There are a few events in every lifetime that will be remembered forever. In some cases these events are the celebration of an achievement, of a reward earned.
Such was that early Spring morning in 2009 that I pulled past the bold blue and white military-like sign that read Milford Proving Grounds. For this was the day I test drove the Chevy Volt mule.
From that in many ways distant day in January 2007, when I first saw a news report about the Chevy Volt and was so inspired to register the domain GM-Volt.com to this day some 26 months and 900 articles later I and many of you my most revered readers and copilots have essentially been waiting for this landmark moment.
Inside the proving grounds I met my guide and co-pilot Greg Ceisel. Greg is the Chevy Volt program manager and had been involved since its early days.
After a brief tour of the Proving Grounds and and overview of it 130 or so miles of top secret test track, he took me into a building about the size of an airplane hanger. We walked into the electric vehicles section and there before me were a half a dozen Volt mules with varying appearance and states of disrepair and several plug-in Saturn Vues.
My Volt was silver blue and adorned with special white Volt graphics. This vehicle was the same one former CEO Rick Wagoner had famously driven through the streets of DC to testify before Congress, and the same one that members of the President's Task Force on Autos had driven. Politics in these dire times for GM had to come before their fans.
This vehicle is in the second generation of test cars, having been built after the first batch which were cruder "Malivolts." About 30-odd of these cars were in existence. They contained nearly finalized Volt powertrains including 16 kwh lithium-ion battery packs, 111 peak kw electric motors and 53 kw engine generators. This was not a Chevy Volt in interior or exterior design, but rather they were European-version Chevy Cruze compact sedans. The Cruze uses the same compact delta platform as the Volt and shares similar interior dimensions. Aerodynamically the Cruze has a higher coefficient of drag so true 40 mile AERs are not achieved but "come very close" per Mr. Ceisel.
After a brief tour, it was my turn to drive.
The car is started by a push button that lights green, no key is needed, and the turn-on process is utterly silent.
The interior was sufficiently roomy and comfortable, and nicely ergonomically designed. It was lacking the elegant high-tech and sophisticated double LCD display the production Volt has, and all the sure to be wonderful bells and whistles the production Volt will have. There was no engine/battery feedback for the driver. Technicians normally would connect a laptop to the mule to monitor, manage, and tweak the cars behavior. This interface had been removed for my drive. My only feedback was Km/h on the speedometer and number of miles driven.
The mule was like the Volt, functionally a four-seater, the T-shaped battery pack running down the middle was low enough that the rear seat bench had no bulge, but legroom in the center of the bench was replaced by the battery.
Once started there was only a very slightly scarcely audible and occasional whir within the engine compartment but was overall strikingly and serenely silent.
And then with one small step for man and one large step for mankind and with the collective goodwill of the thousands of you GM-Volt readers on this journey with me, I depressed the accelerator.
Instant silent and sustained torque ensued.
The car had considerable brisk acceleration and power. It was smooth as silk and utterly quiet. It was truly a marvelous thing of beauty. I sailed up hills and muscled around the curves of the sterile and peculiarly industrial landscape of the proving grounds. The car handled marvelously. Greg told me that this car wasn't near final refinement yet and that the production Volt would handle even better. Hard to believe.
The braking had a customary feel. Regenerative braking was of course in effect, and every downhill grade and coast charged the pack. GM had cleverly built in two driving configuration options called D and L. Both gave the same acceleration, but when you step off the accelerator you get strong regenerative drag if in L and coast in D, the former being best for city driving. As Greg said this could allow you to drive with one foot.
There was of course no transmission so whether driving 5 or 75 mph the same gear was maintained. This was pleasant and comfortable and provided appropriate dynamic power at all velocities, there was no perceived "need" to shift.
I found the car to be light, nimble, agile and very fun to drive. Acceleration was terrific and spirited.
I had the chance to take the car straight up a very treacherous-appearing pure 16-1/2% grade. It was a hill that I cannot recall seeing a similar version of in real life. The car had no trouble making it to the top, and with it floored could hit about 50 mph.
I drove the car a total of 15 miles through the test tracks. At this point in time I wasn't permitted to experience the shift to generator mode. Greg said it was seamless and most drivers didn't notice it, but GM was still shy about showing it off until some further tweaking had occurred. I was promised a chance to come back when the time was right for it.
The bottom line is that the car was a solid, pleasant, agile and sporty compact sedan. It handled and behaved like any car in its category should. It was as its own chief engineer Andrew Farah says, "unremarkable."
I would expand that to remarkably unremarkable.
Unremarkable in that the average driver would experience driving it as they would any other small sporty sedan. It was not a toy a or some tinny weak neighborhood car.
What was remarkable and indeed profoundly so is that it does so without the use of gasoline.
It is a car that has absolutely no-compromises. Yet, it is electric.
That is a feat of monumental importance. This is a car that the masses will embrace because of the kind of car it is. That is uses no gas for 40 miles is the real breakthrough.
And so it was that I drove the Volt mule on that Spring day. A regular guy who just started a blog to influence the direction of US transportation and who now found himself at the very wheel of that future
GM has done what they set out to over two years ago and amazingly well I might add, despite all the trials and tribulations that have transpired. The real Volt will be here in a few short weeks. We'll be waiting.