By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Ok, I have changed my mind about the Chevy Volt. Well, some of my mind… .
It is, no doubt about it, a brilliant piece of engineering. Where a Toyota Prius can be coaxed to roll along on electric power alone at up to about 25 MPH for a few brief moments before the batteries run low and the gas engine steps in, the Volt can run full-tilt on just its batteries/electric motor all the way up to its top speed of 101 MPH — and for several miles at speeds in the 60-70 MPH range before the gas engine kicks back on to feed the batteries. It’s also not tied to an electric outlet — as the Nissan Leaf is — because it carries its own recharging system around with it. You can plug it in — or fill it up. Either way, you keep on moving.
It looks nice, has a really neat interior — and it’s not even slow.
Too bad it doesn’t make much economic sense.
At least, not that I can figure out.
WHAT IT IS
The Volt sedan is a new type of hybrid in which the electric side of the powertain is dominant vs. the reverse in older hybrids like the Prius, which mostly rely on their gasoline-burning engines to move them. The Volt does have a gas engine, and it does directly assist in moving the vehicle under high-load conditions, but it is mostly there to extend the Volt’s range on battery power alone by keeping the battery charged up. You can also plug the Volt into a household outlet to recharge the batteries without using any gas at all — and when the batteries are topped off, it can run on stored electrical power for an honest 15-20-something miles in combined city-highway driving and perhaps twice that far under ideal (for an electric car) conditions; that is, just poking along at speeds of 50 MPH or less.
That’s pretty impressive.
Base price is $39,145.
The mid-sized, four-passenger Volt’s main — and only direct — competitor is the $35,200-$37,250 Nissan Leaf electric car.
Chevy has de-contented the Volt slightly for its second year in production, putting the formerly standard GPS navigation and premium Bose audio on the options list. This has allowed the MSRP to be reduced by about $2k relative to last year in a bid to make the car more affordable.
Has the potential to use much less gas than a standard car, or even a standard hybrid car.
Gives you decent acceleration — and very good handling (much better than Prius).
Goes much farther on a tank/full charge than the all-electric Leaf, which has a maximum range of about 73 miles before its batteries exhaust themselves and have to be recharged.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
In real-word driving, you may be using the gas engine more than you’d like — and burning more gas than you’d expect.
Even with a $7,500 federal tax incentive, the Volt is still an expensive car — in the same range as a new BMW 1 Series. I don’t understand the concept of a $32k “economy” car. And if it’s a “technology” car — or a technology luxury car — then who cares about its fuel economy?
Hard-to-define cost to feed it electricity.
UNDER THE HOOD
Unlike the Nissan Leaf — which is a pure electric car that runs only on battery power — the Volt is a semi-electric car. It still has a conventional 1.4 liter gasoline-burning engine under its hood, but its main job is to feed electricity to the electric motor which does most of the actual work of propelling the car — and also to keep the 16 kWh lithium-ion battery pack topped-off. It only indirectly (and infrequently) works to turn the car’s wheels. Because it carries around what amounts to its own onboard generator, the Volt’s radius of action is as unlimited as any other car’s — provided, of course, you don’t let the gas tank (which holds about 8.2 gallons of fuel) run dry.
Total output of the combined system (gas engine, electric motor and batteries) is a claimed 149 hp — enough to propel the 3,781 lb. Volt to 60 MPH in just over 9 seconds flat. That’s about a second faster than a Toyota Prius, by the way.
Fuel economy is harder to define.
Chevy (and EPA) gives you two separate figures, one for MPGs — which covers the gas engine. And one for MPG”e” — which (ostensibly) measures how many miles you can travel per kilowatt-hour.
The first is easy — and kind of disappointing: 37 MPG for the 1.4 liter gas engine in combined city/highway driving. I only got 30.2 MPG.But even 37 MPG is not particularly impressive. (I’ll get into this more below).
The second measure of “fuel” efficiency — that MPG”e” thing — is completely inscrutable. I tried to find out exactly (or even roughly) how much it costs in terms of a utility bill to plug the Volt in for the appx. 10 hours it takes (on 110V household current; if you have a 240 V outlet, that goes down to four hours) to replenish the batteries. But how do you separate out the draw from the Volt and all your other household stuff — everything from the washing machine to the night light? I have no idea.
All I can tell you for sure is this:
When they dropped the Volt off for my week-long evaluation, it had a full tank (about 8.2 gallons) and 4,100 miles on the odometer. The computer display said I had a range of 270 miles. As I type this, at the end of my week, the Volt now has has 4306 miles on it — with an indicated 42 miles to empty.
This is not good. In fact, it sucks.
My math says — confirming what the Volt’s computer display tells me — I have averaged about 32.2 MPGs overall. Not terrible. But for about $22k, you could buy a new VW Jetta TDI and get 42 on the highway, 30 in city driving (so about 35 MPG average) or within the margin of error — and have $10,000 left in your pocket (and not stiffed your fellow taxpayers for another $7,500).
Granted, the Volt can theoretically travel much farther on just its electric reserves (not requiring the gas engine to come on at all). But as Chevy tells you right there in the owner’s manual — and as my week long test drive revealed — “electric range is maximized at 50 MPH and below.” So, if you drive faster — or accelerate harder — the batteries get depleted faster.
