Oct 17, 2010

The Chevy Volts a Comin

The controversy and discussion over the soon-to-be released Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf EV's(Electric vehicles) is exciting and worthwhile we believe. It's much better than talking about the drawbacks of deepwater drilling for instance.

The article below questions how "truly electric" the Chevy Volt really is. But we feel whether partially or totally electric the Volt is great for 2 reasons. It was largely designed and built in the USA. Many say the reason the government saved General Motors was to protect the Volt initiative. Also it is giving us choice. There is finally an American made alternative from the traditional carbon powered engine.

General Motors' touted Chevrolet Volt rolls into Miami and Orlando late this month as part of a 12-city national road show, designed to introduce the high-mileage sedan to a curious public. Unfortunately for GM, it arrives under a cloud. Whether it is one of those little white fluffy clouds, or a big dark storm cloud that threatens to rain on the Volt's parade, you decide.

Until earlier this week, the biggest problem facing the Volt is whether customers will pay $41,000 (less a $7,500 federal tax credit) for a car approximately the size of a Toyota Corolla. This traveling road show of six Volts and a bunch of Chevy employees will be in Miami on Oct. 28 and 29 and Orlando Oct. 30, offering test drives and tech briefings. For information, log onto ChevroletVoltAge.com. And maybe you can decide for yourself whether the Volt is facing a genuine credibility crisis, or if this is just a tempest in a teapot.

Here's the situation: The Chevrolet Volt has been billed by General Motors as a pure electric vehicle, with the front wheels driven by a big 111-kilowatt electric motor fed by a sophisticated battery pack that you can recharge on home electrical current in as little as four hours. Unlike other pure-electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, the Volt has a 1.4-liter gas engine that serves as a generator to make electricity when the battery pack is drained to a minimum level.

For most drivers, that will happen after 30 or 40 miles, meaning you are running on pure battery power, with the engine off, until the batteries drain to the point where the gas engine turns on and generates electric power for that 111-kilowatt motor. Note that the gas engine doesn't recharge the batteries -- it maintains them, but to build battery power back up, you have to plug it in.

Now, here's where the cloud comes in. Last week, Chevrolet introduced the Volt to the media with a very detailed presentation. It turns out that at highway speeds -- probably more than 65 mph up to the Volt's top speed of 100 mph -- a second, smaller electric motor can help the big motor power the front drive wheels. Through a set of gears, that motor can be, partially at least, powered directly by the gasoline engine.

Why? "Efficiency," said Pam Fletcher, global chief engineer for the Volt powertrain. Yes, the Volt can run up to 100 mph on pure electric power, but converting power from the gas engine to electricity is less efficient than letting the gas engine help power the wheels. Doing that, she said, adds 10 percent to 15 percent more efficiency.

Several automotive media outlets are playing "Gotcha!" with General Motors, saying the Volt is not a pure electric vehicle. "GM Lied" was the headline on a story on Edmunds.com.

This has caught Chevrolet executives flat-footed at the worst possible time -- when they are trying to sell the public on new, complex technology in a small, pricey car.

According to Fletcher, GM executives didn't lie, but they didn't reveal all of the details until last week "for competitive purposes." They filed for a patent for this technology in September 2007, and revealing the details of their dual-motor, four-mode power system earlier, Fletcher said, could have given competitors time to copy it.

Fletcher stressed Thursday that the Volt won't run without the electric motor, but it will run without the gasoline motor. There is no direct driveshaft from the gas engine to the front wheels. Yes, the gas engine can help out at high speeds, but it's still an electric vehicle.

So what's the bottom line? In my opinion -- and I've driven the Volt and gave it a very positive review -- it's a non-story, a matter of semantics. The Volt delivers everything it advertises, and as arguably the most complex mainstream vehicle ever built by an American manufacturer, there are bound to be intricacies. As Chevrolet tries to convince us all that this complex technology will be reliable, this is a problem they don't need -- or deserve.

Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at scsmith@orlandosentinel.com in Central Florida, or scs@Sunsentinel.com in South Florida.

Steven Cole Smith likes to write about alternative powered motor transport, so if you have interest in this subject we suggest you check his columns often 

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