Wednesday, March 31, 2010

NJEAA members review the Chevy Volt

Three drivers, three very different opinions: these Volt reviews were posted to the New Jersey Electric Auto Association's mailing list following our test-drive on Monday, and I had to share them here!

Peter Crisitello
owner, 1994 Chevy S-10 EV conversion and six original antique EV's

To me, the Volt comes across as most GM vehicles do; the product of a committee. Take one from column B, two from column A, throw in a few more columns, hash it out among the committee and make it match a long line of surveys slanted to the company’s forethought on the matter. Yes the Volt does look like something that will sell to the masses and fit a unique niche in the current market. I would say it fits a well-worn pattern that will meet the needs of its marketed group and fulfill the dealership's service department expectations as well as that of the oil companies.
It looks like the committee has done its work well, and the car does come across as an easily handled appliance. One concern I have is that, while the initial 40 or so miles are pure electric drive, after the batteries are depleted to a certain point the onboard engine kicks in -- not to recharge the batteries but to generate the voltage directly to drive the electric motor. This boosts the initial 40 mile range to an expected 300 miles or so -- until the gas runs out in the (currently unspecified in size) gas tank.

You will still need a charging station and 8 or so hours (@ 110V) to recharge your batteries, at this point. Yes, the motor only inputs electric, making this fit the pattern of an EV and not a hybrid, but the source of the power changes from a green source (stored batteries) to a standard CO2-emitting pollution source (a much-too-big 4-cylinder engine). This, I can assume, appeases the oil companies and gives them a veil of respectability in the process.

In my test drive, I did get a good feel for how the car handled most situations. I noted that the others I shared this test with tended to push for the pickup and go aspect of driving, as most drivers tend to nowadays. When I got my chance behind the wheel, I specifically drove like a little old lady on her way to Sunday church. The low center of gravity due to the placement of the power pack gave this vehicle good road feel and positive traction, even though we tested on a rain slick roadway. The aerodynamics of the body cut through the air at both high speeds and low with little resistance and attested to the committee approach in its design.
Now comes my dislike for modern cars. Tech seems to have taken over and the driver is just an afterthought in the process. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer the feel of the road in a vehicle I have control over to a fly-by-wire attitude where my control is interpreted by a computer for its idea of optimum performance. I like real gauges, not a computer generated image of a gauge that changes as the mode of the drive dictates. To me, a radio has two knobs and a few pre-selected channel buttons; it's not the multi media gizmo that inhabited the center section of the dash. The form-fitting seats and harness lessened the enjoyability of the drive and -- as with most modern cars -- entry and exit was a contortionist’s nightmare.
The displacement and overall size of the Volt is not too different than that of my 1960 Studebaker Lark, which is considered one of the first compact post-war automobiles. However, the driving experience was by no means even close. I wish GM well in this endeavor nonetheless, and hope the outcome is better than their EV1 project a decade ago.

Doug Stansfield, owner, converted electric 1993 Hyundai Tiburon and Transatlantic Electric Conversions                                                                                        currently NJEAA President and Board member of the national Electric Auto Association 

Observations and Reservations

1) Good pickup acceleration.

2) Nice video style instrumentation. I appreciate the old style, but giving me visual images and interactivity is key in today's world. I didn’t test the graphics much so can’t vouch for the total functionality without more time in the vehicle.

3) inside out wiper blades...pretty cool.

4) Good battery placement down center console for the traction pack.

5) Reasonable trunk/storage area – might want to move the back seats into this area however to give passengers more seating room.


1) Lousy body styling....looks like the old 1990s buick line to me....nothing new here and is totally forgettable.

2) no back seat room and it is a true 4 door car

3) still has gas (big deal to me)

4) still doesn't look like it is ready for prime time yet. Can’t get past the fact that they have already made 50 or 100 of these? The thing had lots of things that need fixing already.

5) shifter recedes into a compartment that can crush your fingers if you aren't watching what you are doing....GM says they will be changing that before launch...? That’s good!!! On schedule for the end of this year.....10,000 production run? In my eyes? Doubtful. At least they had two working prototypes.

