An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

Summary: GM's Chevy Volt has some amazing technology under the hood, but its electronics are almost too over the top.

TOPICS: Hardware

Late last year, I had a brief opportunity to test drive the Chevrolet Volt during its "Unplugged" tour.

My test drive, however, amounted to a couple of 30MPH laps around a makeshift driving course inside a parking lot in a large suburban shopping mall. While I did get to observe the technology up close, it was only for about an hour or so and I really didn't get the comprehensive hands-on experience with GM's flagship hybrid-electric vehicle that I wanted to.

I had asked GM if it would be possible for me to do a longer-duration test of the Volt, but apparently they were really short on vehicles and the review cars were in heavy demand by other media organizations that were doing long-term evaluations of the vehicle. So I would have to wait.

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Last Friday, I finally got my chance. At 9:30 in the morning, a representative from GM handed over the keys to a Chevy Volt, and parked it in my driveway. Unfortunately, a mix up with another journalist who forgot to put the charging cord back in the trunk meant that I only had 14 miles of EV (pure battery power) mode left on the vehicle, and GM's delivery guy had to go run out get me one so I could charge the car later.

So Friday afternoon I drove it sparingly, because I didn't want to go to gasoline-assisted "ER" (Extended Range) mode too quickly. I wanted to see how far the car could go on a full charge before hitting the 1.4L gasoline generator which powers the electrical drive system for longer distance driving.

I knew the Volt was a very high-tech car from my short preview back in November. But I really had no idea how sophisticated the electronics on this thing would actually be, in practice.

The first time I took it out for a solo spin was to drive down to my local pizza parlor during my lunch break. Okay, so I took the key-fob (which isn't actually car keys, it's just a remote with the security proximity sensor on it) hit the door unlock button, and got into the vehicle.

Let me tell you that from the perspective of someone who drives a 20-year old, nearly analog-everything car -- a classic 1990 560 SEL 5.6L Mercedes-Benz, stepping into the Volt was like something out of the Jetsons. Or Star Trek.

I glanced at what was a dizzying array of buttons on the main "center stack" (which has a large multifunction touch screen display at the very top) and the completely digital dash (or "Driver Information Center" as it is officially called) which told me that in order to start the vehicle, I had to hit the brake and then push the lighted blue "Energize" button.

As soon as I did that, the entire car came to life, complete with boot-up sound, which sounded like I had just engaged the warp engines on the Enterprise.

It was... Knight Rider-like. Frankly, I'm surprised with all of the electronic accouterments the car has and for $41,000 MSRP, that they don't sell one in black with a red Cylon eye scanner in the front. You know, the David Hasselhoff Edition Volt.

So now it's 90+ degrees out in the middle of August and humid as all heck. Give me air conditioning!

The problem was, my ADD-riddled and low blood sugar brain was utterly stymied by how to turn the damn A/C on. Heck, on my old Mercedes and on virtually every single rental car I get when I travel on business, it's usually pretty intuitive.

This thing you need a freaking aerospace engineering degree to figure out.

Now, granted, my understanding is that people who purchase a Volt get a comprehensive training session from the dealer, where they explain how to use the ultra-sophisticated multi-function main stack that controls climate, navigation, entertainment, energy efficiency and electrical power plant monitoring, the rear-view camera, the front-mounted .50 calibre machine guns, pop-out bullet-proof shield, oil slick dispenser, smoke grenade launchers and all that cool stuff.

I was also supposed to get one of those, but the screw-up with the missing charger cord and a busy conference call hell-day pretty much deep-sixed any chance I had to get a full run down on the ... avionics systems.

By the end of the weekend, I sort of got the thing figured out, but the user interface on the Volt seems ridiculously complicated for what is essentially a family car or a commuter vehicle.

This is not a Gulfstream g650 or even a Bugatti Veyron, for crying out loud.

It's almost as if GM was thinking "Well, the car is going to end up costing the early adopters over 40 grand before tax incentives, and it's supposed to be this futuristic hybrid electric vehicle, so let's fill it with all sorts of really cool looking electronic crap that shows just how sophisticated it really is, even though all the important stuff is under the hood."

