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99% Build Volt Test Drive – San Francisco

The last time I had seen this car in person was at the LA Auto show, and that was the fiberglass show car (not the real thing).  When I approached the lot, I noticed first and foremost how much detail there was to the car that had been fleshed out, from the chrome wheels, to the smallest under trim window detailing.   Again as I had mentioned before, something about the shape and dimensions of the car make it look really good in real life, but actually somewhat unflattering in pictures.  (Even the ones I had taken today).  It’s the difference between watching NASCAR on TV and going there for real – you get the same picture, but it’s really not the same. 

Around May 18th I got an opportunity to test drive a 99% build Chevrolet Volt in San Francisco.  The car was there as part of the demonstration platform for the Google I/O conference, to demonstrate the Onstar features of the Volt.  I believe, but am not certain that this is the same car they used in the Volt Freedom Drive just this past weekend.

I arrived in the AT&T Ball Park parking lot around 4:00pm.  Most of the demonstration drives had already been done in the morning to the VIP’s and important folk, so the only people there were the car handlers and several people from the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board. 


On the General Motors team that day was a vehicle engineer for the control systems, and Nick an Onstar Executive who would be demonstrating the features of Volt/Onstar the next day at the conference.  The air quality team, being three people prepared to take the  first drive as Nick gave me a live demonstration of the Onstar application (not a mockup one, but a live working one where the Volt responded)

Nick started by showing the basic lock-unlock features of Onstar.  While the initial connection took about 10 seconds to establish, once the session was in place – the vehicle responded to commands within about 2-3 seconds, locking and unlocking itself as you designed as well as flashing its lights and sounding off its horn – A great way to find your car if you are out of Key Fob range.

  Cyber Gray Metallic Volt doing laps

As the Air Quality team pulled away and starting taking laps around the coned off parking lot, Nick showed me the newest cool feature of Onstar – being able to search a location on google and download it to the Volt’s GPS.  Instead of doing a standard search on his Motorola Droid Phone, he used Google Voice (a Speech Recognition Software) and asked me to speak a local San Francisco restaurant into the phone.  I said “The Slanted Door” – a well known Vietnamese Establishment on the waterfront.  Sure enough in a few seconds the phone had located the slanted door, and the application gave a prompt with several options, including “call the location” or “send to car”.  With the way things are going – soon you’ll have your car pick you up at the curb and drive you when you call it.  But in all seriousness this is a pretty useful and cool feature.  Now I might actually use the GPS as typing in an address into the GPS unit has always been a major pain point for me.

As we waiting for the Air Quality Team to take their final couple laps, I started asking a few questions about the Onstar System for the Volt.  I found out that the current version of Onstar uses an encrypted communication protocol on the Verizon 2G Data network.  I had asked whether it used 3G actually but found out that 2G was used because the actual amount of data transmission was fairly limited and of course the 2G network had much greater coverage of the entire United States – The 2G network is used for SMS and other older communication methods.  Sorry folks, I don’t think you’ll be downloading patches to Volt software over Onstar anytime soon.  I don’t think that would be a good idea anyways for software that your life depends on.  From this I also got a good history lesson about the old days of Onstar pre-2000 where they had to basically create a modem connection over a voice line, like your old Dial up Modem.  I will admit, that before I got this history lesson I thought Onstar was only for lost old people and people who have run their cars off of cliffs – but you learn something new every day right?

Finally the Air Quality Team took their last lap and stepped out of the car – my turn now – a moment I’ve been waiting for some time for.  Finally time to get up close and personal and see what the Volt is all about.  Before I stepped behind the wheel, I asked Nick to take a quick photo so that I could prove to my co-workers that I was actually here and hadn’t just made up an excuse to bail out a couple hours early from work.  Unfortunately this is one of the few photos I actually got of the event, my plans for an awesome video was sunk by a fat finger mistake which I will detail later.

Patrick and Cyber Gray Metallic Volt

When the photo taking was done, I finally circled around the car and stepped into the driver’s seat.  I immediately checked the important stuff – any possible show stopping things that might make me reconsider buying the Volt.  The important stuff is mundane, but very important!

