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The Volt and Leaf, One Year Away

By · November 23, 2009

Chevy Volt Test Drive

Last month, GM engineers took the pre-production Chevy Volt on a test drive along I-80 near Toledo, Ohio.

The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, and the Nissan Leaf pure electric car, are both about one year away from reaching car dealerships. The two vehicles are much anticipated, and literally pivotal—as the auto industry shifts its direction from large gas-consuming vehicles, to smaller cars that are powered in varying degrees by electricity.

Expect every step of the 12-month journey, from engineering lab to showroom, to be examined, scrutinized, and parsed. At the “T minus one year" mark, top-tier auto journalists are finding small faults with the cars, but are pronouncing them in great shape for a rollout in one year.

Volt, Refined (With Caveat)

The New York Times’ Lindsay Brooke got time behind the wheel of the Chevy Volt last week. He wondered, “Will it be a slug? How annoying will the noise of the generator’s engine be in an otherwise mute car?” Brooke is referring to the moment—after about 40 miles of silent electric driving—when the Volt’s battery pack runs low. At that point, the computer calls the onboard generator into service to sustain the battery’s minimum charge level, for perhaps hundreds of more miles until the Volt can receive another charge.

The 40-mile moment arrives, and Brooke misses it. “The engine’s initial engagement is inaudible and seamless. I’m impressed.” But a few hundred yards later, the state of charge dips again, causing the engine’s rpm to sharply rise. “The sound is disconcerting,” Brooke writes. The problem subsides but then returns. “A few times later in our test, the generator behaved in similar fashion—too loud and too unruly for production—but there is time for the programmers to find solutions.”

Tony Posawatz, the Volt’s vehicle line director, explains, “The charge-sustaining mode is clearly not where we want it to be yet...We have nine months to work this out.”

Besides the post-40-mile generator sound, Brooke enjoys the ride quality, and calls the Volt “an extremely refined vehicle.”

New Leaf

Dan Neil, of the Los Angeles Times, is similarly impressed with the Nissan Leaf. He calls it, “nothing short of elegant.” As a pure electric car, the Leaf’s computer system doesn’t have to worry about transitions from all-electric to charge-sustaining modes. (On the other hand, the Leaf’s range will be limited to about 100 miles between full charges.)

Neil extols the virtues of electric drive, explaining how all cars on today’s roads have become increasingly electrified. “Two decades of computerization of the automobile have created a kind of well-oiled semiautonomous being, half semiconductor, half metal and glass. Many cars today have electric steering, electric brakes, virtual gauges, video camera mirrors, even virtual bumpers. In other words, cars are nearly electrified already.”

But how does the Leaf drive? Neil writes, “During my all-too-brief drive, the Leaf prototype (clad in Nissan Versa bodywork), with three people on board, shot across the stadium parking lot like it had been pinged with a BB gun. Zero-to-40 mph acceleration, I estimate, is in the mid-5-second range, which would suit a decently sporty little car.”

In his usual poetic style, Neil concludes, “The Leaf is definitely Car 2.0. Sweet, glycerin smooth, techy, frisky and even a little bit beautiful. It just feels like tomorrow.”

For the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf—and their growing legion of fans—the next 12 months will be one long tomorrow, filled with anticipation and hope.

New to EVs? Start here

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