The Chevy Volt: The Belt and Suspenders of the Automotive World

Reader Contribution by David Borden
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In this guest series, former hot-rodder and mechanical engineer David Borden offers advice for first-time electric-vehicle drivers by reviewing the 2017 Chevy Volt Premier. Watch the Green Transportation Blog for David’s additional notes.

In keeping with my cautious and frugal Yankee heritage and senior status, I am slowly transitioning to a single car. As an interim step, I bought a 2017 Chevrolet Volt Premier with two optional safety and convenience packages, and these are my initial impressions.

I would have liked to have made the change directly to a single fully-electric vehicle, but the limited number of charging stations available today, and the time required to recharge, meant compromises were in order. The majority of my trips are urban short-haul in nature, but I still need the occasional run across several states to visit friends and family, so jumping to total electric power was not prudent. I needed range which was not limited by the current availability of plug-in recharging stations.

The Volt met that criterion: As long as the propulsion battery is charged, it will function as an electric car — for a guaranteed 53 miles — and then transition to a gasoline-powered hybrid, using the propulsion battery as an energy buffer. With that capability, range is extended by several hundred miles and only limited by the availability of gasoline, hence the Chevrolet name for the IC Engine, “Range Extender”.

Advice for First-Time Electric Vehicle Drivers

If you haven’t driven an Electric Vehicle (EV) before, it is a new experience. Different, but similar enough so that transition from a “normal” car is easy. There is no key; slip the fob provided into your pocket, slide behind the wheel, buckle up, and “boot-up” the computer …

Wait, wait, come back! No need to be scared of it, because the command is transmitted through a normal-looking, large, blue button on the dash labeled “Power” — a starter button just like Grandad had in his 1950 Ford. Push the button (with your foot on the brake), and both screens flash and all manner of icons illuminate as the computer awakens and checks the car’s systems for correct function.

The screen in front of the driver is circular, reminiscent of every analog speedometer we’ve ever viewed, and has two large arc gauges displaying fuel levels and digital readouts of estimated range remaining. Speed is displayed digitally. This pod also displays alerts affecting safe operation and is directly in front of the driver; it comes easily to eye while driving. The large centered screen to the right answers to commands and displays “nice to have” information and the rear-view TV image.

The point is that modern cars, like our driving environment, need to be and are necessarily complex. Small process control computers integrated into the auto now help us master modern driving.

Keeping Volt Batteries Charged and Issues of Range

I use the supplied 110VAC Charger to keep the propulsion batteries charged.  It is a simple matter to pull into my parking spot and plug-in, letting the vehicle charge overnight or until the next time it is used. The on-board computer controls the charging cycle, and no other input or action is required. (I don’t know if keeping the batteries continually “topped-off” has a beneficial effect, or if the computer considers my typical driving cycle and weather, but as of late the charged range estimate shown on the instrument panel is between 68 and 70 miles! Actual use tends to confirm this.)

For the first 1,000 miles, I have driven predominantly on the stored battery power — I have only needed the Range Extender twice, and I have used less than a gallon of gas. Repeat: Less than a gallon of gas in the first 1000 miles! (I anticipate receiving “Get Well Soon, Dave” cards from Texas and Saudi Arabia!)

When the propulsion batteries are drawn down to a pre-determined level, the Range Extender fires up automatically, and will propel the car until all gasoline is used.  Since there are gasoline stations available on most corners, there is no such thing as the oft cited and feared, “Range Anxiety” with this car.

All design involves compromise, and cars are a great example of the various trade-offs that are required to produce a marketable product. The choices Chevrolet has made for the Volt are excellent. There are a whole series of excellent videos on YouTube made by Chevrolet Engineers, which go into great detail about the power plants (there are two) and transmission wizardry, and the tremendous technology we as customers are getting. Accepted.

But, my analogy is, “If I’m buying an axe, do I really care about where the shaft wood was grown, and how they forged the head”? No, what I care about is how it works, and this car works well. Some may think that’s lazy, but I depend upon market forces in this emerging market segment to drive the technology. True competition is a lovely thing for us consumers!

Chevy Volt’s ground clearance

Notes on Volt Body Design

The first compromise is in the shape of the car. For efficiency, today’s cars must pass through the air easily, which results in the “Melted Lozenge” designs which characterize modern automobiles. Smooth, aerodynamic lines with heavy wind-tunnel influence — the ideal shapes that every fifth-grade boy intuitively knew were correct and filled his copy books with.

