, you should have your own T.V show. With Nissan, BMW/MiniCooper, Tesla, Fisker & Daimler/Smart all going electric, there should not be any shortage of cars to test and questions to answer.

    Go EvChels!

    - Nick -

  9. Why does this car have to be so big. Why not go for something half the size. When americans (north americans that is) realize that the future is in small vehicles with a lot of range and 50 MPH max speed then their auto industry will become viable again. I ride an electric bicycle with a huge basket in the back rack where I can carry my dog and most of my stuff. LiPoly batteries give me enough range to go almost everywhere I need to go. Love evchels !
    Andres from Santiago, Chile.

    • NickMtl said

      Good Point Andres, but some people need a basic minimum size. I live in Canada, and the bicycle, while technically possible, is near-impossible in the winter at -20C with ice and snow everywhere. Also, since I’ve got kids, safety is a big issue and I need something big enough to survive an impact with an S.U.V.

      I love the image of the dog in the basket!

      - Nick -

    • Jason M. Hendler said

      Andres, when the CAFE standards were raised years ago, cars started out small, but grew in size as technology improved. The same will happen again, because North Americans prefer to buy larger cars.

      • bastien said

        It’s not a mater of technology. It’s a mater of profit. Building big low tech vans/SUV/truck heavily loaded with equipement and big motors was the cheaping/ easiest way to sell higher perceived value vehicules to people and make more short/middle term profit. It was also the best marketing way to just convince people that it’s a good idea to use more and more of there money each year for personnal transportation.

        Do ordinary people needs 240 HP power on a family car? I don’t think so. Do they need 4200 lbs. cars to go at the soccer game, grocery or work? I don’t think so. Are North Americans ready for a mentality change vs personnal transportation? I think so. Fuel price will drive us there in the next years.

        BTW, i love hearing from you Chelsea…

  10. Scott Leon said

    You brought the test drive to life for me. Thanks. I’ll be following the blog.

  11. kert said

    Is there any written record of test drives of EV1 series hybrid prototype ?

  12. Greg Woulf said

    Great article Chelsea, it shows the good and the bad. I’m really excited at the prospect of driving one of these and putting up the solar panels to support it.

    The EV-1 was never offered for sale, but it’s unfair to say that he lied. There were polls GM took that showed that most lessees weren’t willing to pay the full price for the car.

    The liability alone would force a company to shut the program down rather than risk a single lawsuit.

    I don’t want to complain in my first response to your wonderful blog, but I think harping on the EV-1 is hurting the situation. GM was the only company that succeeded in making an EV, they developed technology that is absolutely vital to the segment. Particularly the variable voltage AC motor and controller technology. Tesla got their motor from AC Propulsion, whose founder worked for GM on the EV-1.

    Before we vilify GM, maybe we should try and look at the other side. Masses of people wouldn’t buy the EV-1 today for $80k, not in the state it was. You might, I might, and others, but not the masses that will hopefully buy the Volt.

    Who killed the electric car was a wonderful documentary that showed the corruption of the large corporation and how they could manipulate government, but the truth is that the car wasn’t ready for prime time until the battery technology caught up with it.

  13. Leonard said

    I for one don’t give a damn about what happens to GM given their corporate history, but I think this EV gem is worth saving and should be spun off to be manufactured and backed by a smaller, more agile company that specializes in EV cars and technology. These engineers need to get away from that dying coprorate dinosaur as rapidly as possible. My money is on Aptera and Tesla if they can get their manufacturing up and running. Xerox and PARC would be the example.

  14. Jason M. Hendler said

    Bastien, it required better technology engines to maintain emissions and mileage numbers while propelling heavier and heavier vehicles. True, more spacious vehicles are low tech, but to power them while maintaining emissions and mileage numbers is high tech. It is smart for auto makers to design for their consumers and chase high margin products – as long as it meets federal standards, it doesn’t matter whether or not you feel a customer needs it, as long as they want it and can afford it.

  15. MPGomatic said

    Awesome account.

    We’re in the first inning of the range-extended electric era.

    With the quietness of the electric drive train, it’s easy to understand the Volt team’s desire to muffle the noise of the generator.

