Chevrolet Volt — A charge to drive

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Although we had not driven General Motors’ revolutionary extended range electric car in the first months of its new life, we had reached the conclusion that its cost far exceeds the benefits it provides in gas savings.

We reasoned that numerous vehicles from established hybrids to the new plug-in hybrids soon to hit the market to the new high-mileage compact vehicles now in showrooms provide considerably more bang for the buck than the Volt, which is also of compact size.

There is still much truth in that opinion, at least for time being.

Regardless of our preconceived notions, we somewhat begrudgingly admit we came quickly to like the Volt, first during our first drive experience and then during a couple of seven-day test runs. We found ourselves more than a little surprised that many of our misgivings were so quickly eradicated.

The 2011 Volt’s biggest problem is not in the driving and is not in the gas savings — which can be enormous based on driving habits — but in the initial cost.

The technology involved in developing the car has been so expensive that General Motors saw the need to price it at over 40 grand. But the federal government and several state governments have seen the value of the Volt and have made it definitely more affordable. The feds will award a $7,500 tax credit to a new owner, and some states such as Hawaii and California are sweetening the pot with up to $5,000 rebates.

With a tax credit and a rebate in hand, the actual price drops significantly. With those savings we certainly can see more value in ownership. However the end cost difference between the Volt and other vehicles of the same ilk, such as Nissan’s all electric Leaf find the Chevy buyers still paying more, sometimes thousands more.

Cost issues aside we found that we could live quite happily with the vehicle in all manner of driving.

Chevrolet calls the Volt a plug-in extended range vehicle. They really don’t like to call it a hybrid, but…it’s complicated.

What you do get are two electric motors, one 55kWh and the other 16kWh; a 1.4-liter gasoline engine that helps to charge the generator that charges the lithium ion battery that powers the electric motors. You also have regenerative braking that helps to recharge the battery.

The battery is replenished by plugging it into a 120 or 240-volt outlet or charging station. All that charging will get you between 35 and 40 miles of gas-free driving. After driving your 35-plus miles the battery has approximately 20-percent reserve and that’s when the gasoline engine kicks in to supply the generator that will keep the battery at that reserve level, and it keeps you going on electric for about 310 more miles, or until you burn all the gas and fully deplete the battery; hence the extended range moniker.

Under these conditions the gasoline engine does not drive the wheels. But (there is always a but) under certain conditions of high speed and high torque the gasoline engine and the 55kWh motor will combine to drive the wheels — in short bursts.

In reality, who cares? As noted the car goes pretty well and is relatively efficient and it seems like a nice piece of science and engineering that gets you there.

We found that going from all electric to extended range mode was virtually imperceptible. Probably the only way you can tell most of the time is the bright green icon on the dashboard display switched to a blue silhouette of a gas pump.

As you may have figured out by now, this is one car where truly “your mileage will vary.” If your trips are short bursts and you keep it charged you may go months without adding gas. You will get infinite gas mileage. If you do the type of combined driving we did you may need to top off the 9.3-gallon tank every couple of weeks and realize anywhere between 50 and 75 mpg. If you take long trips, you may do most of your driving with the gas engine working and you may find yourself disappointed with 35 mpg.

We discovered the Volt is a real car that will go anywhere and can deliver exceptional gas mileage depending on your driving habits.

Our tests included everything we normally would do during any week, and that made our Volt experience convincing. It included days of running around to the mall, the doctor’s office and restaurants. During those days we never put more than 30 miles on the car and never ran out of a “charge.” They were gas free days. We charged it daily.

On a number of days we drove beyond the electric range, logging 55 miles one day and 60 the other. But even so, about 35 of those miles each day were gas free. And on one day we covered about 175 miles most of which were driven using the gas engine/generator.

Total distance covered, 380 miles. We used 6.2 gallons of gas. Our typical driving week fuel economy averaged 61 mpg. At $4 a gallon for premium gas (the owner’s manual says refuel with 91-octane) we spent around $25. We don’t know how much we spent on electricity recharging the Volt every night using a standard 120-volt plug, but we figure not much more than a few dollars.

In our second test we ran out the electricity in one day and spent the rest of the week using gas generated power, averaging 38.2 mpg combined and spent nearly $40 on gas. Our electric charging costs were negligible since we only charged the car for two hours to see how much battery charge we would get in that situation; not so much.

Of course if the driving experience had proved next to intolerable then the fuel savings would be meaningless. You want to look forward to driving your car, it’s helpful to like the car you are driving, whether new or well worn. No problem with the Volt.

We were enthused about the Volt’s performance from its 149-horsepower electric motors. If you don’t mind using up some range, 0-to-60 can easily be achieved in 9 seconds. Likewise, mid-range performance was better than such hybrids as the Toyota Prius and Lexus CT 200h.

We had no complaints over its handling characteristics. The car exhibited a decent on-center feel and cornering was on a par with most compact cars sold these days. The Volt is solid all around and we very comfortable behind the wheel.

One strange omission in a vehicle costing $41,000 — there is no power seat control for the driver. Hopefully that rather glaring oversight will be corrected on model year change.

Our passengers had no complaints. Rear-seat leg room as in all compact vehicles can be a bit tight, but in the Volt we found it manageable, especially with a little help from the front-seat occupants. Storage capacity under the rear hatch is adequate at 10.6 cubic feet, and the two rear bucket seats can be folded flat to create more cargo space.

While comely the Volt isn’t a beauty. Its exterior design takes something from Camaro but it lacks the proportion and charm. What it does take from Camaro is the door opening design and window cuts; and the uncomfortable ingress and egress for anyone long in the torso. It’s a real pain in the neck.

Additionally it has another Camaro anomaly, absolutely awful sightlines with huge pillars all around.

As noted the 2011Volt is expensive, starting at $41,000 including destination so before plunging in you might want to do some serious calculations as to your needs. Our test cars both came with a few options including a premium trim package with leather, 17-inch forged polished alloy wheels and special paint bringing the bottom line to $44,180 each.

But there is some good news; Chevrolet is dropping the base price of the 2012 Volt to $39,995 including destination charges, a savings of $1,005. They will also offer new option packages, colors and sporty wheels as the plug-in becomes available in all 50 states. There is nothing like a little competition to make rethinking pricing a priority.

Base price: $41,000; as driven, $44,180
Engine: Electric motors, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 149 @ 4,800 rpm
Torque: 273 pound-feet
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: one-speed direct drive
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 177.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,781 pounds
Turning circle: 36 feet
Luggage capacity: 10.6 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 9.3 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: Electric only, 93; gas only, 37
0-60: 9 seconds (MotorWeek)
Also consider: Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid

The Good:
• Low fuel cost in normal driving
• 300-mile range
• High-tech cabin

The Bad:
• No power front seat
• Massive pillars make for terrible sight lines

The Ugly:
• Questionable value for the price