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Innovation

First drive: Chevrolet Volt

SmartPlanet takes the Chevrolet Volt out for a spin in the clogged arteries of Manhattan. Here's what we thought.
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Written by Andrew Nusca on

Even on a busy street in midtown Manhattan, you can't miss the Chevrolet Volt.

On Friday, representatives of General Motors came to New York City to offer the press corps -- including this humble editor -- the chance to take Detroit's latest and greatest plug-in electric vehicle out for a spin.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the whole experience wasn't the drive itself, but watching New Yorkers gawk at the rakish sedan parallel-parked on the street in front of the Marriott Courtyard on 40th St.

I've never seen anything like it.

New Yorkers tend to pride themselves on their ability to brush off celebrity. Hundreds of A-, B- and C-list celebrities live among the millions of residents of Manhattan, but you'll rarely find a pedestrian gawking at them. It's unnecessary. It's gauche. It, for all intents and purposes, is so very tourist-y.

But the Volt, idling at the curb, attracted more attention than Julia Roberts at a Thursday night VFW meeting.

People stopped. Took photos. Called their friends. Took photos...with their friends. Drivers slowed with eyes wide and mouths agape, delaying traffic as they inquired or even cat-called.

"Is that that new electric car?"

"How much is it?"

"Where's the tailpipe?" (It's tucked underneath the rear bumper.)

"It's about goddamn time!"

The appeal spanned all ages and races. Twentysomething white guys in camel overcoats. A middle-aged, mustachioed Indian father with wife and kids in tow.  A blonde woman in a wool overcoat and knee-high patent leather heeled boots. An Italian contractor and his buddy.

"Take a look at that!"

But it was I who was lucky enough to have the key fob in hand.

EXTERIOR

The Chevrolet Volt is a pretty darn good looking car, as you can see in the photos. (I didn't have a camera on hand with me during my drive; included are a bunch of press shots to illustrate my points.) As befits a car of this historical magnitude, the styling is a tad more aggressive than your average sedan (particularly from a domestic automaker), and seems to take styling cues from Honda's latest Civic and amp them up considerably.

There are all sorts of details that separate the Volt from the pack. For one, the grille is solid (though it has a design that references a traditional one) because it doesn't need as much airflow for its powerplants.

The hood is aggressive without being overly large, referencing both sporty (large hood = big engine) and economic (small hood = small engine).

The back end is a chopped-block affair, and the black-and-red tail lights have the same kind of "squint" -- long and narrow -- to them as the headlights.

There's also considerable use of two-tone coloring. The back has a black panel, and the trim along the bottom edge of the body is also dark. (I drove a black version, so this wasn't apparent on my version. It was on the pearly white one behind mine, though.)

There's also a little chrome detailing beneath the door windows and along the grille.

INTERIOR

Like any new car, the Volt has an impressive amount of padding, insulation and seals. Once I closed the door, all the hoopla outside fell to a muffled hum.

While the Volt is a sedan, it's not a big one, so the inside felt much like a cockpit. Directly behind the wheel is a bright digital display, which shows all matter of information. To the right, in the center of the dash, is another bright digital display, which shows entertainment options and navigational maps. Beneath it, the shift knob (it's an automatic) sits in park, recessed in the dash.

The entire center console of the black Volt I drove was a high-gloss white plastic -- the kind of finish you'd find in a trendy Asian fusion restaurants or boutique hotel. It contrasted greatly with the pebbled, charcoal-colored synthetic leather finish on the rest of the dash.

It's a love-it-or-hate-it look, the kind of thing that appeals to a college graduate buying his or her first new car, but repulses an older buyer looking to spend upwards of $40,000 (yes, that's BMW territory) for a new vehicle.

I should add that the door panels have abstract graphical elements to them, which while muted, falls in line with the overall look of the dash.

In between the two front seats, extending through the back seats (thus making this sedan a four-, not five-seater), is a huge hump of a center console. Most folks are used to this from older cars -- beneath the carpeting lies the vehicle's transmission. But in this electric car, there's no transmission -- it's all direct drive. So what gives? It's actually a massive, backwards T-shaped battery.

