GM’s reputation on line with Volt

Imagine never having to visit a gas station again. That’s a distinct possibility with the Chevrolet Volt, GM’s answer to standard hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. The latter are “parallel” hybrids that operate by constantly switching back and forth between an electric motor and a regular gasoline engine. The electric motor operates at low speeds around town but requires the gasoline engine for the heavy lifting at highway speeds.

By comparison, the Chevrolet Volt is a “series” hybrid that operates entirely on its electric motor for the first 64 kilometres. It burns no gasoline during that run, drawing power from a 400-pound lithium-ion battery pack that’s good for 16 kilowatt-hours (kWh). Current from that pack powers a 150-horsepower electric motor that drives the Volt’s front wheels. According to GM’s research, more than two-thirds of daily commutes are less than 64 kilometres so that in theory, A Volt owner could drive back and forth to work every day, plug the car in to an ordinary household electrical source overnight (it takes about 8 hours to re-charge the unit) and never visit a gas station again. Furthermore, that overnight charge could cost as little as one dollar.

But what if you want to go farther than 64 kilometres? The Volt is also equipped with a 1.4-litre flex-fuel gasoline/ethanol engine that is used to drive a generator that re-charges the batteries to give you an additional 480 kilometre range.

General Motors really shook up the industry when it unveiled the prototype Volt at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. Most auto insiders at that time felt the Volt was more smoke than substance given that there was no supplier of lithium-ion batteries at that time. But GM stuck to its guns, insisting that the Volt will go on sale in November 2010, a deadline that seems more believable now that Volt prototypes are actually running.

The production Volt doesn’t look anything like the sexy, low-slung concept car. This is a regular compact 5-door sedan that looks more like a Chevrolet Malibu than something from outer space. It provides a perfectly conventional ride for four adults and drives like any conventional sedan. One difference is that electric motors don’t have to spool up revs to reach maximum torque. Maximum power is available from zero rpm. In fact, it may require some de-tuning in the future to make acceleration less abrupt. As it is, the Volt will have a top speed of 160 km/h and reach 100 km/h in under nine seconds. The anticipated price of around $45,000 may seem a bit steep until you start adding up the cost of gasoline you won’t ever have to buy. And of course, less gas means less pollution, so the Volt could be the ultimate win-win situation.

There’s more at stake here than simply the launch of a new alternate powered passenger car. For the first half of the 20th century, General Motors was the acknowledged leader in automotive technology. This is the company that introduced the first electric-ignition system; the first self-starter; the first fully automatic transmission; the first speedometer; the first rear turn signals; the first anti-lock brake system; the first electronic fuel injection and on and on. With this groundbreaking new electric power technology, GM is putting its reputation on the line in an all-out attempt to leapfrog Toyota and reclaim its position as the world’s leading automotive innovator.