Next-generation Volt more fuel efficient, longer range

David Shepardson and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Warren — General Motors' next-generation Chevrolet Volt will have a significantly longer all-electric range, a powertrain that's 130 pounds lighter and it will be more powerful.

The Detroit automaker in January will introduce the 2016 Volt at the North American International Auto Show. GM officials say it isn't likely to go on sale until the second half of 2015.

GM showed off its new two-motor drive unit that it will build at its Warren Transmission plant here starting next year — a part it previously built in Mexico. The redesigned drive-unit is 5 to 12 percent more efficient than the system on the current Volt and weighs about 100 pounds less.

"It will store more energy in its battery pack with fewer cells, yet go further on a charge," GM CEO Mary Barra said Tuesday during a speech at the Detroit Economic Club. "It will accelerate faster. And the car's gas generator will come from an all-new GM engine family and use even less fuel."

The current Volt is a plug-in hybrid that operates with 38 miles of electric range and gets 37 miles per gallon when operated with the gasoline engine. GM says the next-generation Volt will be significantly more efficient, but GM and Barra won't disclose the ratings and new range until January. The new vehicle will be at least 5 percent more fuel efficient when driven in gasoline-only mode.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaking to the Detroit Economic Club.

"Should GM deliver a new Volt with a longer range and a lower price, it will have a clear winner," Eric Ibara, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in a statement.

The 2016 Volt will have 20 percent better acceleration at low speeds, because of the two-motor system that replaces the one motor in the current system. It will have a better battery cell chemistry that increases storage capacity by 20 percent on a volume basis, while the number of cells decreases from 288 to 192. The lower positioning of the cells means a lower center of gravity and improved handling, said Larry Nitz, executive director of GM Powertrain's electrification engineering team.

"It would have been simple for us to tweak our existing battery to provide nominally increased range, but that's not what our customers want," Nitz said. "Our team created a new battery system that will exceed expectations of most owners."

The new Volt reduces the dependence on rare-earth magnets — expensive components in electric vehicles. The new Volt has simplified controls and its battery system is 30 pounds lighter.

For more than two years, employees at the Warren Transmission plant have been working on the next generation dual motors. Engineers and employees who will assemble the motors did seven "slow-build" events starting in 2012; the first one turned up 200 different issues. By the final build a few months ago, only a half-dozen issues were discovered.

GM has refurbished 300,000 square feet in the 56-year-old plant for the new Volt motor.

Jason Ditman, chief engineer for the new drive unit, said the extensive preparation means fewer issues will be discovered in early production. Reporters toured the part of the plant and assembled a sample motor.

Since 2010, GM has sold more than 69,000 Volts and 80 percent of the miles have been driven in EV mode. GM Volt owners have driven more than 650 million miles in EV mode saving 34 million gallons of gasoline. The Volt was introduced as a concept at the 2007 Detroit auto show and quickly became one of GM's most talked-about models.

GM said Monday it is investing $240 million into its Warren Transmission Plant to build the redesigned electric drive unit Volt, creating or retaining 160 jobs.

GM also said it will build a new 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine for the 2016 Volt at its Flint engine plant. It will replace a 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine. GM said Tuesday the 1.5-liter engine for the Volt's first year of production will be made at GM's Toluca, Mexico plant before shifting to Flint.

GM spokesman Tom Wickham said the Flint plant is still producing the 1.4-liter engine for the current generation Volt and will "undergo a major transformation internally as we install new equipment for the new small gas engine."

Since 2009, GM has invested $1.82 billion in Michigan that's related to electrification and the Volt. It has several other EV projects in the pipeline. The current and next-generation Volt will continue to be built at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant.

The Volt has not met sales expectations set in 2011 by former CEO Dan Akerson, who wanted production to hit 60,000 annually by 2012. Last year, GM lowered the price by $5,000 to boost sales.

Barra on Monday would not give volume targets for the newest Volt, saying GM didn't sell as many as initially thought and she thinks GM has learned its lessons from sharing overly optimistic sales goals.

She said the new Volt will offer customers more value, and she will continue to gain acceptance and give GM an opportunity to improve scale and costs.

Barra wouldn't comment Monday whether the Volt is profitable. She also declined to say whether the sticker price of the 2016 Volt would be lower, and wouldn't say if it would be offered in multiple models.

GM said about 70 percent of the new Volt's parts will be made in the U.S. or Canada within the first year of production, up from about 50 percent today.

Barra, speaking to reporters Tuesday after her Detroit Economic Club appearance, said GM will be a fierce competitor in the industry.

"It's a very competitive industry," she said. "Things are changing and we need to make sure that we're doing everything within our power to win."

Barra told reporters that the pace of recalls is slowing down, with smaller numbers of cars being recalled. GM has recalled more than 30 million vehicles this year.

"I think we have very good sensing mechanisms in place," she said. "If we have an issue ... we're finding it quickly. But again we're going to do the right thing for customers."