Jun 8, 2008

Bob Lutz Drives the Volt, Calls It 'Electrifying'

Bob Lutz, the guy cracking the whip to make sure the Chevrolet Volt gets built by 2010, spent some time behind the wheel of a Volt test mule and couldn't resist the obvious pun, calling it "electrifying."

GM's engineers have been flogging the mules -- known formally as "engineering development vehicles" -- pretty hard for a couple of months now and they've got the lithium-ion batteries and electric drivetrain pretty much sorted. Lutz finally got a chance to take one of the range-extended electric vehicles for a spin and notes on his blog, "While the car is still most definitely a work in progress, the thrill of driving electrically -- that instant, silent torque -- is certainly present and accounted for."

Of course, you'd expect Maximum Bob to sing the Volt's praises. He's all but pinned GM's future on it and considers it the auto industry's moon shot. Hyperbole aside, General Motors is serious about selling this car. The only questions are how many it will build and how much they'll cost.

General Motors has finally realized that SUVs are a dead end and is shifting its focus to small cars. The board of directors -- which has already said it's willing to take a few years' losses on the Volt -- has given the car the green light for production and allocated the money to put it in showrooms by the end of 2010. There was never any doubt the Volt would be built, but the board's decision sets it in stone.

Everything we've heard suggests the Volt will start out as a low-volume vehicle like on the order of 30,000 units. GM concedes it won't be building them by the hundreds of thousands for awhile yet, but promises the Volt won't be a one-off vehicle like the EV1. "It's definitely not a niche product, but the numbers are still being rounded into shape," spokesman Robert Peterson told Wired.com. The goal is to make it a global model and a centerpiece of the Chevrolet brand.

How much you'll pay for one remains an open question, and one answered by the price of the lithium ion batteries. "They're over $1,000 a kilowatt hour," Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC-Davis, told Wired.com. "The Volt battery is 16 kilowatt hours. That's $16,000 just for the battery."

When Lutz unveiled the Volt at the Detroit auto show in 2007, he said it would go for about $30,000. That number has steadily climbed as time's gone on, driven in part by the need to develop a stereo and navigation system, wipers and other accessories that won't drain the car's Li-ion battery. All sorts of numbers have been tossed around, from $35,000 up, but all Peterson will say is GM wants the car to be "affordable."

The Volt is not an electric car like the EV1. It uses a lithium ion battery that, during testing, has provided a full electric range of 40 miles. Beyond that, a small gasoline engine drives a generator that charges the batteries on the fly; you also can plug it in to 110-volt household outlet. The electric drivetrain, coupled with the internal combustion engine, give the car an expected range of 640 miles.

GM is testing batteries from Continental and A123 Systems and hasn't decided which company will get the nod. "There's a chance it could be both," Peterson says, adding that GM's goal is to offer a battery that'll last 10 years or 150,000 miles.

There's still a lot of work to do, as Lutz notes. "The 'test mule' I drove -- a previous generation Malibu -- wasn't calibrated properly, and there are an awful lot of tests that this battery must pass before it's cleared for production."

We're still waiting to see what the car will look like. GM hasn't said when it will unveil the production model, but we're betting on seeing it at the Detroit Auto Show in January. For what it's worth, Aaron Bragman over at Global Insight has seen a model and tells us, "The production car looks much closer to a Saturn Ion. The front end looks kind of like a Saab, kind of like an Ion. The tail is still high. It looks a little BMW-esque."

Photo by General Motors.

No comments:

Post a Comment