An electrifying weekend with the Chevy Volt

GM's Chevy Volt has some amazing technology under the hood, but its electronics are almost too over the top.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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 g650or 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.

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.

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