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First Drive: 2010 Chevrolet Volt “Mule”

Breakthrough -- or the answer to a question nobody asked?

by on May.19, 2009

GM is just finishing early development work of the Voltec powertrain in a Chevy Cruze "mule."

GM is just finishing early development work of the Voltec powertrain in a Chevy Cruze "mule."

“It’s already running,” says Tony Posawatz, as we walk over to the small, white sedan parked in the corner of the General Motors Design Center’s garage.  And, indeed, the gauges on the dashboard of the little Chevrolet Cruze advise me that all I need do is buckle up and slip it into gear.

Of course, I had a bit of a clue when I first spotted the car, with the big “Volt” decal on its hood.  In industry parlance, it’s a “mule,” a donor vehicle that, in this case, has had its conventional powertrain ripped out and replaced with the motive components of a Chevrolet Volt, the eagerly-awaited plug-in hybrid that General Motors promises to bring to market in November 2010.

Okay, let’s be a little more precise, rather than face the wrathful call of Bob Lutz, the semi-retired GM “car czar” and godfather of the Volt program, who is putting in a brief appearance before I shift into gear.  Volt is better described as an “extended-range electric vehicle,” or EREV.  That’s because it will run primarily on battery power.  When the Lithium-Ion, or LIon, pack runs down, an inline-four gasoline engine will fire up, giving the car essentially unlimited range.  But unlike, say, the planned Toyota Prius plug-in, that I-4 engine will never actually drive the wheels; it will only serve as a generator, providing power to the electric motors that give the car traction.

Subscribe to TheDetroitBureau.comAs I pull out of the garage, I’m struck first by something missing.  Sound.  There’s only the faintest whine from the electric motor and, as I pick up speed, the sound of tires on pavement and a bit of wind.  Engineers call it the “stumps-in-the-swamp” syndrome.  Take away the noisy internal combustion engine and suddenly you hear everything else: tires, wind, pumps and pulleys.  But GM engineers have done a surprisingly good job masking most of that noise and, promises Posawatz, head of the Volt program, we’ll hear even less when the production Volt is ready — later this month, in fact, when the first of about 75 working prototypes of the actual sedan begin to roll out.  It’s a  good excuse to come back for a follow-up drive. (more…)