One quirk I noticed is that there are no automatic seat adjusters, at least in the model I tested. To move the seat forward or back, you use the old metal bar. That's not a big deal for most of us, but in a $40,000 car (with automatic windows and side mirrors), it's a strange omission. My guess: it's for weight considerations.

Which brings me to another interesting aspect of the Volt: it doesn't have a spare tire in the trunk. In fact, it doesn't have one at all. Nor does it have run-flat tires like its automotive sibling, the Corvette. I asked an engineer why this was, and he simply said it was more important to save weight.

This is a recurring theme in this vehicle -- anything that can drag down (literally) the electric powertrain is excised from the vehicle.

STARTING UP

One of the neat things about an electric vehicle is that it, by its very nature, does away with conventional technology. To get into the car, you don't insert a metal key, but rather push a button on a key fob. To start the car, you can simply drop the fob in the tray between the two front seats and press "Start Engine" on the dash. (That's right -- there's no ignition in the dash.)

Just like that, the car fires up -- but that's a misleading description, since you pretty much can't hear it do so from inside the vehicle, even with the radio off.

Those concerns about too-quiet electric cars? There's definitely a sound basis for them, even if you disagree with proposed solutions.

Which brings me to my first quirk about the car: when you move the shifter into drive, there's no indicator on the stalk itself of what mode it's in -- not on the knob, not in a diagram around the shaft, nothing.

The feedback actually appears on the digital display behind the steering wheel, which is inconvenient for two reasons: one, because the wheel blocks the display in certain spots; two (and more importantly), it's a disconnected experience.

I'm sure this layout becomes less of an issue once the you, the owner, gets a "feel" for the shifter, but it's not ideal and it's likely to trip up a few folks at the dealership.

As I said before, you pretty much don't hear the Volt turn on -- it basically tells you that it's ready.

THE DRIVING EXPERIENCE

Allow me to preface this section with the fact that my test drive was quite limited. Driving down Park Avenue in Manhattan (and up the Avenue of the Americas, for that matter), I did not and could not get the vehicle up to highway speeds, nor test it for long enough to get a feel for how its small, 1.4-liter four-cylinder "range extender" gas engine takes over for its 111-kilowatt (about 149 horsepower) electric motor once the LG-made battery (with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty) is spent.

What I did do was get a sense of its acceleration and handling, darting among banana yellow taxi cabs on the avenue.

The Volt's acceleration was perfectly pleasing. I'm no engineer, but you can probably chalk that up to its electric powertrain.

It's handling was also wonderful. For a sedan, it turns on a dime. That's not to say its turning radius is smaller than a Smart car by any means, but the Volt is fairly nimble, and I had no problem keeping up with leadfoot New York taxi drivers. As the previous owner of a small car, I appreciated this.

The Volt's suspension was moderately taut. It's not tuned for sport car-levels of rigidity, of course, but it doesn't roll around sloppily, either.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference from a driver's point of view between the Volt and any other comparable new car is the Volt's regenerative braking. As a driver, my braking habits tend to be on the light side -- in thick New York traffic, I don't dig into the pedal at each light, but slowly apply pressure until the vehicle is stopped. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, I "feather" the pedal lightly.

The Volt's brakes react differently to this. On any car, you expect the brakes to "grab" at some point, and each car is different as to how quickly that occurs. On the Volt, the brakes are very grabby, but the pedal continues to sink once that occurs to accommodate for the regenerative aspect, or so I was told. That's right -- you don't have that direct "no more grab to go" feeling, because the pedal has a bit more give.

It's a strange thing to get used to, and my first couple of intersections were a little jarring (sorry, guys!) as I got used to the pedal's idiosyncrasies. Again, it's hardly a dealbreaker, but it's another different aspect that might be a hurdle at the dealership.

But perhaps my biggest difficulty were the vehicle's digital displays.

The big question I had coming into this test drive was whether the Volt would be overly complex. In my opinion, its displays -- specifically the key one behind the steering wheel -- were quite confusing.

