Flybrian

Up Close with the Chevy Volt National Tour

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Up Close with the Chevy Volt National Tour
By Brian Dreggors
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23.4mpg. Its not bad considering the 4000lbs of weight my V8 Oldsmobile is pulling along, not to mention the heavy air conditioning draw on another unseasonably humid Florida day combined with the extra-legal cruising speed. Yet as I proudly note my impressive fuel economy, I realize that if I were using the car I was driving to see, I would be averaging just north of 80mpg. And for nearly half of the 106-mile trip from Clearwater to Orlando, I wouldn't have been using gasoline at all.

On Monday, myself and Michael (Smallchevy) made the daytrip from Orlando to Miami to see what we may recall one day as the first conceptualization of a vehicle that changes how we drive - the Chevrolet Volt. We were also fortunate enough to be able to be given a guided tour of the Volt by John Ferris, one of the engineers leading E-Flex development.

First Impressions
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'Tidy' is the most politically-correct description for the Volt concept because pictures do indeed deceive. The car is surprisingly small in person and seems to wear the suit of a much larger vehicle. Appropriate, since the Volt's design director, Bob Boniface, also penned the 2006 Chevy Camaro concept. Such a larger-than-life feeling can be partially attributed to the shockingly tight front and rear overhangs, mere inches longer than the overall wheelbase of the car itself.

Despite the drawn-back stance, the Volt is a front-wheel drive car and, as John mentioned to us, that certainly opens up a world of possibilities for future styling. One doesn’t have to imagine very hard to see that the dissolution of components that the E-Flex system provides does away with many of today’s design limitations rigidly enforced by contemporary drivetrains. While there are no current plans for a rear-wheel drive E-Flex car, Ferris mentioned that moving the electric power packs to drive the rear wheels is certainly possible. Oh, and for the record, the concept is drivable and - like most concepts - limited to about 25mph.

Another contributing factor to the Volt’s rather small size is one of its limitations. E-Flex isn’t highly-scalable, owing to the relatively heavy battery pack needed to propel the car. With increased size comes increased mass and the need for more batteries, which would lead the car into a battle between weight and power that it would never win. Ferris told us that GM engineers feel that the Volt hits at the sweet spot for both the E-Flex concept and its global marketability while noting that the monocab Opel Flextreme concept shown in Frankfurt was, though a bit larger, more about the maximum utilization of space. We would have to agree that the size is very appropriate for the marketplace and that the Volt’s lines certainly don’t betray its practical liftback. That said, it’s pretty clear that the Volt is but a cog in the overall GM green machine that includes hybrids and other technologies that are more appropriate for a given size and use.

Inside, the technology showcase doesn’t come to an end. Peering through the glass roof – actually not glass at all, but a special GE Lexan resin that allows for complex surface texture – reveals comfortable seating for four as the battery tunnel takes up the middle seat. The rear console contains a multimedia DVD system as does the front. The lack of a traditional floor or column shifter helps to open up the cabin and the surprisingly clean dashboard and console have cleanly-integrated buttons and switches. Gear selection is done with an inverted pistol grip control by the steering wheel. Perhaps the best way of describing the layout and design of the Volt’s interior is to use the term ‘crafted.’ The flying armrests, the brushed stainless trim, the integrated suede inserts, the zippered glove compartment and door pockets, and the cut-and-sew leather dash cover speaks of a craftsmanship in contrast to the cold, methodical design school familiar to most high-tech concepts.

The combination of the interior styling with exterior elements like door glazing that ‘drops’ the beltline and, of course, the pale greenish hue creates a car that seems to be in sync with the natural environment around it without forgetting its automotive roots. Ferris mentioned that the styling was likely to be toned-down as the Volt moves from concept to production as the focus remains on achieving the ideal range and cost, but I for one hope many of the elements toyed with in the Volt survive or at the very least spread to other ‘green’ GM products. This is frankly the only car I’ve seen that looks environmental, yet I still would be seen in.

