Chevrolet Volt Unveiled, As GM Turns 100

By · September 16, 2008

The Chevrolet Volt is undoubtedly the most popular car in the world that doesn’t yet exist. From the January 2007 unveiling of the concept through last week’s “leaked” photos of the production version, it routinely draws huge traffic and passionate comments to any website.

So we felt we had to comment on this morning’s official unveiling of the production Volt. At 8:30 am Eastern time, General Motors kicked off its 100th birthday celebration with a live global webcast on its dedicated anniversary website, (you can watch the video there).

It’s not that the Volt isn’t important. Its mission is nothing less than to “lead the reinvention of the automobile,” to quote GM’s chairman & CEO Rick Wagoner. It must rescue GM’s battered image among North American buyers, and leapfrog Toyota’s 10-year lead in hybrid production. That lead cost Toyota countless billions to earn—billions that GM doesn’t have right now.

Assuming the Volt goes on sale in November 2010—lately GM has spent much less time qualifying that goal with, “If the batteries are ready”—it will be the world’s first production series hybrid. GM calls it an extended-range electric vehicle, or E-REV. That means it will run up to 40 miles on electricity from a 400-pound, 16-kWh lithium ion battery pack that powers a 150-hp electric motor driving the front wheels. Two-thirds of Americans drive less than 40 miles a day, so if they plug in the car to recharge it every night, they may never use any gasoline. GM quotes a cost of just 80 cents for that 40-mile recharge.

But 40 miles isn’t enough to make a car practical, so the Volt also carries a 1.4-liter flex-fuel engine. Crucially, that engine doesn’t drive the wheels—it only kicks in to power a generator that recharges the battery enough to give the car another 300 miles of range. That range comes from an 8-gallon gas tank, mind you, so when the engine is running, the car gets close to 40 miles per gallon—showing just how efficient electric cars are.

Back to the GM Hoopla

The first mention of the Volt came 25 minutes into the show, which included live feeds from around the world—Germany, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Korea, China, India, Dubai, South Africa, and Brazil.

GM product czar Bob Lutz called design and styling the “one big differentiator left” as every brand improves quality, offers good handling, excellent packaging, and so forth. He talked about bringing designers into the process at the earliest stages to help conceive cars, rather than just asking them to “skin” products that had already been engineered. But he acknowledged that the Volt design team’s assignment was a little different, requiring above all “superb aerodynamics to ensure efficiency.”

The Volt itself didn’t make its appearance until the very end of the hour-long event. It was the finale to a wide-ranging presentation that hammed home GM’s message: It’s a global company with designers and engineers around the world. Before revealing the car, CEO Wagoner called this “the most exciting time in GM’s history,” saying the Volt “symbolizes GM’s commitment to the future.”

The actual unveiling seemed almost anti-climactic. A curtain pulled back, Bob Lutz slowly drove the car out onto a turntable, the crowd applauded—and that was it.

So now we know what it looks like without executives standing in front of it. We have 26 months left until cars appear at Chevrolet dealers—we hope—but if there’s one certainty, it’s that you’ll see way, way more Volt publicity between now and then. Stay tuned.

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