The front, a bullet nose flattened and shaped to enter still air smoothly and guide it around, under, and over the car. The rear, faired to pass the air on with minimal effort and truncated in a flat surface as dictated by Dr. Kamm.

Windshield and rear window glass heavily sloped to cut aero losses and sealed flat with the surrounding bodywork. A four-door because the market segment the car is aimed at are families, and it has a hatch back and foldable rear seats for access and utility, again to meet a family’s needs. Sounds great — until we get to the compromises.

Design Not Without Compromise

First, you are now sitting deep in an enveloping structure. Safe, secure, womb-like, but the old ideal of seeing all four fenders from the driver’s seat is only a hazy memory in this car. Chevrolet apparently recognized this shortcoming and has utilized emerging technology (from autonomous car development?) to help the driver.

For 30-plus years, engineers have been using computers to optimize engine performance, sampling variables and using on-board control to limit fuel consumption and maximize horsepower. Now, this car’s computer also supplements the driver’s field of vision with a series of sensors around the waist of the car intended to warn the driver of objects that are too close, fore and aft. It warns of cross traffic, overtaking vehicles and idiots lurking in your blind spots.

And, to help with a reduced rear view, the car has a TV system which displays guide lines on the central screen indicating distance to objects and field of travel. The wizardry includes “Path of Travel” adjustments to the guide lines — while in reverse gear, turns to the steering wheel bend and curve the guide lines on the TV to indicate course of travel. Neat solution and confidence building.

The platform is stiff and rigid, giving a road feel much like much heavier luxury cars of the past. Kudos to those who designed the unibody structure and worked out the joining techniques; the car plays well above its weight class.

There are costs to obtaining that stiffness: The side sill step-over is wide, and the rear hatch lift-over height is very high. Upon reflection, both are acceptable. The sill width is easily made familiar, and the rear hatch lip is no higher than an average shopping cart; most grocery shoppers won’t be troubled by the height.

The doors shut with a satisfying “thunk”, which I associate with luxury cars costing much more than this. I think Harley Earl and the boys at Fisher Body would approve of the quality feel. Similarly, the application of power is smooth and continuous, and I’m sure the GM designers who labored long and hard to design and build smooth automatic transmissions — the fellows who developed “Hydramatic”, “Dynaflow”, and “Powerglide” — were they to come back and drive this car would all say, “Yeah, that’s the stuff”.  A nod also to those responsible for the Front Wheel Drive Geometry. The car has a very tight turning radius, and displays no “torque steer” under acceleration.

Door weight may be due to side beams — the car is highly rated by independent testing labs in collision tests. It’s rated a safe car. By my count, there are no less than nine airbags within the cabin, which is a very good thing. But it comes with a cost: The space above the two front doors where once there would have been an assist handle is now occupied by an airbag. I have enough personal frame impairments to miss having the handle and find myself reaching up onto the roof and grabbing the drain channel to aid egress.  (Can’t help but wonder how I’ll fare come the first snowfalls.)

Also, my same physical problems require a modified entry method: I back up to the car’s door opening, bend forward and sit on the seat, bring my frame erect within the cabin, then turn, swinging my legs into the car. Until I got used to the low door opening height, I bumped my head on the frame — and I still do occasionally.

It must be noted that the “B” pillar immediately behind the driver is substantial, and looks to give great roof support. Gone are the days of structurally weak, four-door hardtops without a “B” pillar! Good riddance! I would expect this car to perform well in side-impact and rollover testing, and real-life situations.

The rear seats fold down in what looks to be a 60/40 split, and the hatch opens wide, increasing the usefulness of the car. It is obviously not a light truck or a 1970s station wagon capable of carrying sheets of plywood, but it handles modest items and sacks of groceries, feed and fertilizer quite nicely. We found that with the rear seats upright the trunk accepted a notoriously bulky item, a folding Travel Wheel Chair, easily.

There is a side panel cubby for charger storage, and the car came with a fabric luggage cover to hide trunk contents. The hatch has a convenient hand grab to allow it to be easily closed and has pneumatic assist cylinders for easy opening.

Stay tuned in about one week for additional notes in Part 2.

Dave Borden is a reformed hot-rodder with an abiding interest in things mechanical and “Green”. He has been a “Mother’s Lifer” for 40 years. He was trained as a mechanical engineer, but never let that restrict his curiosity, enjoying careers in turboshaft engine design and development, before acquiring his MBA and working in small business consulting and mortgage banking.  His hobby has been construction for many years, and he lives on Boston’s North Shore with his wife of 50 years and a dedicated Dachshund in a south-facing house he built with the help of many excellent friends.

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