I really do want to emphasize that the user interface on the Center Stack is... well, awful. The buttons themselves on the stack are also of the touch-sensitive variety rather than electro-mechanical, and are the same color as the stack, so it gets confusing.

At night, I found both the main dash and the center stack illumination to be a bit to dim, and it was hard to see the button controls, even with the display lighting sent to max in the vehicle configuration menus.

This may have been due to an ambient light sensor issue, and unfortunately I didn't drive the vehicle Sunday evening due to heavy rainstorms, so I have no idea if the main stack illumination behaves differently under various lighting conditions or not.

Not to say that the electronic doodads and graphics aren't cool, because they are, but in my opinion, if it takes more than one or two finger touches to adjust climate control or get into the navigation options, configure Bluetooth or tune your XM Radio, or if the UI flat out stymies the user even if it's supposed to be one or two touches away because it doesn't behave as expected, then you pretty much borked the user interface design.

I also want to add that from a purely ergonomic perspective, that the center/main stack itself is not driver optimized for pure touch and quick glance alone. It requires far to much concentration to use, to the point where altering something as simple as a climate control setting could get you in an accident.

I had to appoint my wife as co-pilot in the passenger seat, and even she couldn't figure most of the stuff out.

This is something that GM really needs to fix on the next version of the car. Hey, why not hire Apple to do the stack UI? That's an idea.

So, on to the more important things. The main Driver Information Center itself is thankfully easy to understand, even though it is completely digital and equally Star-Trekky as everything else on the car.

The left-hand side of the dash display shows your estimated remaining mileage in both EV mode (electric drive) and ER (extended range) as well as current battery power and gasoline fuel levels. Drive gear modes is the same as on a gasoline vehicle, with the typical "PRNDL" indicator.

Miles per hour is shown in a digital speedometer, and the right hand side shows acceleration or "thrust" power, with a spiffy green orb that floats up or down depending on how efficiently you are driving the car. Ideally, you want the green orb to stay dead-center when you are driving, so it's kind of like a built-in video game.

The dash is configurable with a number of selectable modes, as shown in the video below.

Unlike other hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius, the Volt uses a purely electrical drive-train virtually all of the time, so there's no "Tachometer" per se in any of the selected dash modes.

When the 1.4L engine engages in ER mode after the battery runs down, it's strictly used as a generator for the electrical power system, and it adjusts its cycles depending on whether the electrical drive system needs increased voltage or not, and in an optimized fashion so that fuel isn't consumed inefficiently.

There are apparently times where the generator can directly assist the drive-train to power the wheels under higher speed conditions, but I'm not sure I ever experienced that when I was evaluating the car.

So only the car's computer system actually needs to worry about RPMs. Which means you're essentially driving a computer. It sounds weird, but at the same time, it's kind of cool.

While GM advertises that the Volt can get up to 50 miles on a full charge, what you really end up getting is actually based upon driver habits and environmental conditions. After a full night's charge, we noticed that the EV mode range indicator showed us 34 miles, which is really just an estimate.

Charging the car is easy -- you simply pop the charging receptacle with either the key-fob or the button on the driver side door, and plug in the over-sized six-pronged cord which is attached to an alignment handle with a lever lock trigger that has a built in LED flashlight so that you can align the connector in low light conditions.

The car beeps to confirm that it is charging, and you get a green light on top of the dash behind the windshield that blinks to confirm charging status.

If you desire, you can set the car to delay charging until such time during the late evening or early morning when your electrical billing rates are optimal. The default charger that comes with the car will do a full charge in about 10 hours. GM also sells an optional 240V fast-charger that will completely charge the batteries in 4 hours, which costs about $1500 to install in a typical home garage.

With a full day's driving on Saturday, and with the air conditioning on variable modes including econ, auto and comfort, we actually did about 42 miles before ER kicked in and the gasoline generator started. And when it happened, we were doing over 65 miles an hour on the highway, and it was instantaneous and seamless.

