Mr. Bean…

Some time back, I might have crashed a private little test drive party that one of the major automotive magazines was holding on the endless blacktop swaths of El Toro Marine base, in preparation for a large spread they were doing on electric vehicles. And as I looked at the half dozen or so vehicles gathered there, I could have, maybe, been feeling cheeky enough (I know- tough to believe, given the red hair) to challenge the accompanying personnel about who was going to put a car in my driveway first. I was teasing, and they knew it – but hey, I’m as eager as anyone else to see plug-in vehicles make the leap from auto show turntable to “what can I do to get you into this car today?”

Alas, the only thing I actually brought home that day was a sunburn. In the year and a half since, three of the vehicles present have since been cancelled– but one of the automakers from that event recently became the first to come through. It was only for a week, but I say it counts. Ironically, it wasn’t one of the companies who will be putting cars in showrooms this year, but Mitsubishi- a company aiming at the end of 2011 or so for the US market- is first out there with the loaner cars.

I think it’s a great idea; properly done, pilot programs and vehicle loans are an incredibly  useful and efficient marketing and engineering tool for plug-in vehicle programs. They get people used to the technology, and in many cases, over range anxiety. And there’s no better way to vet the engineering and construction of a vehicle than to put it in the hands of regular people- anyone involved with the Impact/EV1 PrEView Drive will forever remember the time an entire car was disabled by a can of root beer. Just as important, they get people excited and talking- generating instant ambassadors for the technology and, if it’s any good, for your product. So we were nothing but excited to bring this little guy home:

And of course, he fit in just fine with our other vehicle…

“Are you my mama?”

I’ve driven the iMiEV before, so this wasn’t so much about evaluating the car as just living with and enjoying it- something my 11-year old son was only too happy to do. He insisted that we name the car, so after an impromptu facebook contest and approval by the boy we christened it, appropriately, “Mr. Bean”. And then we spent the week taking him on adventures (apologies for the amateur iPhone photography):

We wanted him to make friends, so we took him on a playdate…this is one of four iMiEVs that Best Buy is using in their Geek fleet; it happens to live at my local store. They got along famously, so much so that we decided to move along before they needed to get a room…

The next day, we headed to the local Tesla store (where Bob works) and gave the staff rides in Mr. Bean. They clearly approved- which led to a few ideas…

…we considered returning him as an “iMiEV Sport”- I think it could’ve worked, don’t you?

In the end we behaved (as far as we’re willing to admit), but did let him hang out with the neighborhood bad boy for a while.

Which may have been a mistake, as it appears he went sneaking out later that night…I’m such a corrupting influence!

Finally, we figured we had to round out Mr. Bean’s social experiences with an intellectual one…and who better to provide that than Bill Nye the Science Guy? We spun him around a little bit after an event in Long Beach, and he’s now a fan too!

Mr. Bean treated us at least as well as we treated him- handling remarkably well in all sorts of rainy driving, and easily giving us 60-70 real word range miles, even on the freeway. If I was careful, I could eke out a few more, but we mostly just ran around, managing to log about 500 total miles that week! We experimented with all three driving modes (like many EVs, there’s an “Eco” and an engine braking mode in addition to the standard drive mode) and enjoyed the strange looks we got from the right hand drive. At night, we tucked him into our garage (a picture I’ll spare you from) and recharged him with a standard 120v outlet, though Mitsubishi is also planning for both 240v charging as well as DC fast charge.

Our week went by faster than we’d have liked, but we clearly had a blast getting an “EV fix” until the next time. Not that Mitsubishi wasn’t kind enough to leave us with a little consolation prize…

Mini-MiEV!!!

Looks like that sunburn was worth it after all…

PS- Mr. Bean went next to play with Paul Scott and Zan Dubin Scott, who wrote about their experience here.

