Chevrolet Volt Plugs Into the Zeitgeist

Chevy Volt Concept 2007

So far, there’s one superstar of this year’s Detroit Auto Show. The press and industry previews of the high-profile exposition (whose organizers actually want you to call it “The North American International Auto Show”) are drawing to an end tomorrow, and the doors will open to the general public starting on Saturday. There are a lot of shiny new launches and fascinating concept cars–some of them written up here, and some we’ll be talking about in the weeks to come. But there’s one big headline: PLUG-IN CAR!

GM has done something very right here. The Volt concept is classy-looking and a little futuristic with its high roofline and expanses of glass. In contrast to the pointy, angular origami of so many of the concept cars we’ve been seeing this year, the Volt is sleek, curvilinear, aerodynamic-looking. It looks like it’s whooshing along a highway even when it’s standing still. Based on a platform similar to the Cobalt’s, the Volt is low-slung and sporty and yet somehow comfortably solid-looking.

It’s not the look of the Volt concept that’s making it the buzz of Detroit, though–it’s what’s under the hood. Or, rather, it’s what’s going to be under the hood. The fundamental idea is something GM calls the “E-Flex System”: basically, it’s a variety of different alternative powerplant systems that can go into the same models. To quote GM’s press release:
Jon Lauckner, GM vice president of Global Program Management, said the Volt is uniquely built to accommodate a number of advanced technology propulsion solutions that can give GM a competitive advantage.

“Today’s vehicles were designed around mechanical propulsion systems that use petroleum as their primary source of fuel.” Lauckner said. Tomorrow’s vehicles need to be developed around a new propulsion architecture with electricity in mind. The Volt is the first vehicle designed around GM’s E-flex System.

That’s why we are also showing a variant of the Chevrolet Volt with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, instead of a gasoline engine EV range-extender, said Lauckner. Or, you might have a diesel engine driving the generator to create electricity, using bio-diesel. Finally, an engine using 100-percent ethanol might be factored into the mix. The point is, all of these alternatives are possible with the E-Flex System.

This is all fine and good, but what was drawing crowds in Detroit was the concept Volt that was on display–one designed to have a plug-in lithium ion battery supplemented by a 1.0 liter, 3-cylinder turbocharged engine that runs on an 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline fuel blend. According to GM, the Volt could go 150 miles on just one six-hour charge and gallon of fuel; uncharged, the Volt would get 50 miles per gallon as it ran in hybrid mode.

Sounds like a dream, right? Well, there’s at least one catch. The kind of large lithium ion battery the Volt would need to work as designed doesn’t actually exist yet. GM’s confident, though, that the batteries will be out and in production by 2012 at the latest, and their goal is to ship Volts for the 2012 model year.

I love the idea of a “plug and play” approach to power plants, and I’m impressed by GM’s elegant solution to the dilemma ahead. I don’t know if we’ll actually ever see a Volt that we plug in and charge overnight like a cell phone or laptop, but it’s a great concept. And a smart PR move by GM in a year that’s seen too little good automotive news–especially from Detroit.

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