When General Motors introduced its unique new 2011 Chevrolet Volt to the media in October, the technical achievement the Volt represents was overshadowed by a flap over what to call a car that has been difficult to categorize in conventional terms since GM first showed it as a concept vehicle in January 2007.
When GM engineers finally let loose all of the details, it turned out the Volt works a little differently than GM had described over the past three-plus years of the car’s development, when the company continually referred to it as an “extended-range electric vehicle.”
As the automotive media got to really poke around under the hood — more precisely, see remarkable 3-D graphics depicting the Volt’s complex “gasoline-electric” drivetrain at work — a significant new point was revealed: under a very narrow range of operating conditions, the Volt’s small gasoline engine does in fact help to directly power the Volt’s drive wheels.
To most, this matter is inconsequential. The Volt still does what it was designed to do: drive a substantial range (up to 40 miles) powered strictly by electricity stored in its advanced lithium-ion batteries. Recharging happens only by plugging-in the Volt to the electric grid. Drive within the battery’s range after every full recharge and you’ll never use a drop of gasoline.
But throughout the Volt’s development, GM had insisted the car’s gasoline engine only did one thing: to create electricity that keeps the Volt going once the battery charge is depleted, acting as an onboard generator and allowing you to keep driving upwards of 300 miles beyond the battery-only range. This eliminates the major drawback of pure electric vehicles: once the batteries run dry, you’re not going anywhere until you can devote hours to a recharge.
Finding out that the Volt’s gasoline engine does more than generate electricity and also can be mechanically connected with the Continuously Variable Transmission in effect changes the description to something GM likely wanted to avoid: the design makes the Volt a lot more like the hybrid-electric cars, such as Toyota Prius, than the totally different, “extended-range electric vehicle” GM has long called the Volt.
The press, which has breathlessly covered every new Volt development GM aggressively and proactively shared over the course of nearly four years, felt hoodwinked. Some techno-junkies who plunked down deposits thinking they were buying a true electric car with a gasoline-engine “range extender” might claim a certain betrayal, too.
But in reality, the fact that the Volt’s gasoline engine can in some instances be hooked to the wheels is a trivial point. Yes, what we now know about the Volt’s drivetrain design means it more accurately could be described as a plug-in hybrid. But it’s much more than that.
Here’s one way to look at it: the Volt is a hybrid that has much more battery capacity than any other hybrid on the road. Drive it daily in the 25-to-40-mile range of its battery energy, then recharge and the gasoline engine never needs to fire up. It’s an electric car.
Hybrids, such as the Prius or the Ford Fusion Hybrid, are designed virtually the opposite: their gasoline engines are almost always responsible for propelling the car, while on rare occasions they can move solely and for very short distances powered only by their electric motors.
Chevrolet’s $40,820 Volt is a hybrid, but not like any hybrid we’ve yet seen. Think of it as an electric-centric hybrid that uses gasoline not as the main ingredient in the recipe — only as a spice. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters
Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010