Only Nixon could go to China, they said.
Maybe they will say the same about me — and my (ducking now) endorsement of the Chevy Volt…
Ok. I just popped my head up from behind the dumpster, having dodged the rocks and rotten apples thrown my way by probably disappointed readers. But give me a minute? If you still think I’ve drunk the Kool Aid after I say my peace, then fire away.
I promise not to duck.
WHAT IT IS
The Volt is — technically — a plug-in hybrid.
But it’s different from any other hybrid currently available.
Or any electric car, for that matter.
It blends the best of both — and leaves the bad parts out.
First, it can (and will) go more than 50 miles on just its batteries, with no input at all from the gas engine it carries on board. Other plug-ins like the Ford C-Max and Toyota Prius (and the BMW 330 eDrive I reviewed last week) go maybe 20 miles or so before the battery wilts and the gas engine has to step in to keep you moving. They are fundamentally dependent on internal combustion for locomotion, with the electric side there for short hops — and to boost the power/performance of the gas engine when extra acceleration is needed.
With the Volt, it’s the opposite. It’s the electric side of the powertrain that’s dominant.
Second, the Volt’s onboard gas engine is there chiefly to serve as a carry-it-with-you generator that makes electricity when needed. It’s the battery and the electric motor that propels the car.
What you’re looking at, then, is basically a practical electric car. One you can actually drive pretty much anywhere — without having to stop along the way for hours to recharge.
One that also isn’t priced so high that whatever you end up saving on fuel is irrelevant (as in the case of the Tesla).
Base price for a Volt LT is $33,220.
This is about what Toyota was asking for the plug-in version of the Prius hybrid — which only traveled about 13 miles on its batteries before the relief pitcher IC engine stepped in. An updated (2017) version of the plug-in Prius is scheduled to debut later this year — but it would have to triple its electric-only range to match that of the Volt.
Same goes for the plug-in version of Ford’s C-Max wagon — which lists for $31,770 to start. It has a best-case range on the batteries of about 19 miles — less than half the distance the Chevy can travel.
A loaded Premier trim with heated rear seats, navigation, automatic parallel and perpendicular parking system and wireless cell phone charger lists for $37,570.
About what you’d pay for a comparably equipped entry-luxury car like a Toyota Avalon or Lexus ES350.
Chevy leaked a few of these last year but this year is the first year the second-generation Volt is generally available.
The range on the batteries is now nearly twice what it was before — putting a huge gulf between it and other plug-ins as a truly everyday drivable (on just the batteries) car. Also, the gas engine has been tweaked to sip regular rather than premium fuel (an oddity of the original model) and the mileage — if you run the gas engine — is now 42 MPG on average, a 5 MPG uptick over the original.
The exterior has also been restyled — nicely so.
It’s not economically stupid.
Or functionally idiotic.
Very feasible to go to work — and back — without burning any gas at all.
Go on a long highway trip, too — without stopping every couple of hours for several hours.
Practical hatchback layout.
Price seems almost too good to be true.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Impractical four seater configuration (GM says “five”… but have a look and you tell me.)
You do still have to wait about 8 hours (when using standard 120V household current) for the batteries to recover full charge once they’re depleted.
Cost of electricity could go up (and cost of gas has gone down).
Price is likely heavily discounted by GM to get people interested.
This is understandable given the unfavorable so far economics and practicality of plug-in hybrids (and electric cars). And it’s not a problem for people buying a Volt today. But if these cars can only be “sold” at a loss to get sold at all, then they’ll never be built in large numbers. They’ll be electrified versions of cars like the Corvette: In the lineup for the sake of PR, to enhance GM’s “green cred” but mostly to draw in buyers of non-hybrid cars that actually make GM money.
UNDER THE HOOD
It’s interesting to note that — like ships passing in the night — the Volt’s gas engine is actually bigger than the engines being used in a growing number of non-hybrid cars. It’s 1.5 liters — smallish by the standards of say five years ago, but fairly big by the standard today.
But it works because it hardly does.
The 1.5 liter four is there primarily to idle (and fast idle) in order to gin up electricity which is fed to the lithium-ion battery pack or directly to the high-performance electric motors that move the car.
When the gas engine is running at all, that is.
Most of the time, it’s not.
Which is what makes the Volt unique among plug-ins.
Assuming a full charge — which takes about 12 hours using a standard household outlet or about 4.5 hours using a fast charger — the Volt is good to go for upwards of 50 miles (some testers have gone 60 or more) without needing internal combustion intervention.
That’s at normal driving speeds and includes pedal-to-the-floor Clover passing efforts, too (more on this below).
If you drive far enough to use up the stored charge, the 1.5 liter four automatically chugs to life and serves as your personal onboard generator.
You never run out of juice unless you run out of gas. No “range anxiety.”
You can continue driving — without pit stopping (except for gas) for as long as you like.
When running on just the batteries, your fuel usage is effectively nil.
When running the gas engine (depleted battery) EPA says you’ll average 42 MPG.
I was able to drive from my refuge out in The Woods down the mountain, into the city and back — a round trip of more than 50 miles — almost entirely on a full charge, without the gas engine kicking in until I was literally less than two miles from home.
I then drove the car on purpose with the battery pack depleted to find out what the mileage would be on a longer road trip, without being able to stop overnight (or for several hours) to recharge.
The computer in the car said 41.3 MPG.
Note that this is the average MPG. Not just the highway MPG.
It’s an excellent number.
Many current IC cars can manage 40-something MPG… on the highway. But their averages (which factor in city driving) are much lower.
During a weeklong test drive during which I ran entirely on the batteries (and a full charge) on some days and on others drove with the batteries depleted and the gas engine running, my average mileage was never less than 60 MPG and often close to 80 overall.
