Chevrolet Volt 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt
At a recent General Motors media event, GM "product czar" Bob Lutz wanted to be sure there wasn't any confusion. According to Lutz, the 2011 Chevy Volt is not a plug-in hybrid, but rather it is an extended-range electric vehicle (E-REV).

General Motors is determined to sell a E-REV before anyone else. That’s why it’s working flat-out to meet a self-imposed November 2010 deadline with the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. Among the most radical of GM’s near-term “green car” promises, the Volt is not just a symbolic “moon shot” for this beleaguered American company. It’s a grudge-match challenge to Toyota, which is poised to end GM’s 75-year reign as the world’s largest automaker, an achievement fueled in part by the Japanese brand’s big lead in hybrid technology and sales. As Larry Burns, GM vice president for research and development, told Car and Driver magazine, “Toyota creamed us on the Prius. It won’t happen again.” Yes, folks, this is personal.

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt will differ markedly from the Prius and other gasoline/electric hybrids. It will also differ in many ways from the racy-looking Volt concept unveiled at the January 2007 Detroit Auto Show. Since that big-buzz reveal, GM has gone out of its way to keep the media fully briefed on the production car’s progress. As a result, we now have a good many specifics about the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, though important questions remain.

For starters, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt will be a compact five-door sedan with front-wheel drive, four-passenger seating, and an external footprint like that of Chevrolet’s conventional Cobalt compact car. It will use GM’s new “Delta 2” global small-car platform, but will have unique styling and GM’s much-touted “E-Flex” powertrain architecture. E-Flex differs from existing hybrid systems that use a battery-powered electric motor as an adjunct to an internal combustion engine. Instead, the gas-fueled engine serves as a electricity generator and battery charger and is not connected to the drive wheels. Technically speaking, the Volt is thus an electric vehicle (EV) as well as a “serial hybrid.” The Toyota Prius and similar vehicles are termed “parallel hybrids.”

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt will be one of the first retail-market vehicles to use state-of-the-art lithium-ion (LI) batteries instead of the older and more common nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) type. LI batteries store more energy in less space, which is why they’re used in cell phones, laptop computers, and other small devices that need ample juice. They’re also faster to recharge. These advantages are naturally attractive for an electric car, but LI batteries have never been used on this scale, and devising suitable cells has been the major challenge in bringing the Volt to market.

GM is currently evaluating batteries from two joint ventures, A123 Systems/Continental AG and Compact Power/LG Chem. Chemistry is the main difference: so-called nanophosphate for the former, magnesium for the latter. Accelerated lab tests are now underway to determine which type better satisfies eight GM criteria, including energy density, extreme-temperature performance, materials, and cost. The choice should be announced by mid to late 2009.

Incidentally, these competing chemistries differ completely from that of the Sony LI batteries that made scare headlines by causing some laptop computers to overheat and even catch fire. The batteries in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt are thus expected to be quite safe, though they, too, must be kept within a specific temperature range. The Volt has a separate liquid-cooling system for that purpose.

The battery pack itself, rated at 16 kilowatts/hour, comprises more than 220 separate cells wired in series. That means the failure of any one cell disables the entire array, though some existing hybrid vehicles also have this flaw. The Volt pack is about six feet long and weighs a hefty 375 pounds. As in GM’s early-1990s EV1 pure-electric vehicle, it mounts in T-formation with the “leg” running beneath the center tunnel and the top situated crosswise under the rear seats. The latter precludes a middle back-seat position, but does allow spreading the outboard seats further apart than usual. For convenience, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt will include an “intelligent” control module that allows plugging in to either 120- or 240-volt household circuits. GM estimates the Volt's battery can be charged in less than three hours via a 240-volt outlet, or in about eight hours with a 120-volt outlet.

As for the battery-charger engine, it’s said to be an existing four-cylinder GM unit of 1.4 liters displacement. Two versions may appear: one running on gasoline and tuned to PZEV (partial-zero emissions vehicle) standards, the other capable of using E85 ethanol and tuned to looser ULEV (ul tra-low-emissions vehicle) levels. A small diesel engine could also be used, and was in the recent Opel Flextreme concept, but GM says it has no immediate plans to offer this.

Various reports indicate that electronic controls in the 2011 Chevrolet Volt will fire up the gas engine once the battery pack runs down to 30-percent power, then keep cycling the engine to maintain power within a specified band. GM estimates the Volt’s total driving range at 640 miles, which is about double that of most conventional hybrids.

GM also claims the 2011 Chevrolet Volt can run solely on electric power for 40 miles with a full battery charge. That’s in line with studies showing that most Americans drive only about 40 miles a day, so in theory at least, a Volt could go for weeks without using a drop of gas or spewing any CO2. But some analysts think the real-world electric range will be closer to 30 miles and probably less, depending on vehicle speed, ambient temperature (which affects battery performance), and whether trips include steep grades. Like conventional hybrids, however, the Volt incorporates a regenerative-braking feature that helps recharge the batteries when coasting or decelerating.

Powertrain aside, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt is fairly ordinary. Indeed, GM is reportedly trying to use as many off-the-shelf components as possible to offset the costly batteries and related systems in an effort to keep delivered price reasonable. That’s why the Volt shares a platform with conventional GM compacts and will likely be built alongside some of them in the company’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant. Cost concerns also explain an orthodox coil-spring suspension with front struts and a simple twist-beam rear axle located by trailing arms. Appropriate for a “volts-wagon,” the steering is electrically operated, albeit designed for minimal power consumption. The brakes are electro-hydraulic, with “by-wire” activation and a normal fluid reservoir for antilock control and antiskid/traction control.