The Brains Behind the Beauty
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As we all generally know by this point, the Volt’s claim to fame is a 40-mile pure-electric range with a potential range of 640mi using its 1.0l I3 gasoline engine and 12 gallons of fuel. Dual charge ports for the plug-in cord are located on either front fender. The real breakthrough with this system is the ability to provide true independence of petroleum for the majority of everyday urban driving while still giving owners the flexibility of travelling long distances in the same vehicle without range concerns.

Because the batteries in the Volt are designed to start charging at 30% remaining power, they will never fully drain out. Charge times are approximated at about 6 hours on an 110v cycle or 3 hours on a European-style 220v cycle. It’s likely that specialized charging stations will run the higher voltage for decreased charge time in order to more adequately ‘refuel’ the car while the driver is shopping or the like and it may also be possible to use 240v large appliance outlets to quicken home charging, too. At current energy rates, the cost of driving a Volt within its electric range is between 1-2 cents per mile. An average compact vehicle would cost about 9-10 cents per mile in comparison (33mpg @ 2.85/gal). Even hybrids with real-world ranges of 45mpg still cost between three and six times as much as the Volt potentially will. And for those of us who live in sunny regions, the possibility of solar charging the Volt for free is very appealing. We could also see utility companies offering metered charging stations power either off the grid or by solar panels in large parking lots. Imagine your traditional shopping center lot covered by a gigantic carport containing climate-resistant solar cells, generating enough power to charge a whole field of electric cars. Just one possibility.

Another exciting potential with the E-Flex Volt is the instantaneous torque associated with electric vehicles. Because there is no traditional drivetrain, there is no parasitic loss of power between engine and wheel, meaning spirited performance with exceptional economy. And though 0-60 times for the Volt are approximated at 7.5-8.0 seconds, Mr. Ferris told us it was possible to optimize the battery for higher drain in order to get more power at throttle tip-in. This combined with the light weight and favorable aerodynamics needed by a car like this opens up another world of possibilities for aftermarket tuning and upgrading. The EV1 proved to be the fastest electric car in the world in its time and was known for its quick scatter off the line and Honda Insights are appreciated by tuners for its naturally lightweight chassis. In this regard, the market is almost already there; they just need a vehicle.

The other exciting aspect of E-Flex is its flexibility in range-assist motors. Since the drivetrain is in essence independent of the charging device, it doesn’t care what it’s powered by. As mentioned, the Volt concept uses a 1.0l gasoline engine (which runs at constant optimal RPM). The Opel Flextreme concept showcased a few months ago in Europe uses a 1.3l Diesel while a concept Volt unveiled at Shanghai uses fuel cells. Mr. Ferris told us that fuel cells are definitely the next step for the Volt and will be using a forthcoming Gen V system as opposed to the existing Gen IV in the Equinox fuel cell crossovers. The possibilities for the E-Flex to adapt to the most favorable powertrain for its time and region, therefore, are endless.

Details, Details
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“The car isn’t challenging. We can make the car today. We’re waiting on the batteries.” That statement from Mr. Ferris sums it up rather succinctly, but let’s explore what that really means.

The lithium-ion battery packs that lie at the heart of the E-Flex system are vulnerable to extreme heat conditions and poor ventilation. At the least, prolonged exposure to enclosed hot areas results in loss of charge capacity and at worst, the possibility of rupturing or ignition. This has received heavy media attention in regards to poorly-ventilated Li-ion packs used in laptop computers and some cell phones.

It goes without saying that ‘explosion’ and ‘electric car’ doesn’t jibe well together and GM is working intensely with its suppliers to resolve this issue – which is very likely to result in a liquid cooling – along with accompanying concerns of weight, longevity, and power retention. Most know that A123 Systems is the chosen battery supplier, but the E-Flex team is also working with Continental, LG, and other battery manufacturers in creating the best solution.