Overall, this car is not ready for prime time. The electric motor is great and it will give you 40 miles of EV range. After that you are back into gas mode and burning gas like a champ. There is plenty of room for more batteries to give this baby even more EV-only range according to the cutout display if you lost the gas tank and gas generation motor which is a 4 cylinder beast. Since I can make a Prius go 50 miles of EV only range now, this isn't so technologically brilliant. It is a step in the right direction and I am really hoping that they can launch this in a realistic price range. They are saying $40,000. For this car, that is way too much. Its sister gas car equivalent will only come in the $19,000 to $20,000 range. Thus, an extra $20,000 or so for Electric? They still haven't got the economics of this right yet and positioning and marketing support are key to selling this thing. Price it wrong and this product will be a loser at a time when it desperately needs to be a winner!

Sai Sankar 

mechanical engineer specializing in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle design

currently designing modular hybrid vehicle conversion kit for heavy trucks and pickups at Fairleigh Dickinson University's School of Automotive Enterprise Studies


Overall Appearance:

Though the vehicle seems quite coherent, it lacks anything remarkable and isn't really a head-turner. The basic shape seems to be that of the Prius (now also adopted by the Honda Insight) due to the aerodynamic benefits. The car's looks have been significantly tuned down from the initial show car that turned heads and engineering realties seem to have taken precedence over stunning looks. A pity since this car is supposed to be GM's game-changer. The design, though well thought out, seems dated and often boring. An also-ran subcompact sedan. Its close gas cousin the Cruze seems to look much more appealing in contrast.

Appearance Grade: B+


I think the vehicle handles really well, keeps its weight really low (very Corvette like) and has a crisp and and firm road feel(unlike the Vette). The electric power steering pump and controls seem to do a good job and the steering feels firmly attached to the vehicle, unlike some vehicles with electric power steering I have driven.

The regen system seemed to be mild and acceptable in "Drive" and heavier but amiable in "Low". I found the regen characteristic very friendly unlike the Mini E which seemed to have a very heavy regen presence, whenever you took your foot off the gas.

Handling Grade: A+

Acceleration and Power Delivery:

The vehicle accelerates very smoothly and is quite similar to the acceleration i have seen on most DSP controlled EVs. The fly-by-wire throttle has been programmed pretty well and the throttle seemed pretty responsive. In the "Sport" mode, which is activated by one of the few switches GM has on the vehicle (the rest is touch-sensitive), the vehicle's peak voltage and voltage ramp seems to increase and the vehicle can both hit higher speeds faster and can accelerate at a much higher rate. The inherently high starting torque in the vehicle's motor has been tamed by GM's engineers and I really have to salute their work on that aspect.

Acceleration Grade: A+

Noise Vibration and Harshness (NVH):

As with several new GM products (like Buicks and especially the Buick Enclave) I have driven in the past 2-3 years, the Volt is quiet, controlled, doesn't shudder and insulates well from road noise. The engine mounts seem to be done well and can handle and control the starting torque and a whole range of speeds (including the "Sport" mode) pretty well.

NVH Grade: A+

User Friendliness:

This is where there is a sudden twist in the fairy tale. The Volt is a a compact car and makes you feel you are in one, as soon as you step in (unlike other small cars like the Honda Fit). I first rode in the car as a passenger and was cramped in the back seat with my head almost scraping the roof fabric (I'm 6' tall). The first driver of our test car was about 6'2" tall and when he was seated comfortably in the driver seat, I couldn't exit the car without looking like a total idiot. My knees touched the back of the driver seat and there was no legroom whatsoever. The seat cushions were way too thick and that ate up a lot of space and made the car look smaller on the inside. The trunk space was a little too large and GM seems to feel the need to provide more trunk space in exchange for cramped rear seat space.

The touch screen looked fantastic at first, but then turned into a complete annoyance, as the AC and defroster just wouldn't turn off. The touch screen was "temperamental", as described by our GM guide Cristi Landi, and GM apparently has a fix ready for the launch.