 I looked up – Driver’s Headroom, check – No chance of me bumping my head into the ceiling on a hard bump.  (I’m 6 foot 2 with a long torso – so more like a normally proportioned 6 foot 4 person)

With the driver’s seat adjusted most of the way back I could easily stretch out my legs Legroom – Check.  This was of major concern since the Volt, is essentially a compact car, and I can never stretch out my legs all the way in most compacts.

I settled into the leather bucket seat in the car, and it contoured my back comfortably.  It wasn’t a La-z-boy, but I sat comfortably and never noticed the seat again afterwards – which is the way that a good seat should behave in a car.  Seating Check.

Now settled comfortably in I started to look around and check visibility.  Look through the center console at the digital dash I was impressed the find the amount of information that was displayed on the primary dash display.  For me – growing up around technology I’m generally not overwhelmed by lots of on screen information, but the initial look at the dash had me thinking how many cool things you could do with it.  I didn’t get a lot of time to play with the dash unfortunately as I started to look out the windows, side mirrors and to the rear.  Visibility was good.  Not a fishbowl like a tall large SUV – but good.  I was afraid that it would suffer the same effect as a coupe with a heavily raked windshield and you would lose a lot of front corner and rear corner visibility to the A and C pillars, but this was not the case.  Visibility – Check.

Just for run I pulled the “pedestrian alert” switch (you pull the turn signal lever towards you on the left side) and the Volt let out a polite brup-brup – which is a much better solution in my mind than an always on noisemaker.

Now I’m ready.  I reached for the shifter, and put the car into gear (if you could really call it that).  That experience was like any other car, the detents and pulling action very familiar.  I pulled my foot off the brake and the volt silently rolled forward with confidence and no hesitation.  The initial sensation of rolling forward was surreal in a sense as typically you are accustomed to the noise of a cold engine revving up and a little bit of jerkiness as you let your foot off the brake and the torque generated at idle in an automatic car overtakes the braking force.  In the volt however, there was a seamless transition as really there isn’t a torque converter per say pushing against the brake, but rather the brake releasing and the electric motor electronically getting the car up to the equivalent of idle speed.  If you weren’t looking and perhaps asleep in the back seat, you probably wouldn’t even notice the car starting to roll.

I pulled out and made a left turn into the first straightaway, then stopped.  I wanted to see the Volt off the line.  Putting the pedal to the metal, I expected an initial surge, but got none – it was perplexing, I thought electric motors were supposed to have tons of torque up front.  Just as I was going to comment the volt hit about 15 miles an hour about a beat later and BAM! The torque pushed me into the back of my seat.  There was the answer – electronically limited – I found out later I was also in eco mode.  (Hope to try out sport mode in Detroit!)  Aside from that, I’ve heard that the driving experience for high torque cars is pretty bad in stop and go traffic around 0-10 mph since you’re constantly being jerked around, so having a more comfortable ramp up off the line would probably be a better experience for average commute driving.  (Though I do hope that Sport mode takes that limitation off)

The straightaway was perhaps 200 feet long and I got up to about 35-40 mph before pressing on the brake to make the next hard left turn.  The latter half of the course was a winding stretch of cones on a mostly flat parking lot.  My first couple turns were tentative, comfortable turns as I got used to the steering ratio of the volt.  Later on I took them a little faster and eventually at the speed I normally drive in traffic.  As the car picked up the bumps in the old parking lot, I thought the ride quality was very much like a moderately tuned mid-size car.  Closest I would describe it would be a Ford Fusion.  (The Camry and Malibu have even softer rides).

After a lap, Nick, who was riding shotgun and demoing the car for me egged me on to “drive faster” and “really step on it”.  My next lap was faster than I would normally drive and the car confidently stuck in the turns without significant body lean.  The power steering ratio made the car responsive, but don’t get the wrong expectations, it’s not tuned to be a track car with very tight power steering.  This again was very middle of the road, the steering wheel was easy to turn, but above average road feel.  Having finished my second lap without hitting any cones and at above average speeds I felt pretty good about the Volt – above my expectations for a car that I already had high expectations for.