Multiple Climax…

CocoEco Sexy 1

CocoEco Sexy 2

The latest in the CocoEco series- full background here

Multiple Car-ma

We think eco-friendly vehicles have gotten a bum rap, aesthetically. The butt of countless jokes on The Simpsons, they’re certainly better for the planet, but some folks still consider driving one to be a legitimate form of birth control. While there have been some vehicles over the years that have rightfully earned that designation, the tide is definitely turning- this month, we bring you a veritable orgy of vehicles sure to make hearts beat faster:

Fisker Karma

One of the most highly-anticipated vehicles of the year, the Karma is a series plug-in hybrid, running for 50 miles on battery power with two electric motors producing 403hp. After that, a 2-liter direct inject gasoline engine kicks in, providing “unlimited” range as long as you’re near a gas station. Henrik Fisker has spent his career designing cars for the likes of Aston Martin; the unabashedly sexy Karma (and it’s sister model, the Sunset convertible) reflect it. Starting at $87,900 and due to be delivered in June 2010, we can’t wait to get behind the wheel of one. With 1,400 orders already taken, however, we might just have to get in line.

 

BMW 335d

BMW has long been a benchmark of style and refinement; now, it seeks to introduce the fuel long-favored in Europe for its efficiency to the US with its “clean diesel” technology. A 3.0 liter turbocharged inline 6-cylinder engine provide 23/26mpg, while the higher torque of the diesel engine allows the, um, thrust, of a larger gasoline engine. With a base price of $43,900 and legal in all 50 states (though using biodiesel will likely void your warranty), the 335d is sure to get Americans thinking a little differently about diesel.


Tesla Roadster 2.0 and Model S

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced to Bloomberg viewers that driving a Tesla was the surest way to get a date- we think it can’t possibly hurt. To their credit, Tesla  Motors shattered the golf cart myth with the introduction of the Roadster in 2006, and is now delivering the 2010 Roadster 2.0, a slightly refined version of the $109,000, 244-mile range, 0-60 in 3.9 second pocket rocket. With over 1,000 orders and a delivery date still 2+ years away, the 4-door, $57,400 (base) eco-sleek Model S might be even hotter.

Honda Clarity-

There’s little arguing that the garnet-colored, teardrop shaped Clarity is one of the best looking cars on the road- of any fuel. Sleek and refined, with an interior tastefully crafted of petroleum free resins and bio-based fabrics, it is the very definition of compelling. It’s hydrogen fuel cell powerplant also renders it obscenely expensive to make (Honda won’t specify costs, but the $600/mo to lease one of only 200 made for 3 years is a downright bargain) and inconvenient to refuel. What we’re most excited about with the Clarity, however, is the potential- a plug-in hybrid with that skin and a Honda nameplate would be very tough to beat.

 

Venturi Fetish-

We had to include an honorable mention for the name alone. This Monaco-based electric vehicle sports 150 miles of range and a top speed of 100mph, but at a cost of 297,000 Euros (approx $425,000) and a production limit of 25 vehicles, you probably won’t see too many on the road. Still, we have to appreciate a company that boldly states where others merely hint.

 

Not just a family affair…

CocoEco Ford

CocoEco Ford 2

This is the latest from CocoEco Magazine- see here for more on the series, or cocoecomag.com for the original article.

With several friends and family members shopping for cars this summer, I perused the various wish lists they sent for this issue’s column. My sister made the best proxy case- she and her husband are always on the road as photojournalists; between that and their nearly two-year old daughter, her priorities include practicality, cargo room, and efficiency- but not at the cost of fun and coolness- so when she asked what I thought of the latest hybrid (one that is refreshingly not the Prius) I decided to get my hands on one for a couple days of “real world driving” to see just how well it would meet a young family’s needs.

The Ford Fusion hybrid (and its clone, a hybrid version of the Mercury Milan) is on the lips of many these days- it’s recent facelift with chrome grill and accents and 17-inch aluminum wheels renders it more athletic than most hybrids, while clean lines and restrained embellishments keep it more contemporary looking than most midsize sedans. Doesn’t hurt that it also comes from an American car company at a time when there’s been little in Detroit to cheer about. Bigger than the Prius, the Fusion aims at larger hybrids like the Camry and Altima- rated at 41mpg in the city, 36 on the highway, it bests them both in the gas-sipping department.

Hybrids are known for their reliance on the electric motor at lower speeds- in the Fusion’s case, up to 47mph. Given that, I figured it would excel in my little town, whose residential section boasts one square mile, one stoplight and two streets above a 25mph speed limit. Turns out, however, that my town might be just a bit too small- in the 3-mile roundtrip to take my own son to school, the engine stayed on nearly the whole time (to heat the catalyst and avoid emissions from a cold engine), resulting in a disappointing 29mpg.