Friendliness Grade: C

Fit and Finish:

As with most late model GM products, the fit and finish is stunningly better than the Chevy Luminas and Saturn SLs of the 90s. The Volt continues that trend. The gaps are minimal and the fit should get better with the production model. However, as with most Chevy products, GM's bean- counters have managed to slip in some cost-saving "Fischer-Price toy quality" plastics on the door trim and dash side trim. Hope that goes away with the production model. They really should take some cues from their Caddies (CTS-V) and Buicks (Enclave, LaCrosse) and spend the extra few dollars on some better plastic for a $40,000 car. Hope history has taught them. Fingers crossed ...

Fit and Finish: A-

My Overall Impression:

I feel the Chevy Volt, though a good engineering exercise, will not be able to produce stellar sales figures, mainly due to its massive estimated price tag and the glitches associated with such new technology. However, the Chevy Cruze, displayed alongside the Volt yesterday, seems to be GM's next bread and butter car and is solid competition for the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, given its under $20,000 price tag and estimated 35-40MPG fuel economy rating. However, I think GM has done a fantastic job on the Volt in the time it has had. They have managed to re-design and compress components, package the vehicle well and make the vehicle feel and drive like a normal car. If they can reduce the price of these vehicles and sort out the glitches, they might have a winner on their hands. However, even if they fail in doing that, the publicity the Volt receives will hopefully draw customers to showrooms and drive up sales of cars like the Cruze, which will in turn keep US auto manufacturing alive.

My Overall Grade: B++ (showroom crowd magnet, good engineering, a few snags and a massive estimated price tag)

*These views are my personal opinions and do not reflect the views of the organization I work for or any others who were involved in the test drive

Thanks to Peter, Doug and Sai for their kind permission to repost their observations here!  Till next time, thanks for following along.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chevy Volt Test Drive!

Recognize this?  It's one of the original concept renderings for the Chevy Volt.  I downloaded it onto my current hard drive back in 2007.

Today, I was on board a bus to Manhattan before the sun was up, en route to a special promotional event put on by GM. Who would have thought I'd end up photographing a real live Chevy Volt -- that's me under the lights with one! -- and then taking a test-drive?!

This was the scene at Pier 92 as the drivers assembled for this invitation-only opportunity.  The guest-list seemed to feature a mix of media representatives, ardent members of the Volt-age e-mail list, and a number of EV enthusiasts; GM had issued invitations to various Electric Auto Association chapters.

I met the founder of the Long Island EAA chapter, Michael Anzalone, whose regular ride is a factory-built electric Chevy S-10 made in the 90's for the California market.  He says most of the Chevy folks he 's talked to don't even know that there was such a thing! He and LI-EAA President Carl Vogel were in attendance, as well as three representatives from the Morristown, NJ EAA chapter, through whom I received my invite.

Here's a dandy cutaway model showing the central battery "spine" running up the middle of the vehicle from the motor/engine compartment and terminating in the crossbar.  The 200 lithium-ion cells in the Volt weigh about 400 lbs, so placing them here ensures balance in handling.  You can see Doug Stansfield, NJEAA president, scrutinizing the set-up.

Front view of the cut-away (note the orange cable, denoting high-voltage wiring for first responders).  Some significant changes have been made to the final production vehicle, including switching the charging port, which hovers behind and above the tire on the right in this photo, over to the passenger side.

After a brief slideshow emphasizing how Chevy is going for "gas-friendly and gas-free" cars, Volt Product Manager Cristi Landy gathered us around the indoor models to talk a little about the development process, which she reports is on track for an end-of-the-year release.  If you, like me, believe that EV production can stimulate the US economy and create domestic manufacturing growth, you'll be pleased to hear that the batteries are being assembled in Southeastern Michigan and delivered to the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly line, where further testing models of the Volt are already being built. In this phase of development, they will stage a couple of iterations of builds in increasing quantities as they refine the performance.  At this point, it's largely software-tweaking.

Cristi emphasized their long quest to get every aspect of it as aerodynamic as possible, with the very low airdam, closed grille and even the mirrors and spoiler all designed to maximize electric range (which is also enhanced by low-rolling-resistance tires).

I liked the vaguely retro original design, but oh well.  The Volt coming into production one looks like a "normal" car, which was perhaps the point.  This car is all about keeping US car-buyers within their comfort zones: thus the obsession with mitigating range anxiety.  But "gas-free"?  Come on, GM!

