Gene and the machine: Chevrolet Volt

gene weingarten-karikatuurGene Weingarten is geen autojournalist, maar heeft wel twee keer de Pulitzer Prize gewonnen en is journalist voor de Washington Post. Daarom neem ik hier zijn zeer vermakelijke rij-indruk op over de Chevrolet Volt. Er even vanuit gaande dat iedereen die dit weblog bezoekt in staat is om Engels te lezen. Veel plezier!

Chevrolet Volt

Here’s the hyphen-heavy heap of hype on the Chevy Volt, GM’s new, highly touted plug-in hybrid electric car: It’s packing a 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery. It has a 1.4-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder, in-line gasoline engine fed by a 9.3-gallon fuel tank. It’s got front-wheel drive and does a peppy 8.8-second zero-to-60.
You don’t care about all that? Me, either. I’m not sure why automotive writers think we do. Ordinary people tend to make their car-buying judgments on a different, non-hyphenated calculus. This is particularly true for a concept car such as the Volt, which has been selling disproportionately to men, and which is why, to better serve you, the discerning consumer, I am stopping an attractive woman on a Bethesda sidewalk and asking her if she would sleep with me.

K.C. Hernandez is 32, a marketing associate visiting from Chicago. I assure her that I am a working journalist and that my question is purely hypothetical. Judging by appearances alone, I ask, what would be my theoretical chance of having sex with her, expressed as a percentage?

K.C.’s friend is frantically girl-coding, bugging out her eyes and shaking her head no, no! But K.C. is laughing. She’ll play. She surveys my body, which has the muscle tone of a yam souffle. I am 59. I did not arrive there the way some men — say, Harrison Ford — did.

“Three,” she says finally.

Three percent! I’m pretty sure it’s a mercy vote, but I’ll take it. Next, we walk across the street for the second part of the experiment. I pat the hood of an obsidian-black 2011 Chevy Volt, on loan to me for the day.

“This is my ride,” I say. “Does this new information change the hypothetical answer at all?”

K.C. has heard of the Chevy Volt but hadn’t seen one yet. Almost no one has, actually; it just hit the streets last month in the Washington area and four other markets nationwide – a tantalizing trickle of a rollout. For a vehicle aimed at the eco-friendly, it is surprisingly sleek and growly-looking. It has clean lines, a youthful, video-game feel to its dashboard display, and a few mildly decadent luxury-car amenities, such as butt-warmer seats. After a big federal tax rebate, it costs about 35 grand, bottom line.

K.C. keeps looking from it to me dubiously, as if to reconcile the one with the other.

“Okay,” she says.

She takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly.


So this won’t be a conventional automotive review. First, I’m not qualified to write a conventional automotive review, inasmuch as I know next to nothing about automobiles. Second, I am nakedly biased. I very much wanted to hate this car. It challenges my worldview.

Life is bewildering – essentially, it’s a fatal disease of uncertain course and unknown duration. If we are to make any sense of it, if we are to tame our existential terrors, we must gratefully cling to those few established truths on which we know we can rely: Day follows night. Sex causes babies. To lose weight, eat less. American cars suck.

I arrived at that last truth reluctantly but bitterly, like the millions of other boomers who long ago motored on in their automotive loyalties from Detroit to Yokohama or Dusseldorf.

My last American car was a 1985 Ford with brain damage; an irreparably faulty computer would periodically shut all systems down in mid-drive, flat-lining like a fresh corpse, the car slowly rolling to a standstill. Before that, I had a two-door Chevy that got 15 miles to the gallon and churned through brake pads as though they were pencil erasers. Seeking economy, my wife naively bought a Chevy Vega, a rattling deathtrap with an aluminum engine that warped and died at 50,000 miles, which was okay, because by then the chassis had rusted out, anyway.

American cars suck. With me, it’s a mantra. I passed it along to my children in lieu of religion.

It is true that with globalization, there is less of a meaningful distinction these days between foreign cars and domestic. And yes, Detroit has been incrementally improving its products for some time. This is a splendid achievement that I’ve been content to applaud from a safe distance, behind the wheel of a succession of Mazdas and Toyotas and Hondas that have never once betrayed me.

