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.