A Look to the Future - Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet Volt

In this article we take a look at the Chevrolet Volt and try to work out if it is really worth waiting for. Will it actually give the Prius a run for its money? Is it the way forward?

What is the Volt?

The Chevrolet Volt is GM's answer to the assault of the Toyota Prius. The Prius is the top selling hybrid car in the world. When the Volt project was announced, oil prices were climbing steadily higher, pushing more and more buyers away from the SUVs that GM had been enjoying so much success with in the preceding years.

GM finally woke up to the threat posed by a combination of high oil prices and the apparent surge in popularity of affordable hybrid cars. The company reacted in true American fashion, by setting their engineers a seemingly impossibly difficult task to complete in an impossibly small time frame. The Volt was that task.

GM believes the Volt to be critically important to the future of the company that they are throwing mountains of resources into the project. It can't fail. Since the Volt project kicked off GM have been very open about releasing details of their progress. Concept cars were readied in double-quick time, as if to make it clear that GM was serious about this project.

Technically what is it?

During the early stages of concept and development the Volt seemed to be a platform that could be the basis for a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, an all electric vehicle, or a plug-in hybrid vehicle.

Chevrolet Volt Image

As the project settled down we are now expecting the plug-in hybrid version to be the one that hits the roads in 2010. For the sake of making this as simple as possible, a hybrid consists of an electric motor and an internal combustion engine (ICE). There is a fuel tank to take the regular petrol or diesel fuel to power the ICE, and a battery pack to store and provide power for the electric motor.

In the case of the Toyota Prius, the electric motor and ICE work together to provide power for the vehicle, but there is no way to plug it in and charge it up.

The Volt is similar in that it also has an electric motor paired up with an ICE, but where the Volt differs is that it can be plugged into an electric power source in order to charge up the car's battery. Chevrolet are calling this an "Extended-Range Electric Vehicle", probably because that sounds much better than "Plug-In Hybrid." But is there something more to this that meets the eye? Is the Volt really such a big deal?

What can it do?

The hype surrounding the Volt has been relentless, and I have been reading about the car for some time. Articles and commentary on the car usually pack in as many bold assertions as possible including, but not limited to: "Revolutionary", "The Future", "Breakthrough", "Electrifying".

Reading these sort of words builds up quite high expectations, doesn't it? So what can the Volt do? What is so special about it? Here is the answer..... NOTHING.

One of my favourite children's stories of all time is the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. Is it possible that the hype machine at GM has managed to spark off a similar phenomenon with the Volt. Perhaps I'm the bemused kid in the crowd left shouting out that the Emperor has no clothes.... or in this case... the Volt is re.... okay I'm not going to say that... too corny, even for me.

Here are the details of the Volt taken for the Chevrolet website:

The Extended-Range Electric Vehicle that is redefining the automotive world is no longer just a rumour. In fact, its propulsion system is so revolutionary, it's unlike any other vehicle or electric car that's ever been introduced. And we're making this remarkable vision a reality, so that one day you'll have the freedom to drive gas-free.

Chevy Volt is designed to move more than 75 percent of America's daily commuters without a single drop of gas. That means for someone who drives less than 40 miles a day, Chevy Volt will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions.

Unlike traditional electric cars, Chevy Volt has a revolutionary propulsion system that takes you beyond the power of the battery. It will use a lithium-ion battery with a gasoline-powered, range-extending engine that drives a generator to provide electric power when you drive beyond the 40-mile battery range.

Did you read that? It has a 40 mile battery range! That's it?? 75% of American's daily commuters might be catered to by this range, and that's all well and good, but where is the revolution here? Oh wait, Chevrolet don't claim that the battery life is revolutionary, they say the propulsion system is. So what is it? Impulse engines? Warp drive? Nope... it's an electric motor. Electric motors were used in cars in 1900! But I suppose 110 years on, we can still consider it to be revolutionary.

Back to the battery-only range of the vehicle, and remember GM is throwing a lot of money into this project, and the best they could do is a 40 mile range? Average Joes are building their own fully electric cars in their front yards that can easily exceed this sort of range.

Chevrolet Volt Image

Okay, so there is something else here... the little ICE we talked about earlier. the "Extended-Range" part of the equation. Unlike the hybrid systems we are used to from Toyota that combine the ICE and electric motor together to power the car directly, the Volt only uses the ICE motor to turn a generator and charge the batteries and power the electric motor. The electric motor is always the means of putting the power to work.

The engine will be a flex-fuel motor, capable of running on E85, regular petrol, or a combination of the two. Since the engine can run at peak RPM all the time, the engine is always operating as efficiently as possible, which is what allows hybrid vehicles to be so fuel efficient.

Using the ICE will extend the range of the vehicle to around 340 miles, but most importantly this will allow drivers to refuel the car conveniently and undertake long journeys without the fear of running out of juice.

Price and performance

Putting things into perspective, the Chevrolet Volt project started out with target price of US$30,000. But as of now, with almost 2 years between us and the November 2010 launch, the price is expected to be closer to US$40,000!

The Volt platform is designed to be flexible and modular, and one of the possibilities is that there will be a breakthrough in battery technology that the Volt would be able to take advantage of even at this late stage of development. Currently the Volt is using expensive lithium-ion batteries, which is the same technology used in laptops.

The electric motor in the Volt produces around 111 kW of power, or around the equivalent of 150 hp. Performance should be ample then. The key advantage of electric motors is that the torque (in this case 370 lb-ft) is all available from the get go, from 0 RPM. In ICE engines there is a power band and the engine only runs at peak performance within a very narrow rev range.

Performance figures are expected to be around 8 or 9 seconds to accelerate to 100 km/h and have a top speed of around 160 km/h. This isn't too bad at all. Of course, you can expect aggressive driving to have a dramatic effect on the range of the vehicle. (But that's normal.)

Competition

The Volt is clearly gunning for the Toyota Prius, itself due for replacement with a 2010 model. But Honda also have plans of their own, with the return of the Insight which will launch in the next few months in the US, to compete directly with the Prius.

2010 Honda Insight Image

But can the Volt really compete? The current Prius is priced from around US$22,000, and the Volt looks like it will be upwards of US$35,000! The 2010 Prius will probably not increase in price, and the Insight is expected to be priced under US$20,000.

The Volt, Prius, and Insight are all pretty similar cars in terms of practicality. The Volt does have the advantage of being able to run without petrol for those who never need to go further than 40 miles at a time. But does that really mean anything when you have to pay well over US$10,000 extra for that privilege?

Conclusion

Based on the current information about the Volt I would conclude that the car is likely to be a major disappointment. A plug-in electric car is not a revolution. The concept of using a flex-fuel engine to recharge the batteries and extend the range is hardly a ground breaking step forward either.

If you look at the Volt in isolation, then it seems like a compelling product. Everybody likes the sound of being able to drive without using Petrol. But the Volt is not the only car that offers this sort of trick. And by the time it launches it will not have the market to itself. There will be cheaper alternatives, and the "Extended Range" ability of the Volt isn't going to matter to many people. Or at least, not enough to justify the heavy price tag.

By the end of 2010 GM could be out of business anyway, but assuming they aren't, I wouldn't put a lot of faith in the Volt as being the vehicle to re-energise the company. I think by then it will be too-little too-late and for too much money.

Related : Chevrolet Planning Volt for Thai Market in 2011