But the Volt, it is said, is different. There’s nothing incremental about it. It’s being heralded as an overnight game-changer – a car with an original concept and a compelling, heroic narrative: It was designed by a fanatic team of GM engineers who held fast to their vision while hounded by naysayers, even as their company was economically collapsing around them.

Some professional car reviewers have gone gaga. Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic renowned for his jaundiced eye, unabashedly called the Volt “a spark of genius.” He went on:

“A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet.”

Not good, not good at all for my worldview. But also not an insurmountable obstacle. Mr. Neil had one handicap I don’t have: a starting point of impartiality.

About the time I read his review, The Post asked me if I’d like to do one of my own. Why, yes, I said. Yes, I would be delighted to.


In a sense, the Volt isn’t doing anything scientifically groundbreaking. It’s not the first electric car – you can Google up photos of women in bustles, petticoats and parasols riding around in goofy-looking electrics at the turn of the last century. And of course it’s not the first hybrid, a technology that for years has been delivering exceptional gas mileage to cars such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight by efficiently switching between gas and electric power.

What makes the Volt the Darling of Detroit is that it has been reverse-engineered to match the perverse American psyche. Americans hate buying gas but love to drive. We definitely want to stick it to the sheikhs, and in the process maybe save the planet, so we want cars that run on sunshine, twigs and happy thoughts. But these cars also have to kick some ass. And be able to make an impulsive 90-mile run to Philly when we suddenly have a hankering for cheese steak. And we don’t want to worry about hunting for twig refueling stations along the way.

All of that is what the Volt is theoretically designed to deliver.

The Volt is an all-electric car, with an asterisk. You can plug it in overnight – even to the same sort of dinky wall outlet that runs your coffee maker – and by morning, the car’s battery is fully charged. It’s ready to power the Volt’s two electric motors, which will carry you 30 or 40 miles on that wall juice alone. If your life is circumscribed by a daily commute of 40 miles or less – this applies to about three-quarters of Americans – you can run this car without ever using even a teaspoon of gas, at the cost of about a buck fifty a day in electricity. But if you really, really want that cheese steak, you can get it, too.

The Volt’s dainty gasoline engine doesn’t usually power the car directly; it acts primarily as a generator to recharge the battery, which keeps the electric motors going another 300 miles or so after that initial charge is exhausted. Running on gas only, albeit premium, the Volt’s motors still generate power at a respectable 37 miles to the gallon.

This versatility is the insight that separates the Volt from any other car ever made – and, most significantly, from its equally new competitor, the cheaper, greener, fuddier-looking Nissan Leaf. The Leaf is purely electric, running on a battery from which Nissan engineers impressively have coaxed a 100-mile range. Their gamble is that our thirst for gas savings and eco-tech will outweigh a considerable downside: When the Leaf is out of juice, you’re out of options. Even partial recharging takes time – at least 30 minutes, and only if you can find access to special, high-voltage charging stations. That trip for cheese steak might require some fitful naps along the way. In Detroitspeak, this uncertainty is called “range anxiety.” The Leaf has it. The Volt doesn’t.

How daunting is it? The Leaf’s GPS display puts your car in the center of a circle with a hundred-mile radius, with dots blinking the location of any quick-charge stations. It’s a nifty trick but seems like a tacit confession of weakness. Do we really want to drive with the on-edge mind-set of air-traffic controllers? GM is banking that we don’t.

Nissan and manufacturers of other all-electric cars – Tesla Motors, for example, and Ford, which will roll out an all-electric Focus this year – are gambling on a quick expansion of a nationwide high-voltage infrastructure: businesses, commercial parking lots and gas stations that will offer quick charges free or at a fee. That would help the Volt, too, but is far less essential. Like Leaf owners, Volt owners can buy a 220-volt home charging station. It looks like a vacuum cleaner and costs about $1,500 installed. That reduces charge time to about four hours.

If the Volt proves to be a triumph, then, it will be a triumph not so much of innovation as of the quieter virtues of pragmatism and compromise. Still, this would still be no small victory for an American carmaker. Remember that the American carmaker responded to the threat of smaller, cheaper, better, more economical foreign cars in the 1970s by taking a long, hard look at its fleet of behemoths, nodding sagely, and then adding spiffier “landau roofs.”

