Is the Chevrolet Volt a Plug-in Hybrid?

Posted: October 12, 2010

The Chevrolet Volt debuts later this year, and GM says the Volt will be its first mass-produced plug-in electric vehicle. This week, Chevrolet issued a press release for the car, and after learning more, the automotive industry says Chevrolet stretched the truth. The Volt has a gasoline engine that helps power the car, which means that technically, some may consider it a plug-in hybrid.

Why? The Volt’s gasoline engine helps power the car. “More specifically, at some speeds it contributes to the propulsion effort, but only once the battery pack has run down and the engine has turned on to run the generator,” Kicking Tires explains. “It never drives the wheels on its own, only as a hybrid, using both motor and engine.”

If the Volt relies on a gasoline engine, is it any different than a Toyota Prius? That depends on how you look at it. On the surface, “the Volt seems like little more than a plug-in Prius (parallel hybrid) with a larger and more powerful battery and electric motor,” writes Auto Guide. But that’s not entirely true. General Motors says the gasoline engine can’t power the wheels independently of the electric motor.  

Chevrolet says the Volt is not a hybrid, and it’s standing behind its first electric car. “It is a one-of-a-kind, all-electrically driven vehicle designed and engineered to operate in all climates. Powered by GM's revolutionary Voltec propulsion system, it consists of a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and electric drive unit that provide pure electric range between 25 and 50 miles, depending on terrain, driving techniques and temperature,” the automaker says in a press release.

The Volt also has a 1.4-liter, gasoline-powered engine. Chevrolet reports that the gasoline engine “extends the range up to an additional 310 miles on a full tank of fuel by operating the vehicle's electric drive system until the car can be plugged in and recharged or refueled. This distinguishes the Volt from electric-only vehicles, which cannot be operated when recharging is not immediately available - such as during a power interruption or on a long-distance trip.”

After many “inaccurate media reports,” GM writes in a second press release, “we want to clarify a few points. The Volt has an innovative electric drive system that can deliver power in both pure electric and extended range driving. The Voltec electric drive cannot operate without power from the electric motors. If the traction motor is disabled, the range-extending internal combustion engine cannot drive the vehicle by itself.”

Whether you consider the Volt an elective vehicle or a plug-in hybrid is a matter of perspective. “Logically, any vehicle equipped with both a combustion engine and an electric motor is a hybrid,” says the New York Times. “In keeping with the electric powertrain terminology common to diesel-electric locomotives, the Volt would best be described as a series hybrid. G.M.’s insistence that the car is fully electric is hard to understand in light of the fact that the gas engine provides direct motive power under certain conditions.”

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