Below are the informative displays that were up for us to browse through as we waited for the real action to start.  You don't have to read them all (though I think they all click up mostly legibly for those of you, like me, with an inexhaustible appetite for this stuff) but I do want to draw everyone's attention to the last one.  In addition to "gas-free" the Volt is being billed in print as "not a hybrid, not a plug-in hybrid, but an EV with extended range."

Now folks, time for a little nomenclature lesson:

An EV is an electric vehicle, plain and simple. Runs on batteries, plugs into the wall at night.

A hybrid combines two (or more) power sources in the drivetrain. Any vehicle possessing both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine is a hybrid -- not an EV.

I have no idea why GM has decided to muddy the waters here, as I was too bashful to bring it up with my  gracious corporate hosts. But I must point out that there is already an established lingo for distinguishing between types of hybrids:

A parallel hybrid is a vehicle where both the internal combustion engine and the electric motor are harnessed to the drive wheels.

A series hybrid is a vehicle like the Volt, where the internal combustion engine powers an electric generator, which then maintains battery charge so that the electric motor can continue to turn the drive wheels.

I don't buy that the Chevy Volt is an "EV with a range extender." But I definitely think it is the finest plug-in series hybrid I've ever had the chance to tool around a track in!

Okay, it's the only series plug-in hybrid I've ever tooled around in. Above is a bad shot of the two Volts GM was providing for the eager test-drivers -- one silver, one black. We rode in groups of 3, with a product engineer in the passenger seat to give tips and answer questions. After each lap of the course we'd do a Chinese firedrill and the next person would get to take the wheel.  

Last summer I got to drive a mini-E, and now look at me grinning behind the wheel of a second production EV.  I'm thinking, "So this is why I started Bucks County Renewables!"

And how did the Volt drive?  Starts with a push-button.  Feels like a normal car, only quieter (no eerie controller whine on start-up).  Traveling up the ramp, we got to hear the on-board ICE generator kick in; our product engineer/guide Trent confessed that they hadn't had time to charge the vehicles before we all piled into them, and the 3 drivers before us had played around with "performance mode" enough to drain the batteries down sufficiently to require charging-while-traveling. Actually, Trent had to draw our attention to the sound when the on-board generator kicked in; you can barely hear it.  The interior display was pretty snazzy (sorry, no photo, I was too mesmerized). 

I rode with Chris and Bill, both Volt-age e-mail list subscribers, and they were crazy knowledgeable about the vehicle.  Chris tested out the L "gear", which sets heavy regen and is perfect, our man Trent told us, for coming down a windy mountain road.  Chris also asked about the problem of storing unused gas long-term in the tank, and we learned that unlike any present-day vehicles (which still emit some gas vapors even when they're turned off!) the Volt tank will be basically pressure-sealed.
As to handling, of course it was nimble compared to my Highlander Hybrid, but all these thickly-electronic modern drive systems feel kind of cushiony and distant to me.  My mighty driver pal Jesse of scoffed when I told him I'd be taking this run on a closed course.  I said I didn't want to go screaming around a track at 100 miles an hour, thank you very much -- but I didn't expect that the course would be so tight (up a curvy ramp and through some wiggly cones) that I felt a bit hesitant even to take the car up to more than a staid speed!  So I didn't get much of a chance to feel its real power. Maybe someday ...

After the test drive we were allowed to loiter at Pier 92 for a while, where I snapped this shot of Doug with fellow NJEAA members Peter Crisitello (who currently owns a number of rescued Citi-cars and Comuta-vans and wants to sell some, email info at to get in touch with him) and Sai Sankar, who has been building research EV's and hybrids at Fairleigh Dickinson under a federal contract.

When nice GM handler Carolyn found out I was just planning to hang around in the city till my bus left at 1, she offered me a free shuttle lift to the nearest coffee shop -- guess they are trying to butter up the bloggers!  Doug, Sai and I accepted a ride to the Port Authority in the rain and arrived there rather circuitously, but dry.