Determined to better that, I ran some other local errands, aided by what is really the best instrument display I’ve seen in a hybrid. Ford’s SmartGuage provides the requisite information on mileage, battery power and fuel use, as well as power use by each the accelerator and accessories, all thoughtfully displayed and easy to interpret. And I learned from experience that the graphic branch of leaves that appear (or not) to encourage gentler driving is a big hit with kids; between my son’s back seat coaching and the sort of driving that gives hybrid folks a bad name, I did manage to get the mpg meter up to 53mpg, though my average over a couple days’ driving rooted itself right around 38mpg.

Range games aside, the Fusion is fun to drive- the chassis provides a cushier ride than I expected, and it’s responsive and agile in the handling department. Despite a curb weight of nearly two tons, it accelerates from 0-60 in under nine seconds thanks to its 2.5 liter, 4-cylinder engine that puts out 156 horsepower (191 when combined with the electric motors) and is mated to a continuously variable transmission that remains sure of itself as the system blends between electricity and gas. It should be noted, however, that the highway mileage is only 2mpg better than the non-hybrid Fusion- so if you’re a heavy highway commuter, it’s worth comparing both versions.

The Fusion hybrid starts at $27,270 though the currently-available Federal tax credit of up to $1,700 eases that a bit (and if you’re replacing a vehicle that gets less than 18mpg, do check out cars.gov). Even the base model is nicely equipped, however, with a light and airy interior featuring recycled cloth seating for five (heated leather available), power accessories, and the Sync system, which allows voice control of bluetooth enabled phones, mp3 players, etc. Ford doesn’t scrimp on safety options- even in the basic Fusion hybrid comes standard with front, side, and head curtain airbags, as well as stability and traction control. A rearview camera (which while parking is more chastising than the “Aww, mom!” when I drive hard enough to lose my leaves), blind spot alert, and navigation system with real-time traffic are also available. The only downside that I found in the practicality department is that the rear seats in the hybrid version of the Fusion don’t fold down, which is certainly helpful in a family car. But the 12 cubic feet of cargo will more than handle your average trip to Costco- or at least, it did mine.

Without question, I can see why people are excited about the Fusion hybrid. Safe, practical and fun, with a myriad of thoughtful touches, it has both street cred and eco cred while screaming about neither. A smart choice for young families, it might be an even smarter move for Ford.


Something wicked (fun!) this way comes…

CocoEco-Tesla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CocoEco-Tesla-B

 

This is the first in the CocoEco series, published for the holiday issue last December. (For the full story, see “The Hero and the Sidekick“.)

So many automakers are unveiling electric concept cars these days that the irony almost no longer registers- for all sorts of reasons, the future is pretty clearly electric. But the folks at Tesla Motors, a San Carlos-based company infused with both Silicon Valley talent and funding, aren’t nearly that patient. Earlier this year, they began customer deliveries of the Roadster, a two-seat convertible that was unveiled two years ago and whose Signature edition sold out in two weeks. At $109,000 for the base 2009 model and with a year-long waiting list, this car’s more than a bit out of my range- which does absolutely nothing to temper my appreciation of it, even more than three years after my first giddy test drive. 

In its own way, the Roadster is a sleeper. Not that it doesn’t get noticed; passers-by seem to be compelled by an inaudible “Psst, over here” to check it out, if only to see what “it” is. Premised on a Lotus Elise chassis that has been lengthened, stiffened and re-skinned such that the Tesla engineers visibly blanch at comparisons to the original Lotus, the Roadster has clearly held on to its sporty roots. Still, it also emanates a more cultivated sex appeal- more Maserati-subtle than Lamborghini-in your face, and yet distinctive from anything else. That it’s electric is mentioned almost as an aside in the silence it leaves behind…but to underestimate this car as a golf cart would be a blushing mistake.  