As far as audible cues to the driver, the car is pretty much silent in EV mode until ER kicks in, and then the generator revvs as necessary in order to supply electrical power to the drive-train. You do get a slight electric whine from the drive-train, especially when braking or when coasting (which is used to automatically re-charge the batteries via regenerative braking) but it's a cool science-fictiony car sound.

Other than the overly-complicated user interface and controls for the non-critical entertainment, climate and navigation subsystems, I thought it was a really fun car to drive. By far, however, what impressed me is the underlying Voltec hybrid propulsion system.

How does the car itself drive? All in all I have to say that the 149HP, 273 pound-feet of torque Voltec power-train is extremely smooth and responsive. This is not a sluggish vehicle by any stretch of the imagination.

Handling on the car was excellent. No problems maneuvering around tight turns. When you put your foot to the floor, the car really takes off. That's because with an electrical motor, you get 100 percent torque pretty much instantly. This came in handy on certain highway ramps where there were very short merges and we needed to accelerate quickly to get into the flow of traffic.

As far as comfort -- the Volt doesn't have electrically powered seats, so that's a bit annoying for $41,000 car. I'm a big guy, and while I had no problem fitting in the car, it was a bit tight on my shoulders and I didn't like the fact there weren't any handles on the roof ceiling to help me pull myself out of the car, which has a very sloping roof.

If you've got any kind of back problems whatsoever and you're six feet tall or more, you're gonna hate getting in and out of this car. I found myself doing something of a contortionist bit and a neck twist to pull myself in and out.

Additionally, I thought that the visibility in the front and rear windows (the Volt is a hatchback) was less than optimal.

Keep in mind that unlike the major automotive publications which have done very comprehensive reviews of the vehicle which should give you a better idea of whether or not this car is for you and how efficient it really is, my fling with the Volt was short, so I am only going on my limited exposure to the car.

My overall impression is that the Volt is an extremely important milestone in the future of automotive engineering and I think it will change the industry. Would I drive a Volt again? Abso-freakin-lutely. Would I want to pay for and own one? At this point... no.

However, this is not to say that a Voltec-based car isn't on my close watch list for a future vehicle purchase. It is. But I want to see new cars from GM, including SUVs, luxury vehicles and sports cars, full sized sedans, minivans, and even trucks that use evolved versions of this system.

I also think that GM needs to focus on what's under the covers in the next car that uses this propulsion system rather than the electronic doodads, and the user interface shouldn't require an electrical engineering degree or a pilot's license to understand.

Okay, we get it GM, it's an advanced hybrid EV. Now If the company keeps their priorities on fuel economy issues, battery technology, and power-train performance, and they can get the manufacturing costs of the core components for this propulsion system reduced by increased efficiency in manufacturing scale, I think Voltec has a formula for success.

Have you purchased or are considering a purchase of a Chevy Volt? Do you think you will own a Voltec-based vehicle in the future? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topic: Hardware


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • 10 hrs for a full charge

    And that is why this vehicle will be a FAILURE.
    • RE: An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

      @wackoae It's 4 with the 240V fast-charger, which I suspect most people who would buy this car would install in their garages.
      • Do you really think that 4 hrs is better?

        @jperlow Sure, it is less than 10 hrs, but the negative factor is still the same. It is 4 hrs of wasted time to recharge very inefficient batteries that will barely take you on a round trip to the next town.

        The best you can get out of this vehicle is 100 miles per charge (that means you are limited to 50 mile radius). That will drop quickly as the batteries are used. By the end of the 2nd year, you would be lucky to drive 25 miles on a full charge.
      • Charge time is not a big impediment

        @jperlow 95% of the commuting public drives less than 50 miles a day, which means under normal conditions you'll very seldom use the gas. If I had this car, I'd have to worry about the gas going bad from never using it.

        I drive a Subaru WRX, and for the last three years I've never driven more than 25 miles at a stretch, except for the vacation trip which I'm now on.
      • Shorter is better


        Just when you really really need it, you find yourself an hour into a looong recharge cycle.
        Better if it has a two stage charge:
        0-60% fast, 61-100% slow - or some variation of....