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Volt represents a renaissance for good, old American know-how. As a loyal American, shouldn’t I want to love it, even at the cost of a severe body blow to my sense of an ordered universe?

I should. Or, at least, I should try to put myself in the mood to be receptive to considering the possibility of liking it just a little. Which is why, right now, just before my first test-drive of the Volt, I am attempting to build an electric motor from scratch.

The homely tools lie before me: two jumbo-size safety pins, a length of wire, a crayon, a flashlight battery, a pair of screws, three magnets from a toy set, and a nail file.

The Web says a moderately handy person can build this in 10 minutes: a whirring, humming motor based on timeless principles of electromagnetism, the very technology at the center of the Volt. That’s my goal: to feel a small, microcosmic surge of that American can-do spirit.

Indeed, the superstructure takes mere minutes. When I’m done, it looks like it’s supposed to look: a tight wire coil on an axle over a magnet stack. But it’s not spinning. It’s as lifeless as a flat-lined, brain-dead 1985 Ford.

A little tinkering should get it humming, I figure. I rewire it. I reposition the magnets. I resecure the battery connections. I try larger safety pins, then smaller safety pins, then, in desperation, bobby pins.

Three hours later, my motor is still inert. Angry and frustrated, I head out for my first test-drive of the Volt.

It feels opulent. The interior is handsome, the seats buttery, the steering tight and responsive.

Volts are hard to come by – only 10,000 will be sold in 2011 – so GM was parsimonious about doling out early test-drives to automotive writers. For the most part, these were five- or 10-minute, chaperoned events for which writers queued up. But I wangled a guarantee of seven hours alone in the car over four days, a concession so huge that I was initially asked not to reveal the source of my car, lest a stink about favoritism be raised by the National Fraternity of Serious Auto Writers. This stricture was eventually relaxed, so I am now permitted to disclose that the car was lent to me personally, but not as authorized corporate policy, by a GM executive.

I’d like to think that this decision was based on a profound respect for the extreme fabulousness of my professional oeuvre, but I suspect it had more to do with the promise of a cover story in this magazine. And also because GM must know I am a dolt, car-wise. I suspect it occurred to the company that, given enough time with the car, a more knowledgeable reviewer than I would be far more likely to find any soft spots.

So, here I am, behind the wheel. I depress the accelerator with roughly the force that I’d use to put my Honda Civic into a slow roll. The Volt bolts. Just rockets forward.

“Whoa,” I blurt.

“Yeah, that’s low-end pep. Electric motors hit full torque right off the bat.”

This is my friend Brady Holt, who is sitting beside me. I arranged to meet him in secret minutes after picking up the car. Brady reviews automobiles for

(I may be a dolt, but I am a conniving dolt.)

Unlike internal-combustion engines, Brady explains, electric motors don’t need to work their way up to maximum horsepower; they deliver it instantly, giving a distinctive mettle to the pedal at start-up speeds.

Brady is staying professionally reserved, but it’s clear he is thrilled at getting extended time in this intriguing, hard-to-find car. One reason it’s clear is that he has a small camera and is furtively taking pictures, like the Russian ambassador from “Dr. Strangelove” who finds himself momentarily unsupervised in the Pentagon’s War Room.

The car rides low and stolid, like a limo, probably because its main battery, which runs the length of the chassis (and bifurcates the rear seat, limiting the likelihood of three passengers or recumbent teenage sex) also weighs as much as a fully stocked Maytag refrigerator.

A stylized icon of that battery dominates the dashboard display. Below it is a number, which is, at the moment, “21.” That number provides a constant update of how many miles remain before the battery power is exhausted and the engine kicks in.

I’m getting excited. The battery readout had been “24” exactly 1.4 miles ago. This seems to be a huge discrepancy in accuracy, suggesting a battery with only half the advertised road range – ergo, a brazen lie, a metastatic neoplasm right at the heart and soul of the machine!

“No, it’s not,” Brady says.

Those figures, he says, are just momentary guesstimates that fluctuate with temperature and terrain, and that self-correct over time. GM, he says, would neither miscalculate nor misrepresent something this critical to promised performance and this easily debunked.

In a few minutes, the numbers do, in fact, align.



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