Chevy Volt Test Drive: How GM’s Electric Car Works [+pictures]

Chevy Volt

Editor’s Note: This is a 4-part series covering my trip to Michigan to test-drive the Chevy Volt. See also: 1. LiveBlogging from the opening of GM’s New Battery Lab and 3. Tour of GM’s New Battery Lab, 4. Video: Driving GM’s Electric CarDisclaimer: GM flew me out for this event.


June 8, 2009- It was pouring rain when I arrived at GM’s Testing facility in Warren, Michigan. A crowd had already gathered inside the Alternative Energy Center which, among other things, is home to GM’s first electric car—the original model EV1 (#1).

The ghost of the EV1—a car designed and built 13 years ago—still haunts GM, though it’s both a symbol of lost opportunity and tangible proof that the company could pull off the same kind of engineering feat again. The billion-dollar Volt project is a major component of the company’s reinvention strategy, and it’s clear they aren’t pulling any punches this time.

In one corner of the conference room, the innards of new electric car—the Chevrolet Volt—were on display, and many of us took the opportunity to gawk at the awkwardly large 1.4L, 3-cylinder gas engine bolted firmly next to the Volt’s electric motor.

Chevy Volt powertrain

-Gas generator on left, electric motor and charger on right.

How the Chevrolet Volt Works: It’s a real Electric Car

If you aren’t yet familiar with how the Chevy Volt works, let me explain:  the most important thing to understand is that it’s a fully electric car—not a hybrid—since the only thing moving the wheels is the electricity provided by a battery pack. The gas engine you see on the left (above) is actually a generator, and only produces enough electricity to maintain a steady charge level when the batteries drop to 30% of their capacity. Without this “range extender”, the Volt would simply be an electric car that stops working after 40 miles.

According to GM, it would cost only $0.80 to drive 40 miles in a fully-charged vehicle. Once the batteries are depleted and the generator kicks in, the car has an additional 260-miles of driving range. Fuel is supplied by an on-board 6-gallon (or so) pressurized gasoline tank, which will also accept up to E85 (85% ethanol / gasoline blends).

I was told the Volt will get roughly 40mpg while running on the generator. (Interesting fact: like a standard household generator, the engine will have to start up once in a while if the driver keeps the car in EV mode by consistently driving less than 40 miles between charges. The fuel tank is pressurized to maintain fuel quality for longer periods of time than your standard car).

Volt Powertrain

-The battery pack is T-shaped, and runs the length of the car underneath the center of the car and then Ts underneath the rear seats.

Volt Battery

-Close-up of battery cells in the Chevy Volt battery pack.

Only 50% of the Volt’s battery capacity is actually used (8 of 16 kw), which preserves the longevity of the pack, guaranteeing a 10 year lifespan and consistent range (more than one GM rep. made offhand comments questioning the range capabilities quoted by other electric car manufacturers).

The Volt’s T-shaped battery packs are composed of 200 individual 3.6V lithium-ion cells, each of which is a thin sheet about the size of half a piece of paper and about as thick as a CD case. Total weight for the whole pack is about 400 lbs which, when taking into account structural modifications, adds 700 lbs. to the total vehicle weight.



In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.