For the gearheads out there, the Roadster is powered by a 248-horsepower (185kW), 3-phase AC motor. Those familiar with fast cars know that when acceleration is your goal, it’s not really about horsepower- it’s about torque- and the watermelon-sized power plant deploys 276 foot-pounds of thrust to move a car just shy of 2,700 lbs. The biggest experiential difference between an electric car and a gas-powered one is that that torque is available at any speed, meaning that the Roadster is just as fast off the line from a stop light as it is accelerating around that hypermiling Prius on the freeway- with a 0-60 time of 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 125 mph to show for it. Which pretty much makes this car the vehicular equivalent of the suggestive, if slightly naughty, best friend sure to egg you on at every opportunity. I don’t care if you don’t think yourself a car person- plant your right foot on the accelerator with a clear patch of road ahead of you, and you’ll enjoy the true meaning of “visceral reaction”. It holds its own on curves as well- the promise of the twists and turns on the Sepulveda detour through the pass makes me wish for traffic on the 405 when I’m in this car.

Thanks to fanatical attention to saving weight in the rest of the vehicle (weight being the enemy of range), the Roadster boasts a range of 221 miles per charge from its 900-lb battery pack, depending on your right foot. My range would likely be considerably less- but oh how little I’d care. Drive more conservatively, and regenerative braking system will recover energy as you coast downhill and to stops, increasing your range by up to 20%. Given that the average person only drives about 30 miles per day, a few dollars’ worth of electricity would provide a week’s worth of pleasurable commuting- something few cars can provide at any cost. 

The Roadster comes with most of the creature comforts one would expect from a car in that price range: heat and a/c, power windows and locks, heated leather seats (microfiber also available), cruise control, iPod compatibility, touch screen info display, Homelink. A Crayola box of paint colors offer something for every personality, and the home charging system will refuel the Roadster for its next adventure while you sleep, in as little as 3.5 hours. Just like a conventional car, you’re welcome to kick the tires (though I’d try to wrangle a test drive instead) at stores in Santa Monica and Menlo Park, CA, with one on the way in New York. 

Unless you have a very special relationship with Santa, the Tesla Roadster might have to remain on your wish list this year, as it will mine. But the team is already working on the next model: a 4-door sedan priced at $60,000, expected for delivery in 2011. But as cool as Tesla’s cars are, the truly exciting part about the company may be its catalytic effect on the industry- an upstart company in California, pitching a thinly-veiled dare to the majors to jump in the deep end of the pool. In the meantime, the nice people at Tesla are proving very tolerant of me pressing my nose to the glass as I lust after their firstborn. I’m looking forward to meeting its siblings. 

 

 

How much is that Mini in the window?

2009.01-02_CocoEco_pg94-MINI-E_A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2009.01-02_CocoEco_pg96-MINI-E_B

This is the second in the CocoEco series…(see “The Hero and the Sidekick” for full explanation.)

 

Given the history, I’m not typically one who would sign up for an automaker’s electric car “experiment” without a few details. But when BMW announced that it will be the first major car company bringing electric cars back to the roads of Los Angeles and the New York metro area, with 500 people selected to drive them, I didn’t take much convincing. Sure, I’m feeling the irony of spending years cheerleading for plug-in vehicles but having a (gasoline) Saturn in my driveway- and sure, I’ve fairly openly challenged most of the car guys I know to see which company might be first to help me remedy that…but I still want to know what’s behind door #3 before I commit to it, right?

Usually that’s the case. But I knew going in all I really needed to about the Mini E, even before BMW released the specs- and that was that a little company tucked in the foothills of northern Los Angeles was doing the drivetrain. AC Propulsion, or “ACP” to fans, has left its fingerprints on most performance-oriented electric cars in the last twenty years, among them the EV1, Fetish, Wrightspeed and yes- Tesla. It pays the rent by converting unassuming, boxy Scion xB’s into asphalt-eating sleepers that send Mustangs back to the kids’ table. So I knew that even if the Mini E wasn’t designed to set records, it was going to be a fun little car. Still, I figured that I ought to at least drive it before I sign on the dotted line, should I be chosen- and certainly before I write about it here. So I called Tom Gage, President of ACP, and invited him to lunch…I even offered to drive. 