There was no need for extra-sweet treatment from the event organizers to garner a rave review from me, though.  This was a great opportunity to glimpse the future.  The Volt is an important car.  I'm excited about it -- and about all the production EV's in the pipeline for US consumers.  I can't wait to have a chance to drive the Leaf (hint, hint).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Springing Forward

March 13 has come and gone and alas!  if you were looking here for an entry on the spring workshop, it's past time to explain that it had to be cancelled for lack of enrollment.  Of course those who did enroll were notified via email, and Bill and I are working to reschedule, but I didn't think I should wait to post until we have those dates in hand.  I have to say I was disappointed -- though with the snows in late Feb and early March making it impossible to tow the Colt for prep, and Bill recovering from a mild stroke he had in January, preparation for the class would have been intense and difficult!

Now we can relax, plan ahead a bit and get our vision focused on the next big item on our agenda: the May 1 EV-ent in Macungie!  We'll have the e-Van there for sure ... finished, I hope!

Back in February I  drove through what I can only categorize as the dreaded "wintry mix" -- fortunately with Bill at my side to give moral support and stay calm, as he always does, when we additionally got lost!-- to give a presentation to what was surely my largest audience ever on the history and future of EV's.  It was the monthly public meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association  (MAREA) at Tek Park in Kutztown.   What a fantastic venue!  I was very excited, and also quite pleased with the slideshow -- which was kind of a hybrid of various talks I have given before, finally polished to a point that I was actually satisfied with the visuals and the narrative arc -- but I hadn't had a chance to actually time the presentation all the way through from start to finish, and I was dreadfully worried that I would wind up either way short or (more probably!) running way over, plus on account of the above-mentioned wintry mix and getting lost (yes, I don't have a GPS) I was almost late,  but the timing all worked out perfectly in the end, whew.  There were quite a few familiar faces to me in the audience, unsurprisingly since MAREA sponsors my beloved Energy Fest.

Don Young drove his electric Civic to the MAREA presentation, bad weather and all, and Val Bertoia brought along his bench-mounted motor-controller set-up -- a fantastic educational tool, it and the Civic and lots more great cars will be at the May 1 EV-ent, for which registration is about to open.  Email if you want to be alerted when the registration form goes live, or for more info generally! 

 EV-ent May 1, 2010
All-EV Display ~ Macungie Memorial Park ~ Macungie PA

Our little EV-ent committee is composed of Anna Digate, Bob and Don Young, Val Bertoia and myself, with help from Phil Jones -- lately you can often catch one of us at Green Drinks at the Allentown Brew Works.  

Anyone interested in competitive events and testing on a track should be aware of the upcoming 21st Century Automotive Challenge, to be held in State College PA May 21-23. Below, some of the gorgeous vehicles there last year -- note the only other up-and-running electric Vanagon on the East Coast that I know of! Biodiesel and pure veggie oil entrants will compete on mpg and emissions in the "Tour de Thor", for those of you interested in those alternative fuels.

The Power of DC celebrates its 10th anniversary June 5-6, 2010. I know folks from the NJEAA and the EEVC went down to this last year and enjoyed it hugely -- Mike Kugler came all the way from Rhode Island. Saturday there's AutoCross Racing at the Valley Mall and Sunday, drag racing at Mason Dixon Dragway, an NHRA drag strip. For those who don't race, there's an EV Show-n-Shine on Saturday. Check out or contact Chip Gribben directly.

Looking ahead to the fall, mark your calendars now for September 17-19, when  the MAREA's annual Transportation Tent will return to the Renewable Energy & Sustainable Living Festival in Kempton PA.  In addition to EV's and biodiesels you'll be able to check out hydrogen fuel cells, all manner of hybrids, even electric tractors and motorcycles!   Bucks County Renewables has presented overviews and facilitated panel discussions with EV owners every year since the tent's inception, and that's just one slice of a whole slew of expert-led workshops and discussion opportunities on all aspects of green energy and sustainable living.  I can't say enough about the beauty of this festival -- and since I stuck around after my talk long enough to observe some of the MAREA Board and volunteer meeting, I know that they're already hard at work planning for six months from now!  To join the volunteers who put this festival on every year, email Cindy 

This is the time of year to plant seeds for future harvest, so if you have a project in mind (EV-related or no), go get cracking on it -- meanwhile I'll work on firming up the rescheduling of the Colt re-conversion. I have a thought or two in mind.  Stay tuned!