On the batteries, the E-Flex team is also working on solutions for what to do with the batteries after their practical usage in cars has ended. Ferris mentioned that the battery packs are designed to have a 10 year lifespan. Afterwards, they could be sold to utility companies who have expressed great interest in obtaining them for various purposes, the reason being that though by that time the battery packs will no longer be able to provide optimal power for automobile usage, they still have plenty of retention left for other uses like simple energy storage.

Power of the People
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To speak to one of the Volt’s engineers was a treat in and of itself, but to hear the reactions of others was insightful in its own regard and there is no question the Volt has serious curb appeal. People were simply interested in the car because of its looks and when they learned about the 40-mile gas-free range, it was just more impressive. Surprisingly, when informed at the approximate cost of $30,000, few people seemed turned off. It appears that Chevrolet managed to pull off a convincing vehicle that looks its price on design merits alone, something that will be very beneficial if the car remains close to concept.

Speaking of which, as a concept, the Volt lacks many of those gee-whiz features that other advanced technology dreams cars typically show off in spades. Wild dashboard electronics, exotic trim pieces, and the like are absent in favor of a simplistic but modern layout and basic gadgets. It’s wise to not included all those tempting dream car standbys because the implications of an electrically-laden Volt may not be feasible. Mr. Ferris told us that engineers are also working hard on low-draw electronics and materials that are lightweight yet maintain the feel of high quality at the same time. The same goes for the exterior which is attempting to make the most out of the latest composites and light metals while retaining structural integrity and a $30,000 price tag. So, while you’re not likely to see the 16-way power seats of a Sixty-Special, you’re still going to see a comfortable, entirely-livable and desirable vehicle with a little touch of ‘tomorrowism’ in the looks inside and out.

Its also worth noting again that this is not a plug-in hybrid. GM is indeed working on a plug-in with the 2008 Saturn VUE and the VUE is likely the only plug-in hybrid GM will field, concentrating instead on fuel cells and E-Flex. Its going to take a lot of marketing and promotion to educate the average consumer that, yes, the Volt plugs in, but no, you don't need to plug it in to drive it.

Parting Thoughts
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Since I made reference to the EV1 so much, it needs to be said that those lessons are not lost. Even the biggest cynics and critics have to admit that the EV1 was perhaps the most advanced vehicle of its time and many of the concepts that made the two-seater so great on paper are going to make the Volt great in the real-world. Many of the technology patented for the EV1’s development are going into the Volt, mainly stuff that cannot be mentioned publically at this time. Also, a good number of the chief engineers who worked on the EV1 are either dedicated to the Volt or on the overall E-Flex team.

Coming away from seeing the Volt, I have the utmost confidence that the car will see the light of day. My rationale is based on the fact that GM built and fielded an electric car ten years ago, publicized it, killed the program, cut up most of the cars, faced enormous public backlash from it, then comes out a year ago saying they’re building an electric car. It’s a ballsy move and takes a lot of audacity to do that coming from where GM stands in the public’s mind on electric cars and fuel-efficient cars in general. This has already gone beyond the dozens of concepts other manufacturers have unveiled as fun designs or styling bucks with an asterisk note mentioning it’s a plug-in hybrid. Material has been printed. The car has been taken around. Ads have been run. GM simply can’t not make this car a reality.

And now time for some educated speculation. Recent UAW documents have revealed that the Volt will be assembled at GM's Hamtramck Assembly Plant in Michigan and will commence doing so in 2010. It’s based on the forthcoming Delta II platform, which is being designed from the ground-up to be adaptable, versatile underpinnings for hybrid and electric cars. When the Volt shows up in showrooms, expect toned-down details and more overhangs to accommodate federal impact standards. The large 22-inch wheels will be traded for stylish but smaller-diameter lightweight wheels with low-rolling resistance tires. The all-glass roof will be gone – when do they ever survive? – but the side door glass may have potential because it’s a very distinct Volt cue. Expect also a slightly taller greenhouse. Overall styling cues should remain similar but updated to contemporary Chevy trends. We would prefer it remain as close to existing, though, because the chiseled sheetmetal is extremely distinctive and handsome.