Based on early descriptions, I expected the Mini E to be the dorkiest-looking thing on four wheels. The entire fleet will come in one color, a dark metallic silver adorned with- I kid you not- bright yellow graphic plugs on the roof and body panels. The interior is carbon-colored leather and cloth, with the same yellow accents. Not exactly a lust-inspiring combination. But in person, this bi-polar personality of the “I’m serious about saving the world” darker tones with the pure “hey, wanna go play?” brightness actually works- the Mini E looks as stubbornly optimistic as the people who will drive it.

The driving experience is as fun as I expected- like a puppy, the Mini EV has moments of being unsure of itself, but it seems perpetually ready for adventure. It’s nearly 600 pounds heavier than its gasoline counterpart thanks to a 35kWh battery pack (that little addition also takes the car from 4 seats to 2), but the weight is low and centered across the rear axle and the suspension fortified, so it’ll take a hard corner without the back end getting squirrelly. The 150kW (204 horsepower) AC motor more than compensates for the extra weight, and while it rates a respectable-but-not-mind-blowing 8.5 seconds from 0-60, an abundance of torque makes it quick off the line. Its top speed of 95mph is faster than you’ll be able to drive in either LA or New York. My only technical complaint is that the accelerator is squishier than a 5 year-old’s sneakers after a puddle jump- but once firmly engaged, the watermelon-sized power plant is downright enthusiastic. The Mini E also features the regenerative braking that we expect from electric drivetrains; letting off the accelerator slows the vehicle and feeds energy back into the batteries. However, the “regen” is much stronger in the Mini E than other hybrids and plug-in cars, so there’s little need to actually touch the brake pedal at all. Adjusting the aforementioned travel in the accelerator will also allow more subtle control of this blend between stop and go, but it’s still deeply satisfying, especially for those of us who still drive manual trans. 

As impressive as the car is, there is a bit of overpromising on BMW’s part: the 156-mile advertised range “under ideal conditions” will realistically be closer to 100. (For some reason, most automakers fall prey to this temptation to err on the idealistic side in the one place they shouldn’t.) Charging time, optimistically rated at 3 hours on a 48-amp circuit, is closer to 6-8 hours on a regular 240-volt circuit- but since most people charge at night anyhow, the difference will be transparent to the drivers whose cars will still be full in the morning. 

The Mini E will lease for $850/month for 1 year, with no option to purchase- it’s an experiment, after all. (While that price does include maintenance and collision insurance, it’s far more than I would reasonably pay to solve my little irony problem, though I rationalize it as a great demo car for my foundation’s educational work.) And while cheeky, the application was a bit like an automotive Rorschach test; it makes the much-maligned process of getting an EV1 look simple. Above all, BMW clearly wants to make sure I’ll willingly give this car back at the end of the year-so much so that I’m asked to confirm that fact at least three times in the hour-long survey that also wants to know my three favorite inventors and exactly which social networks I’m a member of. It’s an intriguing intersection of California earnestness and elitist German attitude- they overthink it a bit, but not surprisingly there are an abundance of people game for the process.  

At the end of my drive in the Mini E, I was reminded of another aspect of puppies employed my marketing folk everywhere: you let someone play with one, and they never want to give it back. And I didn’t- it’s a compelling car, and the program offers great opportunity for BMW to gain both engineering learning and ambassadors for the technology and the brand. And I’m happy to help with both- but right now, I just want to go on another adventure.

The Hero and the Sidekick

PrintFor a while now, I’ve been writing an auto column for a relatively new magazine called CocoEco. The magazine itself is everything I’m not- up on the latest trends, chic, polished, girly…but they’ve been kind enough to not only include a voice like mine, but have given me relatively free reign on the car stuff. Past articles covered the smart (gas version), Tesla Roadster, and Mini E- the latter two of which several folks have asked me to re-post here at some point. But the latest issue just came out today, and includes the Mitsubishi iMiEV! To see the original article, go to www.cocoecomag.com (pg 104) but since I can’t link directly to the article, I’m also including it here.

Our intent is to mix it up a bit on the cars- PZEVs, hybrids, PHEVs, EVs, etc, as well as to  balance between high and lower-end, and between currently available and what’s coming. So if there’s something on your wish list, let me know!