    Jonathan Goodwin may be onto something with the use of a rotary as the Lincvolt’s power source. If they can deliver the equivalent of 65 MPG in a 2.5 ton land yacht, 100 MPG in a lighter and more aerodynamic vehicle should be well within reach …

    Bring on the Torque!

  16. We, in Chile…where I live, are producers of Lithium. Very few countries belong to our club. I think there is enough of this mineral to provide for ultra light electric vehicles only- such as e-bicycles, e-scooters and long range small cars like the Smart to name one brand. All other ideas are bad ideas. Depletion, pollution…disaster.
    Regular bicycles and electric bikes can solve one thousand problems right now. Fat people can get in shape, noisy cities can go quiet and friendly. Children could ride bicycles to school. No more bad and toxic ideas from big corporations please. We have had enough of those. Go test drive any ezeebike (www.ezeebike.com) and get a taste of the future of personal transportation. Fast,clean, cheap ,fun… and efficient.

  17. Jason M. Hendler said

    MPGomatic,

    As I have posted many times on the GM-volt.com site, I believe this is the best range extender ICE – Moller’s Compound Rotary engine:

    http://www.rotapower.info/

  18. MPGomatic said

    Very cool stuff, Jason. I hadn’t see the Rotapower engine. Imagine if Briggs & Stratton snapped them up!

    • Jason M. Hendler said

      B&S, Honda, or any lawn equipment or generator companies. This is such a significant breakthrough for so many markets.

  19. [...] Poker faces…   From the first Volt unveiling over two years ago, I’ve wanted to drive one. At some point last year, Tony [...] [...]

  20. [...] did she find? That the car creates lots and lots of smiles. She wrote about the experience over on her new blog: It is more refined than many production cars I’ve driven, a fact that ironically breeds [...]

  21. Bob Sexton said

    It’s about time we see a Blog from Chelsea. She’s been writing reviews for an on-line magazine about E-Drive cars. But you need to know where to find these reviews and she isn’t running around telling everyone about them. I’ve been bugging her to share her thoughts with anyone that is willing to take the time to read about her experiences in the EV World. I hope she continues to share with all of us.

    • Jason M. Hendler said

      Amen brother. Congrats to you btw for your work at Tesla Motors. I am sure you can’t blog about it, but you have to be excited about the overwhelming response to the Model S and the investment by Daimler. Just an outstanding effort by you and everyone else there at TM!

  22. A.J.Grand said

    Dear Chelsea!
    .
    Im very-much outside of US grounds, and I wish to ask Your oppinion for a project before I would get on with it.
    I would like to ask You for contacting me via email for the details.
    .
    Thank You very much! :)
    .
    A.J.

  23. Marydel Bains said

    I don’t see why somehow maybe Saturn could not have tried to get all owners of Saturn to buy into Saturn. I would be willing. I like my little Saturn Astra.

    Why did Pensky change his mind. Why!

    • evchels said

      Am bummed to see Saturn go too, Marydel (and still love the Saturn I have now- will drive it til I can get something w a plug on it!) But, if they weren’t going to let it be something great again, it probably was about time to rip that band-aid off.

  24. michael said

    Penske, couldn’t get a builder!

  25. Rob said

    Thanks Chelsea for doing what you do. When I want to get informed about the latest in the EV world I know I can always look you up and get engaging yet no punches pulled commentary.
       
    Like many, I have been intrigued with EVs since I first encountered the EV1 in 1997. In my case I test drove a candy apple red EV1 when Saturn brought a small fleet to my work at the Boeing (then McDonnell Douglas) plant in Huntington Beach CA. They lined them up for us Aerospace engineers to take turns ‘drag racing’ down the campus main corridor. (who ever came up with that is a marketing genius ;-)

    I immediatelly investgated buying one at the ‘in mall’ temporary showroom but was turned off by the lease. A big motivator for me was never needing to go to a gas station where the fumes invariably make me ill. Now enthusiasum springs up again as I follow the Volt. (with your help) 

    Thanks!       

    • evchels said

      Wow, thanks Rob!

      I remember those events well- I was one of the Specialists egging you Boeing folks on….used to tell people that if I didn’t hear the tires squeal from the other end of the course, they shouldn’t come back. ;o)

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