Chevy Volt: Bland Design, Bold Engineering

Still under-reported is the amount of technical detail and performance specifications the auto maker released on a vehicle that is not due in showrooms for another two years.

Drew Winter and James Amend

September 26, 2008

6 Min Read
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DETROIT – After teasing everyone for almost two years, General Motors Corp. finally reveals the production version of the Chevrolet Volt electric car as part of its 100th anniversary celebration.

But still under-reported is the amount of technical detail and performance specifications the auto maker released on a vehicle that is not due in show rooms for another two years.

Clearly, the production vehicle is not nearly as sexy as the Volt concept that caused a commotion at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

What once was a sporty commuter car for hip urbanites now is a practical 4-seat family sedan.

The bold exterior lines have been rounded and the brash upright front end smoothed and lowered to improve aerodynamics. The low, sinister-looking greenhouse has been raised to provide more headroom. Sticking with the original design would have cost the Volt 6 to 7 miles (9.6 to 11.2 km) of range, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz says.

Inside, the radical shapes, holographic gauge displays and sporty seats of the show car have been replaced with a roomier, more practical design that accommodates multiple airbags and meets crash-test requirements.

Production frontend lower and slipperier than show car to reduce wind resistance.<link rel=

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Even so, the production Volt still sports lots of high-tech features. For one, buttons on the center stack have no moving parts. Instead, they sense the minute electrical field of your fingertip.

“We looked for an electric aesthetic,” says Volt Interior Design Manager Tim Greig.

The car’s central liquid-crystal information display is designed to look like an iPod placed in a docking station.

Greig says numerous environmentally friendly materials are being considered for the interior, which is designed to be 100% recyclable. The list includes carpeting and headliners made of 100% recycled material to seat cushions made from soy.

The cockpit is similar in dimension to that of the upcoming high-volume Chevrolet Cruze, which is based on GM’s upcoming next-generation Delta global-compact-car architecture.

Basing the production Volt on the Delta platform is the key to controlling costs and making the car viable.

“That means all the suspension parts, the underbody parts, brake parts, window-winder mechanisms… all those parts are going to be built a million times a year for other global Delta vehicles,” says Lutz. “And that means the non-electric bits are going to be very, very affordable, and that helps keep the cost down.”

Lutz reiterates a starting price for the Volt of under $40,000 and when pressed by journalists for a sales-volume prediction, offers 60,000 units in 2011 as a hypothetical target.

If there is anything Toyota Motor Corp.’s enormously successful Prius hybrid has taught the auto industry, it is that sometimes innovative technology and a powerful environmental message can trump sexy sheet metal.

In this regard, the engineering of the production Volt is audacious as ever: as the show car promised, the Volt will allow daily commutes of up to 40 miles (64 km) under only electric power, thanks to a 16 kWh, lithium-ion battery pack composed of 220 individual cells.

Just don’t call the Volt a hybrid-electric vehicle, or plug-in HEV. GM officials draw increasingly testy battle lines with Toyota and other auto makers. They insist the Volt is neither an HEV nor PHEV.

“You don’t need any (internal combustion) engine for full performance,” sniffs Global Vehicle Line Executive/Global Chief Engineer Frank Weber, explaining why GM now describes the Volt as an extended-range electric vehicle, or EREV, rather than a PHEV.

While Weber does not mention it, this new nomenclature seems to better distinguish the Volt from upcoming Toyota HEVs that are expected to be more conventional PHEVs. However, two of Chrysler LLC’s three new electric-vehicle concepts, revealed Sept. 23, also are EREVs very similar to the Volt.

The Volt is able to function as a traditional family car for trips of hundreds of miles or longer because a small ICE acts as a generator to provide electricity to the car’s drive motors once the battery’s energy is depleted. Nevertheless, GM engineers say the generator is designed specifically to power the motors, not recharge the batteries enroute.

GM promises the car will be fun-to-drive and inexpensive to operate, in addition to being good for the environment. The Volt’s electric-drive system will deliver a modest 150 hp, which will allow 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in a respectable nine seconds and a top of speed of 100 mph (161 km/h).

Engineers say thanks to the ability of the car’s electric motors to deliver a hefty 273 lb.-ft (370 Nm) of torque nearly instantaneously, the driving experience should be a sporty one, equivalent to a V-6 gasoline engine.

GM disputes the idea that charging the Volt will lead to big electric bills for owners or put a burden on electrical grids.

Charging once a day won’t draw any more power on an annual basis than the average home’s refrigerator or electric clothes dryer, says GM’s Britta Gross, manager-hydrogen and electrical infrastructure.

The cost of driving under electric power will be about $0.02 per mile, compared with about $0.12 per mile for a comparable car burning regular gas at $3.60 per gallon, Gross adds, with the cost for one 40-mile charge about $0.80 during peak hours and far less during off-peak hours. The battery is designed to last 10 years or 150,000 miles (240,000 km).

Mark Duvall, manager-Electric Transportation Program, Electric Power Research Institute, adds that EREVs will not overtax electrical grids. Even 10 million of the vehicles – a number not expected to be seen for years – would not put a strain on today’s power grid, he says.

The Volt can be plugged into a standard household 120-volt or 240-volt outlet (which many consumers erroneously call 110-volt and 220-volt outlets). It takes less than three hours to fully recharge from a 240-volt source and about eight hours from a 120-volt plug, GM says.

Chief Engineer Weber mentions another interesting fact about GM’s intentions for the next-generation Volt: Its battery range will not be extended. Instead, engineers will focus on making the next battery pack smaller, lighter and less expensive.

Despite the more practical design, no one at GM is downplaying the technical reach or achievements the car represents.

Chevrolet North America Vice President Ed Peper sums it up: “The Volt is GM’s moon shot.”

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