Just before I opened the door, I noticed that the roof was a darker gray, as opposed to the silver of the rest of the car. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the roof was actually an integral solar panel. Interesting…
I opened the door, and sat down. The bolstering on the seats seemed a little more aggressive than in the other cars. I looked around for any other clues that this car was a little different. Before the PR rep got into the passenger seat, I noticed "SS" stitching in the seatbacks. No way, I thought. This is too good to be true.I looked back onto the dashboard, and saw a knob with "ECON" to the far left and "POWER" to the far right. Not knowing if it even worked, I cranked the knob all
the way to the right.
Finally, the PR rep got in the car, "Hi, I’m Chris," he said. He looked in his mid-20s, with blonde spiky hair. "So…any questions so far?"
"Yeah," I said quizzically. "This car seems a little different than the others. Is this a real SS?"
"Ha, ha!" he laughed. "I knew you were a gearhead the moment I saw you! Well, this is not a full production model…yet. It’s kind of…how should I put it…a conceptual test-bed, if you will. All the things on this car could be put into production very quickly, but we’re kind of test-marketing it around the country to judge customers’ reactions."
"Interesting," I said reflectively. "Well, let’s try it out!"
"All right!" Chris said enthusiastically.
Taking a moment or two to get acquainted, I noticed there was not a shift lever in the traditional sense, but a series of buttons marked "P, R, N, D, L/C." There also was no ignition key in the traditional sense, just a button marked "START."
"Go ahead and press start," urged Chris.
I pressed the button, and got a chime, and an animated "VOLT" swirled together in a whirlwind of pixels on the display in the middle of the dash. Followed soon thereafter by a "POWER MODE DISABLED" warning.
"Oh," Chris said, shaking his head. "Sorry about that." He took a Chevy-bowtie shaped key fob with "SS" etched on it out of his pocket and waved it in front of the Econ/Power knob. The chime sounded again, and the display said, POWER MODE ACTIVATED. "You get three fobs when you get the car. Two "normal" ones," he said as he gestured the proverbial quote marks with his fingers, "And one SS one. Only the SS fob can activate the full power mode. That, or we also give you a four-digit PIN that you can input through the touchscreen to activate or de-activate it."
"That’s kind of cool," I said as I played with the knob a little. Turning it back to the left, It said POWER MODE with a steadily decreasing percentage until I got to the middle, where it went from "POWER MODE 50%" to "ECON MODE 50%" with the econ percentages getting greater the further to the left I cranked the knob. My curiosity satisfied, I promptly turned the knob all the way back to "POWER MODE 100%."
"Well, let’s get going. I think you’re going to have fun with this one," he said.
I then looked around, and saw a BRAKE RELEASE button. I pushed that, then pushed the D on the drive selector buttons. As soon as I took my foot off the brake, the car began to creep forward, and I heard that trademark chirping the other cars made as they were pulling out of the lot. It was barely audible from inside the car.
"That chirp is a safety feature we came up with when some disability activists came to us with pedestrian safety concerns for the blind. It turns itself off over 50 miles per hour."
We pulled to the edge of the parking lot, next to the giant inflatable Volt, and I nudged the throttle to get us going. The car responded enthusiastically and strongly with barely 1/3 throttle. We pulled up to a stoplight with a long, straight stretch ahead.
"Don’t be afraid to punch it," Chris said mischievously.
Taking his cue, when the light turned green, I floored it. The front tires squealed momentarily, and a split-second later, I could feel the supplemental rear motors kick in, as we were shoved back in our seats as the car pulled seamlessly forward on a tidal wave of electric torque. The speed gathered quickly. Before I knew it, I was going 85 in a 55 zone. "Wow!" I exclaimed as I slowed down to a more reasonable pace.
"Our goal for the SS was 0-60 in six seconds or less. We’ve seen times as quick as 5.5 on a full charge."
Coming up on a freeway onramp, I glanced over at Chris, and he said, "Go for it."
I swung the Volt onto the onramp, and gradually squeezed the throttle as we merged onto the freeway. There was nary a noise from the front tires, and surprisingly little body roll. Keeping my foot in it, the car got up to extra-legal speeds effortlessly.
"We did some of the suspension tuning on the Nurburgring," Chris said. " The rear motors actually act as a supplementary stability control, especially during aggressive driving."
We pulled off the freeway, and I could feel a slight vibration, and the sound of an engine starting up. The tachometer display on the dash showed a steady-state 2,000 rpm, fluctuating only slightly as I accelerated and decelerated. As I looked around the display, I saw the fuel pump icon, and saw DIESEL FUEL ONLY underneath it.
"This thing’s a diesel?" I asked Chris in surprise.
"Yeah, a lot of surprises on this one, huh?" he said with a smile. "Yes, this actually has the 1.7 turbodiesel that’s in a lot of the European models. And yes, we will probably sell it here. This is kind of the ‘guilt-free’ performance model, if you will. The fuel consumption on the diesel is actually a little less than the standard gas-engine Volt, and the torque of the diesel does a little better job of turning the generator. But the flipside is the SS has a 180
kilowatt combined motor output as opposed to the standard car’s 110 kw, so the electric power consumption is higher, especially with the knob cranked all the way over," Chris said, nodding to the potentiometer knob on the dash I’d dutifully cranked to the far right earlier. "So the range-extender will probably be on more of the time."
"Huh," I grunted, impressed that a PR rep is so informed about the vehicle.
"But," Chris said, holding a finger up in anticipation of a great revelation, "If you crank the knob all the way to the left, it actually has lower power consumption than the regular model, on average. So we give you the best of both worlds, depending on your mood."
"Very cool," I nodded in assent. When we came up to the next stop light, I cranked the knob all the way to the left. I pushed the throttle down again, and response was much more gradual, though far from sluggish.
"It’ll do 0-60 in around 9 or 10 seconds with the full econ mode activated," Chris said.
"So," I asked, "Will the knob do anything if the power mode is deactivated?"
"To a point," said Chris. "You can turn it about halfway up, but beyond that, it’s blocked off. Actually, you can program it to completely disable it, but the default setting is to allow adjustment up to the halfway mark."
"I had one more question," I said as we neared the driveway for the dealership once again. "Are the solar panels for real?"
"Yes," Chris asserted. "They’re the real deal, but its more for a trickle-charge. You can’t single-handedly charge the battery from the solar panels unless you leave it sitting for like 10 days. Plus, if they get dirty, it decreases their effectiveness a little."
As I pulled back into the dealership, I took a closer look at this "ringer" they put me in compared to the other models. Side-by-side, it was obvious the SS sat a little lower, had slightly more aggressive wheels and tires, more prominent exhaust tips, and subtle green SS badging on the decklid, door panels, and dashboard.
"Well?" Chris queried as he saw me closely examining the vehicles.
"Definitely build the SS," I said, giving him a double thumbs-up.
"Stay tuned!" he said with a broad smile.
I walked away thoroughly impressed, and at the same time frustrated, knowing the SS probably wouldn’t be available for another year yet.
As I started to walk away and back toward my car, I turned around and noticed the PR staff huddling together, and Chris walking toward me.
"Mr. Sanchez, do you have a moment?" he asked.
"Um, sure," I said.
"What would you think of trying out the SS for a week or so?"
"You don’t have to ask me twice!" I exclaimed enthusiastically.
Stay tuned for Part III…Living with the Volt