And once they get depleted beyond a certain point, the gas engine kicks in to feed power to the electric motors — and you are now burning gas, just like a conventional car.
And a fair amount of it, too.
EPA and Chevy’s quoted 37 MPG when the gas engine is running is not much of an improvement over what you’d get in any of several 2012 model year non-hybrid cars, not just the VW Jetta diesel. For example, a 2012 Hyundai Accent sedan rates 40 MPG on the highway and 30 in city driving — so about 35 MPG combined.
And the Hyundai only costs $12k — that’s $20k less than the Volt.
And it burns regular unleaded.
The Volt wants premium only.
ON THE ROAD
There’s no faulting how the Volt drives.
It accelerates smartly and there is no noticeable segue between electric drive and electric-drive assisted by the gas engine. It just … goes.
And it corners, too.
To date, every hybrid I have driven feels too heavy because it is too heavy. There is the sensation of carrying a pallet of bricks in the trunk — which is pretty much exactly it, except the bricks are batteries. Several hundred pounds of them. The Volt has them too, but the battery pack is distributed more evenly, front to back — and the car’s center of gravity is lower. The result is a car that doesn’t feel oafish when driven slightly — or even a lot — faster than recommended speeds through the curves.
Beyond that, Chevy has just done a brilliant job making it feel normal.
There’s no weirdness, no whirring. No too-light steering or strange anything. The Future Boy dash layout takes a few moments to absorb and you’ll probably need to read the manual to understand some of the functions and displays — but other than peripheral stuff you’ll quickly figure out, you just get in the thing and drive.
There is a bit more noise from the gas engine, when it’s running, than I expected to hear. But other than this, I find no fault with the Volt’s operation.
It’s the economics of this car that bother me.
AT THE CURB
They did a good job on the skin, too.
This is no son-of-Aztek B sci-fi movie prop. It looks sleek and expensive — which of course, it is.
Inside, it’s nice also. As nice as any current $30k-ish luxury car, in fact — which is what the Volt is, in my opinion, at least. You have before you all the bells and whistles, except digitized and LCD-displayed. My tester had the optional premium audio rig ($495) with DVD player and 30 GB music storage hard drive plus GPS ($1,995) as well as the Premium Trim Package ($1,395) which includes heated leather seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Total tab: $43,030 (plus $850 destination charge.
About $44k — which would also buy you a well-padded 2012 Cadillac CTS or any one of several other really nice luxury sedans. The Volt is very nice, too. But is that what we’re after here? Nice? I thought the whole point of the exercise was to, you know, save people some money. How does a $44k Volt (or even a $32k Volt) do that, exactly?
Now, the Nissan Leaf is not a cheap date either, but at $35k to start and around $28k after-subsidy, it’s at least somewhat snicker proof. Plus it doesn’t use any gas, ever. I have no idea how much it costs to feed the thing electricity — for the same reason that figuring out how much it costs to charge up the Volt is as impenetrable an enigma as the success of Carrot Top. But at least you don’t burn gas. In the Volt, you do — premium, don’t forget. And you pay about as much for the privilege as you would to slide behind the wheel of many a new luxury sedan.
Does it make any sense to you?
Volt does have a few things over the Leaf. You can take it farther than the other end of your subdivision without having to keep a tow truck driver on speed dial. That’s one. It has some balls — well, one ball, at least.
It’s also a plausible all-season car because even if it’s 15 degrees outside, the gas IC engine will work just as it would in any other car — while the Leaf’s all-electric systems will probably suffer badly in extremes of temperature, cold and hot. The Leaf may work fine as an in-city commuter or fleet vehicle.
But the Volt is the real car of the two.
It also has more user-friendly rear seats (bucket style) that have a full four inches more legroom (34.1 inches vs. 31.1 for the Leaf), though the Nissan has more headroom — as well as much more total cargo space (24 cubic feet vs. 10.6 cubic feet).
Still, all that extra room’s not much good if the car can’t be used for more than short hops (best case, 30 miles or so out and 30 or so back, before the batteries croak).
THE BOTTOM LINE
The only hitch is The Math.
I can come up with several reasons to buy the Volt. But “to save money” isn’t one of them. Thirty-two-thousand bucks is a lot of money to spend on a car. If this thing costs $20k — then, ok. I can see it. A $5,000 or so price premium over a current-year economy sedan for something that can (maybe) burn significantly less fuel could work. The break-even point might even arrive before you send in the last payment. But when you can buy something like a Nissan Versa — brand new — for about $10k… and many other cars that are really appealing for not much more than that — and drive home with $15 or $20k more in your pocket… well, who gives a damn about the Volt’s potential? It would literally have to cost you nothing to operate for probably five or six years before it reached economic break-even with a car like the Versa.
I wish Chevy had skipped some of the nice but not necessary (in an ostensibly economy-minded car) features and figured out a way to bring this car to the showroom for $10k less. Then I’d cheer. As it is, I am clapping with one hand in appreciation of the formidable technology it boasts, but shaking my head at the economic illiteracy it represents.