And a special thanks to Dave Patterson not only for getting me behind the wheel, but being good natured about me calling him  a jackass…

The Hero and the Sidekick

Dave Patterson can be a humble guy. “Everyone wants to see the iMiEV, I’m just the jackass that comes with it”, he says, without a trace of sarcasm. Where it goes, he tends to go. I’ve known Dave as Mistubishi’s electric vehicle champion for several years since meeting him at a depressingly small alternative fuels auto show in Santa Monica. As unassuming as the car he loves, he informed me then that it was his mission to bring their new EV to the United States- notable, since that wasn’t his job. Officially, Dave is the Senior Manager of Regulatory Affairs, focusing largely on the emissions of small performance-oriented cars like the Evo that his company is most known for. But as he’s chaperoned his elongated jelly bean of a car around the country, he’s learned first hand that if given the chance, people will love something non-polluting just as much.


In automotive world, Mitsubishi acts much like the proverbial middle child, carving out ways to be noticed against companies like Honda and Toyota. In this case, that involved being one of the first automakers to announce its entry into the electric vehicle market after years of the entire industry stonewalling against them. While the iMiEV (“i-meev”) was originally intended solely for the Japanese market, it quickly gained a following here as well. Dave’s self-appointed challenge is to amplify consumer demand so it reaches the ears of those who run the program and affects their decisions. In the meantime, there was a car that needed driving, and I was just the girl to do it.


Dave flipped me the keys and had me drive to the Thai restaurant that was the thinly-veiled excuse for my visit (hey, I’m a simple girl). Afterward, we went on an extended drive. If the Tesla Roadster is the sleek leather pants of electric cars, the iMiEV is your favorite pair of blue jeans: familiar, reliable, easy. This isn’t to say that the car isn’t fun, because it is- but it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. Its 47kW, 64hp motor isn’t huge- but then, even with seating for four, neither is the car. It accelerates confidently- even a bit faster than I expected, easily achieves highway speeds, and handles adequately- but it doesn’t claim to be performance-oriented. The prototype I drove gets about 70 miles of range per charge on less than $2 of electricity, though Mitsubishi is hoping to increase that somewhat by the time the car goes into true production. Like other electric vehicles, it can be charged at home in a few hours. In short, it’s the microwave oven of cars- not what you’d take on a trip to Vegas, but a highly capable, totally pleasant daily commuter vehicle with room for errands and trips to soccer. And because it uses space efficiently enough to feel roomier inside than it appears on the outside, it’s easy to maneuver and park in the most compact of spaces.


Mitsubishi remains open-minded, even slightly irreverent about the deployment of the iMiEV, entertaining consumer demand wherever it lies. In one such example, a carbon-neutral utility in New Zealand called Meridian Energy had been trying to bring electric cars to the Kiwis for a year. But even with a national commitment, their market simply isn’t large enough to attract the attention of most automakers. Knowing an underdog when they see it, Mitsubishi stepped in and sent a demo fleet to help Meridian move their research and education efforts along while waiting for production cars. Unsurprisingly, the Kiwis fell in love with the endearingly pod-like cars and didn’t want to give them back- people around the world suggested that they shouldn’t, crafting all sorts of wild PR stunts around the iMiEV. In the end, the cars were returned- but not before a crowd of people showed up to cover the cars with handwritten notes of praise.


Closer to home, Dave got his wish, at least in part. Mitsubishi announced just last month that they will indeed bring the iMiEV to the US by 2012. They don’t have all the answers yet (pricing, for example, hasn’t been announced), but nor are they allowing themselves to be paralyzed by that fact. For now, they’ll be starting in Portland, another area looking to make its mark in electric transport- but if history is any indication, they’re open to other areas that make themselves heard. Sounds like an invitation if I ever heard one.


There’s no question that the stakes are high for Mitsubishi- every innovative program lives in a fishbowl to a certain extent, and the attitude of those involved reflect their awareness that they need to get it right. And for Dave, this program is deeply personal- his self-deprecation aside, he’s clearly a true believer hoping for a happy ending. He’s so refreshingly earnest that I can’t help but root for him, but it’ll be a while before we know if simply being a force for good is enough.


At the end of the day, I begrudgingly got back into my own car and left Dave and his iMiEV standing in the driveway, the hero and the sidekick… But I’m still not entirely sure which was which.

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.