GM unveiled the production Volt during the company's 100th Anniversary celebration in September 2008. Against the low-slung 2007 concept, which insiders nicknamed the “Electric Camaro,” the production model has a longer, smoother nose and greater windshield slant, but is otherwise similar, especially in back. Some observers feel the Volt bears a family resemblance to the midsize 2008 Chevrolet Malibu and it does have a similar “twin-cowl” dashboard. GM says many of the exterior changes were made to reduce air drag and thus maximize driving range. The concept Volt was apparently drawn without much regard to aerodynamics, and proved very disappointing when tested in the GM wind tunnel. Company design chief Ed Wellburn claims the final design reduces the concept’s drag coefficient by 30 percent, and a statement by Bob Lutz implies a value of around 0.25, impressively low for a four-seat sedan.

It’s clear that GM views the 2011 Chevrolet Volt as a potential game-changer for the entire auto industry. After all, the E-Flex architecture is designed so that the gas engine can be replaced by a hydrogen fuel cell, once those are ready. But it’s equally clear that GM is throwing all the money and resources it can at the Volt program just so it can one-up Toyota with an extended-range electric car. Yet the Volt is unlikely to make money right away, and GM could even be forced to subsidize the price to pump-prime the market. Later on, of course, the Volt could pay off big in both prestige and profits, much as the Prius has for Toyota.

In any case, GM knows it will eat a lot of crow if it misses its deadline, which could happen if there’s an unexpected delay with the batteries. But all involved express confidence that the Volt will be on time, if not on budget. As Bob Lutz recently told Wired magazine: “November 2010 is our internal target. We are holding the team’s feet to the fire...[T]here is no doubt you’d like to be able to leapfrog Toyota and come out with a car they aren’t ready to do. There’s nothing magic about the technology. Two or three years after the Volt is introduced, everybody will have something like it. We’d just like to be first for once... If we pull it off successfully, it can really put us back at the top of the heap of automotive technology instead of being called laggards that are being left behind by the Germans and the Japanese... If it doesn’t work, it’s not fatal. But if it does work, it will be sensational...”

Maybe so, Bob. We shall see.

2011 Chevrolet Volt
Against the low-slung 2007 concept, the production model has a longer, smoother nose and greater windshield slant, but is otherwise similar, especially in back.

A Notable Feature of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt

The Volt may have a very different powertrain, but GM wanted to make it drive like any other Chevrolet. For example, although there’s no transmission per se, the Volt will have an ordinary mechanical shift lever on the center console, which GM says was chosen to help conserve power versus an electrically operated selector, as on the Prius. For the same reason, windshield wipers, air conditioning, stereo, and other accessories have been redesigned so they will also drain less juice than those in conventional cars. Though such “redundant systems” add to development costs and thus sticker price, they reflect GM’s desire that consumers see the Volt as no less practical than any other car.

Buying Advice for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt

Despite its alleged game-changing technology, the Volt will face a growing number of “clean-tech” vehicles selling for the same or less money, including not just hybrids but also diesel-engine models. In particular, it will compete with a redesigned version of the Toyota Prius that’s expected in January 2009 as an early 2010 entry. Sources say the third-generation Prius will be somewhat larger yet lighter than today’s version, will offer better performance with higher fuel economy, and will boast a longer electric-only driving range despite retaining NiMH batteries and Toyota’s basic Hybrid Synergy Drive system. Moreover, word is the Prius will switch to LI batteries around 2010, then add plug-in capability as early as 2011. With all this, buyers will want to weigh all the “green car” options with regard to initial cost versus “time to payback” and perhaps net environmental impact. On those counts, one analyst has concluded the Volt would fare much worse than conventional hybrids even in best-case driving scenarios, taking decades instead of several years to recoup its purchase price in fuel costs and reduced emissions. It’s something to think about.

2011 Chevrolet Volt Release Date: As noted, GM insists the Volt will be ready by November 2010, but it’s unclear whether sales will begin then or later. According to two websites ( and, the Detroit-Hamtramck plant will close in May 2009 to retool for Volt production, reopening in late September or early October. Those sources also say that first-year assemblies will be capped at around 10,000 units, a fairly slow pace presumably chosen to allow for any needed debugging of the car and/or its production processes. That means only select Chevy dealers will have Volts to sell in the 2011 model year, likely larger stores in major metro markets. After that, however, production reportedly ramps up to around 100,000 a year--or whatever the market will bear.

2011 Chevrolet Volt First Test Drive: GM has treated the media to several Volt technical briefings since the early-2007 concept reveal, and more are likely before announcement day. Assuming no surprise program delays, the first “ride-and-drive” events could be held in summer or early fall of 2010.

2011 Chevrolet Volt Prices: GM first projected the Volt’s base price at around $30,000, but has since upped the estimate to $35,000. And some sources believe the final tab will be more like $40,000, rather steep for a compact Chevrolet. Why so much? Apparently because GM underestimated the cost of the high-tech batteries and other Volt-specific components. The wild card is whether the company might be willing to take a loss by subsidizing the price down to the original $30K target--and if so, for how long.

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