The Chevrolet Volt on Pier 92. (Jim Motavalli photo)
I have been covering the evolution of the Chevrolet Volt since the curtain was first whisked away at the Detroit Auto Show in 2007. At that time, General Motors was starting its slide into bankruptcy, but the automaker never slackened in prioritizing the Volt as job number one for the company's fortunes. The persistence finally seems to be paying off, because the Volt's debut is imminent in a reborn (but hardly out of the woods) GM.
Will the Volt be a home run for a company that really needs one? It depends on how you define the term. Will its massive sales revitalize what was once the world's pre-eminent auto company? I strongly doubt it. Will its modest success help rebuild GM's badly tarnished reputation for innovation? That I'm much more sanguine about.
On the eve of the New York International Auto Show (April 2-11), GM brought the Volt (along with the new "Eco" version of the Cruze world car) to Pier 92 in Manhattan for a brief but exhilarating test drive. We took it up and down ramps at the pier, and through a cone course or two. I've driven "mule" versions of the Volt before, but this car was one of 80 pre-production prototypes built for durability testing, and it was very close to what will roll off the assembly line in Detroit-Hamtramck (still pre-production, but very close to final) starting this very week.
The conditions didn't exactly reproduce real driving, but I was behind the wheel long enough to get the sense that the Volt will be very fun to drive, and probably more performance-oriented than most people will expect. It's kind of fast, especially off the line. The Volt is a battery car whose gas motor is just there to generate electricity, and it's so quiet that GM had to add a horn-type noise when you pull the turn signal stalk. When the gas engine engages the car will undoubtedly be noisier. The car has 40 miles of all electric range, then the gas engine/generator kicks in to provide another 300 miles.
The car has a particularly nice dashboard/display combination that I hadn't seen before. Colorful graphics display how much range until empty, and also inform the driver if they're operating the car efficiently. As in the Prius, you can check your car's mode in real time, but the Volt does it with a display that Steve Jobs would sign off on. The controls are activated with little buttons that might prove difficult to find by feel, but nonetheless have a Danish modern appeal. Here's a video tour of the almost-ready-for-prime-time Volt:
There's still no word about what the Volt will cost--that may not arrive until near the car's year-end launch (in three markets initially, Washington, DC, Michigan and California). "We may announce a few more locations, but these are our initial focus," said Britta Gross, GM's manager of electric and hydrogen infrastructure.
According to Gross, GM hasn't decided if and when it will start taking orders for the Volt. The car will go to selected dealers, and GM itself hasn't compiled any kind of advance reservations (as Nissan has done for the Leaf).
This month California started offering EV owners $5,000 rebates, a deal almost as lucrative as the "Cash for Clunkers" program. There is also a $7,500 federal tax credit, but the rebates are cash in owner's pockets, and can also be useful to recruit government agencies and nonprofit groups that don't pay taxes. "Incentives are very good," said Gross, "but we haven't studied the California program yet. What we really want to see is community readiness: Do people locally understand EVs and what they mean? Is there someone locally to help explain them? Is there an effort to streamline the permitting process, for charger installations so it takes a few days instead of a month?"
Gross said she'd be glad to hear from communities that will roll out the welcome mat for the Volt and its EV ilk. If your community qualifies, I'd be happy to put the two of you in touch.
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