        But yes I agree, 100 miles is a bit narrow....
      • Don't confuse pure electric vs. plug-in hybrid

        @wackoae, @rhonin "100 miles"? I think you have confused this car with the all-electric Nissan Leaf. The Volt has a ~40 mile range (+/- depending on temp, speed, terrain) on battery, but has a gas engine backup plan, so you never will be stuck waiting for a charge, just use gas if your battery runs out & you don't have time to charge or access to a charger.

        Most people commute < 40 miles to work, and they have 10 hours to charge the car between the time they get home & before they leave the next day. On longer trips they can just use it as a normal hybrid and fill up w/ gas every 350 miles or so, plenty to get way farther than "the next town".

        As for battery longevity, it uses temperature management & only uses about the middle 2/3 of its capacity to prolong life. It's warranted for 8 years, and should still get 70+% capacity after that, not drop to 25% capacity after 1 year!
      • I agree with jperlow

        @jperlow: ... to a point.
        Fast charge: A 4-hour charge is notably better than a 10-hour charge if you're reasonably active. On the other hand, not everybody drives 100 miles each way to work--or even 40--so the fast charge at each end should get you to work and home without burning a drop of gas. Even if there's not a charger in your parking garage, you've already cut your gas mileage in half by running all battery one way.
        Frequency of use: Again, not everybody takes off down the road every 20 minutes. Your car tends to sit in one place for hours on end. Whether you only charge at home or find a charging station in route, your car sits still usually for at least a couple hours during the day and if that's at your home or parking garage, you should be able to plug in.

        Of course, that does offer a serious problem. Lithium batteries have a bad habit of developing a 'memory.' You charge too frequently and the car will get into the habit of losing charge too soon. You don't charge soon enough and you might kill the batteries entirely. Granted, the gas engine is designed to prevent this (and I'm sure the electronics will go out of their way to prevent taking them all the way to zero) but it could develop a problem similar to a 1968 Oldsmobile my dad bought that refused to go over 60 mph when he bought it, despite having a big-block 350 under the hood. It took him almost a month of hard driving before the engine finally broke that self-imposed speed limit. What would happen with a Volt that developed a memory?
    • RE: An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

      @wackoae Do keep in mind it switches to a generator when the battery runs out, and that can be filled with plain old gasoline.
    • RE: An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

      @wackoae Some people love visiting gas stations for some reason. I couldn't care less how long it takes to charge, it happens overnight.

      And then the next day, I don't have to plan my route around a gas station, and pay close to $4/gallon for gasoline. Why anyone would thing the gas station experience is a great thing is a mystery to me.
      • I love gas stations so much .... I drive a hybrid


        My last two vehicles:
        - Honda Civic Hybrid (2nd owner in the state of FL ... only because they gave my car to someone else), drove for 5 years, 130+ miles everyday.
        - Toyota Prius, had it for 4 years.

        In 9+ years of hybrids, I haven't paid a single dime for repairs (only basic maintenance) .....
      • RE: An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

        [i]In 9+ years of hybrids, I haven't paid a single dime for repairs (only basic maintenance)[/i]
        So, how much did you pay to dispose of the batteries ecologically when you were done with the car? Thought so.

        I drive a TDI "clean diesel" (2009 green car of the year) and get around 1000 to 1100km per 48litre tank (about 4.8l per 100km). Most of my driving is highway, and I realize that a hybrid would do better than I would in town. On the other hand, the Jetta could be driven for 16,000km before it was carbon neutral with a new Prius. If you drove your Prius mostly on the highway as I do, it's arguable how different the carbon emissions would be, although let's assume that the Prius still has an edge. When it comes time to replace the vehicle, you still have to dispose of the batteries, and the way we do that today, assuming they are disposed of responsibly, is we put them on a tramp steamer that takes them to China. I could drive my Jetta a million km and not produce a tiny fraction of the pollution that ship would on it's trip across the ocean.
        Battery technology will have to get a lot better before I buy a hybrid. Either that or I move downtown, but then I'd probably take public transportation.