Going beyond the Volt, there was also mention of a Delta-based ‘MPV7’ being assembled at Hamtramck around the same timeframe. Could this be the production Flextreme? We think it’s very likely since it makes practical sense to birth this new technology close to home, at least at first. While we appreciate the stealth utility of the 5-door hatchback Volt design, we’d definitely like to see this small MPV also be part of the available lineup stateside, perhaps as a Saturn vehicle to accompany the plug-in VUE and hybrid AURA. It’s rumored that this year’s LAIAS will feature yet another variation of the E-Flex system, this time a Saturn-badged vehicle. If so, we hope it will be that kind of 6/7-seat people-mover.

There are also rumors spurred by Automotive News that Cadillac is investigating using the E-Flex system in a future vehicle. While we think the potential of a torquey rear-wheel drive super-efficient Cadillac is intriguing, if a choice had to be made, we think Buick would make a better home for such a car. Cadillac has a more rigid set of expectations in terms of handling and feature content than Buick does. A Buick E-Flex could simply be a lower-volume Volt with softer, more upscale styling cues and distinct luxury features. This would not only give Buick a much-needed sub-LaCrosse premium compact/intermediate and accompanying sales boost, but would justify the $30-40k pricetag. Additionally, marketing such a vehicle in China is a no-brainer as the tri-shield arguably carries more weight there than any other domestic marque.

Oh, and a last note about the $30,000 MSRP goal, Mr. Ferris also mentioned that they're looking into leasing the battery pack as an option to help out with the purchase price of the car, not the only means of selling the Volt. Lease prices would be reasonable compared to the price of fuel. Also, realize that government incentives are expected. Electric cars right now do not get spiffs from the IRS as far as I know, but everything on the market is an NEV or simply not commercially-viable. If the IRS doesn't offer an incentive for the Volt, direct your anger at your local representative body.

Regarding the Chevy Volt National Tour, the next locations will be in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We'll apprise you of those dates as soon as we know them!

If anyone has any additional, specific questions about the Volt, please feel free to ask them here and I’ll try to get answers for them. Also, stay tuned to the Volt-ometer Forum for the latest news and updates regarding this exciting car.

Special thanks to John Ferris for his time and willingness to answer all that we asked…well, all that he was able to say at least!... and to Gloria Huang for arranging this for us.

Thanks also to Michael (SmallChevy) for accompanying me to the event.


Related Links

:forum:The Volt-ometer - C&G's Chevrolet Volt home forum
Chevrolet Volt Official Site
Chevy Volt Tour Flickr Album - Lots of great photos from every stop

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nice article. extremely well written and thoughtful points. this hybrid is clearly the best looking of the bunch, and if released with the aformentioned targets of 80 mpg, should see huge success. I think 500k units with the right marketing would not be an unreasonable prediction. The Prius does almost 150k, and with a pretty horrid, if futuristic, design. That's also with a lot less mpgs. This could be the car to bring people back to average economy/midsize cars at GM.

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BTW, getting a 220 volt outlet installed in your house can be as simple as calling an electrician. So 3 hour charge times are quite possible here too.

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I think the $30k price tag may limit the sales #s, but if that's with a ton of standard features, then it should still sell pretty well. I look forward to seeing not only how this does, but watching prices come down as production goes up and technology ages.

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Excellent write-up. Beautifully made car. What's different and special about the Volt is... I am not an eco-weenie, but I'd drive one, easily. I really hope they can bring this to market with most, if not all, of the concept's promises kept.
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all this time and this is the first time i've seen the interior. i love this car. it's so perfect. btw, i think the price should be in the 30 thousands and lower dramatically over time. the marketing has to be perfect, and of course it has to be flawless and sell in droves, but if they do it right, this could be the electric model t/beetle/taurus

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Some of your best writing there, Fly.