On a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle's instrument panel, you usually have seven items present in the gauge cluster, along with a series of warning lights that only come on when necessary.

Those items are, in order of importance (and usually size on the dash):

  • Speedometer: measures your speed.
  • Tachometer: measures your RPMs.
  • Fuel gauge
  • Oil pressure gauge
  • Temperature gauge
  • Odometer: measures distance driven.
  • Shift indicator: tells you when you're in Park, Neutral, Drive or another gear.

When you drive an automatic car, you generally pay attention to the speedometer and reference the others only when necessary, with the fuel gauge the most frequent. That's why those are usually the largest dials.

But on the Volt's display, there's a ton of information. It's not prioritized for quick-glance understanding and it's not in a conventional layout that helps bridge the gap between old and new.

Which brings me to another point: the reason we continue to use analog-style gauges in a digital world is because they're easily understood from an informational standpoint. We've had the ability to use digital speedometers for decades, but the mind has a harder time crunching raw data in the moment than referencing what is effectively an infographic.

On the screen I was using -- and there are many more to choose from, I should note, this being a digital display and all -- there was a bevy of information, all fighting for my attention. I didn't snap any photos during my drive, but here's a roundup of photos from elsewhere to demonstrate the many forms of the driver's info cluster.

Here's one from Motor Trend:

Another from Engadget:

And another from GM-Volt.com:

My point here is that there's way too much going on.

Take, for example, the fuel gauge. It's rendered in three dimensions to look cool, but that rounded effect makes it difficult to judge levels quickly while weaving in and out of city traffic.

The speedometer suffers a similar fate -- with all of the other notifications around it (and some can be turned off, I'll admit), it occurs to me that, in hindsight, I didn't really notice how fast I was going during my test drive. The simplicity of the traditional speed gauge is lost with all the other diagrams crowded around it.

Moreover, I never really understood the graph on the right -- a floating green orb that moves dynamically as you brake or accelerate. Most gauges tell you information you can't discern with your own five senses while driving -- speed, fuel, and so forth. But this gauge tells you exactly what you're doing with your feet. That, I don't understand.

In short: in trying to be different, GM confused me.

As I mentioned before, you can turn some of these options off, and I suppose it's nice that you have all of them in the first place. But it's also dangerous, and the default screen is fairly cluttered. In my opinion, GM could really use a user interface overhaul. It needs to design the complexity right out of the dash.

Finally, I have nothing to report on the charging front. As you might expect, taking the Volt home (and charging overnight for 10 hours with a 120-volt outlet) and taking it for a spin are two wholly different experiences, the former of which I was not privy to.

BOTTOM LINE

Driving the Volt was underwhelming -- and that's a good thing.

The challenge that GM has with this vehicle is that it needs to feel different enough to be exciting but normal enough not to scare off buyers. For the most part, it succeeds with the Volt, and the vehicle drives like an ultra-quiet version of any similarly-proportioned and priced vehicle in the Chevrolet stable. That's a huge win for a car that shares very few similarities under the hood with its gasoline-powered bretheren.

But there are differences in places that can turn off buyers. Most of them are cosmetic and a matter of preference (which, arguably, would be overruled by one's enthusiasm to buy an electric car), but the interface issues I had with the instrument panel are a complication that impacts operation of the vehicle. That's a problem.

Nevertheless, the big question remains thus: if the Volt's a good drive, is it worth its $40,000 price tag?

Some of you reading this will say yes. Some will vehemently say no.

Both groups are right. For some folks, the Volt is everything they want it to be: a solid electric car within financial reach for the first time. For others, it's far too expensive and exotic: "I wouldn't touch that thing with a 10-foot pole." But an $80,000 electric car paves the way for a $40,000 EV, which paves the way for a $20,000 EV. And so on.

In his review, ZDNet's Jason Perlow gets right to the heart of it: "This is a car for early adopters."

The good news is that it drives as fabulously as you might expect for a vehicle of this caliber, leaving only one decision to make: are you ready for an electric car?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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