This is when I got schooled.  After stopping on the second lap, Nick said “let’s switch seats.”  I could only guess at that moment what he had in mind – I think my driving aggression left something to be desired.  I walked around the car and traded seats with him, pulling out my 12 megapixel HD SLR /camcorder ready to take video of this run.  As I bucked in he asked “ready?”  At which point I nodded and acknowledged and got ready to press record on my camera.  Before I got to the button though, he immediately slammed on the pedal even before the straightaway and in short work we were flying through the parking lot at 40-50 mph.  (Here’s where it sucks, because I ended up pressing the wrong button on my camera after that initial jolt and never did get the video…)

Flying through the lot at high speeds, Nick didn’t bother to really use the brakes; we were taking corners at above 30mph.   The tires were squealing at the speed at which we took the turns.  Throughout it all however, I never really did get the sense that the car was about to lose control or traction.  It stuck firmly into the ground and didn’t even throw me into the side of the car or lean noticeably.  Knowing that the Volt would be a pretty heavy compact car, one thing I was concerned about was the handling.  I thought I had a good chance to feel it driving at above average speeds, but with tires squealing Nick was really pushing it.  (I got confirmation later about this when the engineer in charge of the car gave him a dirty look after the run).  The Volt isn’t a roadster by any means, but it took any corner that you could throw at it in the real world (at crazy Canadian speeds) and didn’t lose a beat.  The best analogy I could give to this is a football one.  It’s not a running back or wide receiver; it won’t give you that sudden sprint or snappy cut in direction change.  It was really more like a linebacker.  Good solid footing, good powerful acceleration to get to where you need to be – but no acrobatics.

At the end of the ride we pulled up to a decidedly nervous engineer (they did need that car in perfect shape for tomorrow’s conference) and a very impressed Volt Enthusiast – myself.  Nick’s run made an above expectation feel to something off the charts.  Really – seriously, if you think you’re pushing a car to the limits, you’re probably not.  These things really are designed to take much more than a normal person would push them to do.

While this experience was over a month and a half ago, long before I started this blog, the experience is still fresh in my mind.  And most unfortunately I don’t have a real video to share with you, but I hope this narrative is colorful enough to give the same experience I felt driving and riding the Volt for the first time. 

I’ll be headed out to Detroit in 8 days to test drive the Volt again at Milford proving grounds.  There I hope to be able to do a lot more than what I did in two laps in San Francisco (And get good video!).  The best way to summarize my first driving experience with the Volt is like your first trip to Europe.  Everything is cool great and new, but there were a lot of things you missed the first time and that you wished you had a second chance to do. 

I get that second chance next week, July 14th.

4 Responses to “99% Build Volt Test Drive – San Francisco”

  1. mbepic says:

    Great review………….too bad about the video BUT we understand!
    Maybe, you could measure that gasoline tank and spill the goods about its size.

    Why do you think that THIS Volt you test drove is the SAME Volt that went on the Freedom Drive to New York; arn’t they building quite a few ‘test’ mules now for that purpose?

    • PatrickZWang says:

      Just a thought – maybe an outside chance. It’s the same color and from what i’ve heard most of them stay back in detroit to do testing. There aren’t a lot circulating for PR purposes yet. Of course, it could be totally different. But wouldn’t be surprised if they used this particuliar one for all the demos.

  2. FolsomEV says:

    I drove the Volt in San Francisco on May 18 as well. Similar experience — great car. Did you check rear seat leg room?

    Tony Posawatz told me the Volt there was built in Warren. I understand the Volt that went from Texas to New York was built in Hamtramk (sp?).

    • PatrickZWang says:

      Hmm you may be right then, it might have been a pre-production hand built one. Not one off the primary manufacturing line.

      As for rear seat room, If you put two 6′ 2″ or above people in tandem it does get tight in the rear. (You’ll fit, but not comfortably. I think if you have a 6 footer + an average height person (5 foot 6- 8 or so you’ll do ok)

      Think of it as a compact car in that sense, there are very few compact cars that will take two 6 footers in line comfortabally.

      I wondered at first why they made it a 4 seater. After seeing how much space the battery takes up in the centerline of the car – it was very clear. The one upside to that is that rear passengers get bucket seats as well.

      If you liked my review help share it with others! As you can see I’m just getting this blog off the ground.



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