This car is so essential to GM at this point, and it seems that they are prepared to deliver. I look forward to that.

To expand on Ocn's point a bit, I am absolutely in love with the styling of this car from the windsheild forward and I'd love to see that look migrate to other Chevys. :thumbsup:

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Yup, that menacing front end would look great on an Impala... or an El Camino. It definitely has an "upscale" feel to it, befitting Chevy's senior sedan.
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A few of things that I would like to add to this excellent write up is:

1. The battery is a 16 kWh one. The current concept is designed to handle a drawdown to 8 kWh before the ICE kicks in and powers the battery. Mr. Ferris said this "Lower" point is flexible and can be altered according to the market requirement, like for e.g. in California if the daily commute is 55 miles, the battery drawdown can be lowered to 5kWh before the ICE kicks in. Thus the gas free range can be modified according to and as when required.

2. As for the weight, Mr Ferris did not say how much more the battery packs add to the Delta platform (no matter how much twisted questions Fly and I asked). He said, weight saving measures will be taken to keep the weight gain by the battery under control.

3. Mr. Ferris asked us how much do you think would be a valid number of units for the first year of release. Assuming that it is based on the Delta II platform, and that most of the vehicle architecture will be shared along with the mechanicals, we said 75-100k would not be a bad figre in first MY. To which he ambivalently replied that is the goal GM is trying to set.

Buick would be certainly a killer vehicle, and can justify a higher price range and may make profit for GM.

On a side note, a French family who was visiting FIU walked across us and when they saw the vehicle, they started asking us questions about the vehicle. Their first comment was, is it like the Lexus hybrid? (gotta give Toy credit for brainwashing indviduals). They asked us how much will the vechicle cost, and when they heard the price, they said they would certainly look forward to having it in Europe and would not mind driving a Chevrolet.

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Flybrian: This is some of your best work ever! Once again, you've given this website an exclusive and important article. Unique content, well-written, copiously illustrated. I'm sure it took some effort on your part, and you can be proud of the results. (And thanks for suggesting that Buick get a car with this new technology. In my opinion, "Electra" would be the perfect name.) Edited by wildcat
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I agree with the comments on your work: GREAT JOB! This car is amazing! GM has made it look futuristic without giving it an odd space pod appearance. It should do a lot to advance alternative powertrain technology.

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$30,000 is kind of expensive and may limit sales/appear. I think GM should sell the car for $25,000 and take the $5,000 hit. They could then limit sales to 200,000 the first few years and hold loses to $1 billion a year for the project. This may seem like a lot but think what it will do for their image. It would be worth many times as much in advertising and good PR. GM would be selling a mainstream car for the average buyer that is the most technologically advanced vehicle in the world. GM would be seen as the technological and environmental leader, which would cast a whole new positive image on all its vehicles. A $30,000 vehicle is out of range for the vast majority of buyers, so the revolutionary element may be lost to the average car buyer, and thus the overall halo effects as well.

As production is ramped up and more vehicles are spawned off the platform the cost will come down and GM can be profitable at the $25k mark.

Edited by spykebn
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$30,000 is kind of expensive and may limit sales/appear. I think GM should sell the car for $25,000 and take the $5,000 hit. They could then limit sales to 200,000 the first few years and hold loses to $1 billion a year for the project. This may seem like a lot but think what it will do for their image. It would be worth many times as much in advertising and good PR. GM would be selling a mainstream car for the average buyer that is the most technologically advanced vehicle in the world. GM would be seen as the technological and environmental leader, which would cast a whole new positive image on all its vehicles. A $30,000 vehicle is out of range for the vast majority of buyers, so the revolutionary element may be lost to the average car buyer, and thus the overall halo effects as well.

As production is ramped up and more vehicles are spawned off the platform the cost will come down and GM can be profitable at the $25k mark.

