2011 Chevrolet Volt
2011 Chevrolet Volt. Click image to enlarge
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Chevrolet Volt pre-production model

Vancouver, British Columbia – It’s coming to a GM dealership near you in the summer of 2011: the much talked about Chevrolet Volt electric car. Mass production will start at the end of 2010, but so far, only two road-ready Volts have been built, both hand-built prototypes using a modified Chevrolet Cruze platform. Though there’s still development work to be done, these Volt prototypes are close to production specs, and Autos was lucky enough to get behind the wheel this week in Vancouver.

Since the unveiling of the Volt concept car at the 2007 Detroit auto show, the Volt has played a key role in GM’s future plans. GM’s financial troubles and last year’s government bailouts conditional on the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles have raised the Volt’s profile to the point where it has now become a sort of saviour for the company. The Volt has probably received more publicity in the past few years than any car that’s never been in production. While it’s certain the Volt alone won’t save GM, it should help GM regain some of the environmental and technological high ground from Japanese hybrid cars.

The Volt is not a hybrid, and it’s not really an electric car either: it’s a battery-powered electric car with a small gasoline engine that acts as a generator to charge the battery when the charge gets low. GM calls it an “extended range electric vehicle”. The Volt’s gasoline engine never actually drives the front wheels – that function is performed by an electric motor. This is different to a full hybrid, such as the Toyota Prius, which has a battery/electric motor and a gasoline engine which can individually or jointly drive the front wheels.

2011 Chevrolet Volt
2011 Chevrolet Volt. Click image to enlarge

On electric power alone, the Volt can travel up to 64 kilometres, which is farther than most Canadians drive in a typical commute, according to GM. The key difference between the Volt and other electric cars is that drivers don’t have to worry about the battery running out of power. GM calls that “range anxiety”.

“With the Volt we have 64 km of range with the full charge, and even with something less than that, you don’t have that feeling of range anxiety because you always know that you’re going be able to get home,” said Tom Odell, Product Manager, Chevrolet Volt, General Motors of Canada. “The advantage it offers is that you’ll actually use the capacity: when shopping for an EV, people will ask for a 150-km range battery – so they’ll tow around all that weight and expense and not utilize it because it’s only there for insurance. Our insurance is the internal combustion engine (generator).”

While the Volt’s electric-only range is 64 km, the 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine adds up to 500 km more driving range, notes Odell.

2011 Chevrolet Volt
2011 Chevrolet Volt. Click image to enlarge

Production Volts will come with a charging cord that connects from a standard 110-volt outlet to a receptacle on the left front fender of the Volt. The Volt’s lithium-ion battery can be fully recharged in eight hours, usually overnight. An optional 240-volt charger and wall-mounted device will be available that can recharge a Volt in just three hours. But this will require homeowners to install special 240-volt chargers in their garages at extra cost, and those who don’t own a garage won’t have that option – at least for the time being. Odell says GM is working with condo associations and commercial builders to advise on charging facilities and some governments have already enacted legislation requiring multi-unit dwellings and apartment buildings to install charging outlets – as was recently done in Vancouver. BC Hydro recently created electric vehicle infrastructure installation guidelines for buildings.

One thing’s for sure: the cost of filling up a Volt with electricity will be less than the cost of gasoline for a standard vehicle or hybrid vehicle. At a cost of about 50 to 80 cents a day for a full charge, the Volt will be less expensive to recharge than purchasing a daily cup of java. At an estimated 10 cents per kilowatt hour, GM notes that an “electrically driven” mile in a Chevy Volt will cost about one-sixth compared to a conventional gasoline vehicle. As most Volts will be recharged at night, when electricity rates are lower, the costs could be even less.

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