        Of course that's just my opinion, I could be wrong.
    • Put the Volt's guts in a Smart Car ....

      ..... and for everyday commuting you have a winner!
      If you simplify the controls and keep the price below $20K.
      • RE: An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

        Lol at $41000 for a small round town commutor you better love the car as its your car for next 15 years to break even on the cost and if you live in a large city forget it as you have to be able to charge it and if you live on the 2nd to 120th floor extention cords are not an option and charging posts are far and few between.
      • There is nothing &quot;smart&quot; about a &quot;Smart Car&quot;

        @kd5auq The "toy" is overpriced, underpowered and you get better mileage with a Honda Civic (which cost less).
    • @stephen

      Right. Because the only time I will ever drive the car in a day is to and from work. And If I'm always running the gasoline generator, I should just save myself $20,000 and buy a gasoline powered car right from the start. After all, at $4.00 a gallon, that's 5,000 gallons. At 25 mpg, that's 125,000 miles. At an average driving distance of 12,000 miles per year, that's ten years. Explain to me again why I want to buy a Volt? Oh, yeah. That's right. I've forgotten my 3rd grade education and actually believe CO2 is a deadly poison threatening all life on the planet instead of a vital plant nutrient REQUIRED for all life on earth.
      • RE: An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

        Lol someone who understasnds basic math and fiscal responsibility lol Love it such a rarity now adays. Great post for the simple minds.
      • You DID forget your 3rd grade education

        All things *in moderation* can be good. Lest you forget, the supply of CO2 is essentially limitless unless every animal on the planet figures out how to live without breathing. The supply of oil is NOT.

        Furthermore, you can die of a hear attack if you drink too much water and it isn't properly processed due to the electrolyte balance that would induce. Water is one of the most essential substances for life on the planet, but it certainly can kill both in too great as well as too limited a quantity.

        With the deforestation of the planet and the steady increase in CO2 there is a measurable imbalance being created. Too much of anything is toxic. I don't know where that magic line is for CO2 but it is definitely out there.

        Over the last 30 years I've seen the tide lines at my uncle's house on the water rise consistently to where they are now 4 feet above where they used to be. Is CO2 warming the planet and altering the water cycle? I don't claim to know but I know that a lawn blukheaded 4 feet back from the high tide line should not be underwater twice a day every day in less than one lifetime, so something is changing, and it certainly isn't a scarcity of CO2.
      • RE: An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt


        Isn't CO (or carbon monoxide) a more dangerous product of a vehicle exhaust??
      • @macadam

        Absolutely oil is limitless. First, we haven't even begun to tap current reserves. Two, there is evidence oil forms more quickly than previously thought. Three, we can bioengineer bacteria to happily produce oil.

        Next, CO2 is a trace gas in the atmosphere, comprising approximately 0.04%. Carbon dioxide becomes toxic to humans at about 5% concentration. In other words, atmospheric CO2 would have to increase by 128 times to become a threat to human health. However, CO2 is also fertilizer. Greenhouse growers today routinely double or triple CO2 levels in their greenhouses to boost production. If anything, there is too little CO2 in the atmosphere currently.

        Next, tide levels have nothing to do with CO2 levels. They are the result of gravitational pull from the moon and the sun.

        Finally, CO2, being a trace gas in the atmosphere has almost no impact on global temperatures for a very simple reason: Water vapor is about 100 times more common in the atmosphere and is about 25 times a more powerful green house gas.

        So, here's the truth: The world is not ending because of you. In fact, the world isn't ending at all. So smile, and when an environmentalist next tries to tell you how to live your life by throwing a guilt trip at you, tell him to shut the hell up.
      • @beejay

        Internal combustion engines only produce carbon monoxide in significant quantities when run in an enclosed space where insufficient oxygen is present for complete combustion. It's not really a problem in the outdoors.

        Let me amend that. A bad fuel injection system or carburetor can also produce high CO emissions. So, keep your car tuned up.