Until a higher number of units is sold, GM will already be taking a hit selling it at $30k. Lot's of R&D to recover.

Just hope everyone isn't overly upset when it comes out way toned down from the way it looks now. Like Brian make comments to above, front and rear overhangs changing due to crash tests, smaller wheels, smaller finder flairs. Considerably toned down interior with significantly different and more modern design cues.

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Really dumb question

What about all us people (like 90% of people here in Europe) who live in an apartment or terrace house with no allocated parking and end up parking down the street wherever they can find space? Very Long extension cord needed....

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Really dumb question

What about all us people (like 90% of people here in Europe) who live in an apartment or terrace house with no allocated parking and end up parking down the street wherever they can find space? Very Long extension cord needed....

Well, for one, you don't have to plug it in - the on board generator can do the charging. Of course that misses out on a lot of the advantage of the car. If the vehicle (and/or other plug-in vehicles) become popular enough, perhaps metered outlets can be installed for public use? That way every spot has an outlet...

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a cadillac version? ehhh.

a buick version? GENIUS!

there is def a market for a premium volt vehicle. Some people want a little more lux with their hybrid and wouldn't mine paying for it. It's just another easy way for GM to make more money on this platform! Cadillac needs to have extremely high performance standards and i don't think the volt could meet them without sacrificing its fuel saving potential.

We expect GM to tone it down, but keep it distinctive. you can spot that hideous prius from 6 miles away, the volt needs to be just as noticeable, but in a better way.

Edited by jbartley
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Really dumb question

What about all us people (like 90% of people here in Europe) who live in an apartment or terrace house with no allocated parking and end up parking down the street wherever they can find space? Very Long extension cord needed....

You get to buy the "diesel engine as generator" version?

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Couple good issues brought up here:

1. Selling 500K - not a chance. 100K should be considered success. I personally feel that this vehicle will wear in over time and have a sales lifecycle atypical to most. Remember, the hybrid game is still one of image and there are only so many buyers willing to fork over the initial investment to be on the eco-friendly side and most of those people love Toyota and may stay loyal to the Prius. Those facts will be reflected in initial sales volumes, but I think once people realize how much money they can save, they'll start looking at the Volt as a real economic alternative, then you'll see some serious sales.

2. Rather have a $25K pricetag...well sure, $10K would be even better, but as mentioned, $30K is isn't going to make the company a lot of money...if any.

3. Where to plug in...good question. Urban areas are going to be tricky, but should hold a lot of potential for the Volt. Hard to recharge when you park on the street, but I hope GM is starting to make deals with city parking lots or something of that nature.

If Volt technology is going to last, the demand for plug-in stations will prompt the supply.

4. A premium Volt...hmmm interesting. Tough to say if they'd get anything out of that or if due to the nature of the vehicle they would only cannibalize sales. Still, I could see a Buick or Saturn do well.

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Man thats a beautiful car. This thing has the potential to be HUGE if targeted and executed properly. This would be the only hybrid vehicle I would consider, and not because it comes from GM, but because it looks aggressive (Love the wheels and the way the roof bends down into the windshield :drool:).

When does this thing come out again?

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Sweet Ride :D

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Okay, slightly off topic, and maybe slightly inappropriate - but that chick in the black dress in that one picture standing towards the front of the car - is hot! hahahahahahaha! :idhitit:

The Volt is sweet - what a cool idea. Hopefully GM and their suppliers can work out some of the kinks with the batteries.

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Okay, slightly off topic, and maybe slightly inappropriate - but that chick in the black dress in that one picture standing towards the front of the car - is hot! hahahahahahaha! :idhitit:

The Volt is sweet - what a cool idea. Hopefully GM and their suppliers can work out some of the kinks with the batteries.

You would be surprised by the quality of crowd at FIU. Sometimes, I let Fly do the talking and I watched those hot, bodacious, beauties around. It has been 3 years since I have been to a campus. Work life sucks you know. :D

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