That’s better than any of my motorcycles.
Chevy (and EPA) says the Volt can deliver as much as 106 “MPGs” — the average of driving done using a combo of the batteries and the gas engine — but it is absolutely possible to get infinity MPG out of the thing given the car’s long leg capability on its batteries and a full charge.
If your daily Back and Forth commute is less than 50 miles, and you’re able to plug in overnight, you could plausibly go months without needing to refuel. Your biggest worry might be that the fuel in the tank goes stale.
Oh yeah; I almost forgot to mention. The Volt isn’t slow. Zero 60 in the low-mid sevens.
This is about what you’d get out of a non-hybrid mid-sized sedan with a four cylinder engine — and about three seconds quicker than a Prius. It’s also quicker than a Ford C-Max plug in (7.8 seconds) and that one (like the Prius) can only go about 20 miles before its battery pack conks out and you’re back on the gas.
ON THE ROAD
I am not anti-electric car, despite what some may think.
Electric motors tug at my muscle car affections because they produce (or are capable of producing) immense swells of torque immediately — as in right now, at zero RPM. No waiting for a reciprocating assembly to build up a head of steam.
Immediate torque is why the Tesla is quicker than Ali in his prime.
The problem is that — unlike Ali in his prime — the Tesla (and other electric and hybrid cars) can’t go the distance.
The Tesla is very quick… very briefly.
Use its power and you’ll use up the juice.
What’s the point of that?
And then, you’re stuck.
The Volt has staying power; it can go the distance. Any distance a regular car can go. And like a regular car, it can refuel in minutes (if need be) or (if you prefer) recharge in hours. With a Tesla, you don’t get the option.
With other plug-ins, you do — but you’ll be burning gas more often, unless your trip is less than 20 miles There and Back.
I wanted to rip the Volt a new one — again.
I have done so in the past.
But the damn thing won me over, the longer I drove it.
How could I fail to be impressed by it when I was able to drive it nearly 60 miles without the batteries crapping out on me? This included some driving at Not Publishable Speeds, too. I did not “hyper mile” the Volt. That’s for Geeks — and I am not a Geek.
I drove it like I drive any other press car I get.
Which is faster than most people drive.
But this did not faze the Chevy. Well, it didn’t slay the batteries. If I still lived in the Heart of Darkness — just outside DC — and were still commuting roughly 15 miles in and 15 miles out each day — it would be very doable to go gas-free for most of the week.
And the Volt’s mileage when running the gas engine is still better than most economy cars — while being quicker than most of them, too.
I dig it…. dammit!
Like the Prius, the Volt makes Jetsons-esque whirring and electrical/turbine-sounding noises (not loud, just different than you’d hear in an IC car) but it’s less Geeky than the Prius. It has, for instance, a normal car’s shifter lever for the single-speed transmission — as opposed to the Game Boy-style (and mechanically disconnected feeling) toggle in the Toyota.
Driving it is not much different than driving a non-hybrid car. You get in, you push the “ignition” button, ease the lever into Drive and off you go.
Actually, it’s more like driving an electric car — which is functionally what the Volt is.
Most hybrids, for one thing, have a continuously variable (CVT) automatic, which doesn’t shift (because no gears) but does make a lot of noise. The Volt has a direct-drive electric motor. And because the engine is usually off, it makes no engine noise at all.
Even when it is on, there is less noise, because it’s merely idling. Floor a Prius or a C-Max and hear the engine (and CVT) scream.
The steering (like other accessories) is also electrically powered. Some Gloved Ones among the automotive press complain about “lack of feel” — and this is true, if you are basing that on BMW/Porsche standards of “feel.” But this is a family car, not a sports car — and what’s wanted is light/easy steering.
You’ve got it.
The brakes (which are regenerative brakes that use the car’s kinetic energy to pump volts back into the batteries as you decelerate) feel a little different than a conventional IC car’s brakes, but you quickly get used to it — and come to appreciate (if you live in a mountainous area, as I do) the helpful engine braking effect on the downhills.
A particular coolness is that the regenerative braking feature can be modulated by the driver, using the “Regen on Demand” paddle located on the steering wheel. Adjust to suit.
Like the steering, the Volt’s handling and ride are tuned for family car service. But it’s still “sportier” in terms of how hard you can push it before it starts to give you unhappy feedback — like tire squeal — than a Prius. It also feels happier (and is quieter) at high speeds, probably because of its more effective aerodynamics. It sits just 56.4 inches off the ground, for one — vs. 58.1 inches for the Prius (and 63.8 inches for the Ford C-Max).
AT THE CURB
In addition to being “in the weeds,” the Volt’s body (which is a not-unattractive body) has channels pressed into it to further smooth airflow as you drive, decreasing wind resistance and further quieting things down, even at Unmentionable Speeds.
It is also longer overall than the other plug-ins: 180.4 inches vs. a stubby 173 .6 for the Ford C-Max and 178.7 for the just-redesigned Prius. It is closer to being a mid-sized car than its two nominal rivals in terms of its overall footprint.
Backseat legroom is good — 34.7 inches (vs. 33.4 for the Prius) though not quite as good (surprisingly, given the Ford’s abbreviate length) as the C-max’s (36.5 inches). Headroom is also tight in the Chevy, especially in the back seat — just 35.8 inches vs. 39.4 for the Ford and 37.4 in the Toyota.
Still, there’s enough headroom in both rows for a pretty tall person (I’m 6ft 3) to sit in either without hunching over.
The Volt’s main deficit — an oddity, really — is that it’s a four seater. (It’s true the rear seat itself is now three across but have a look at the center console… the only way someone’s going to sit in the center position is with his legs tucked up against his chest, fetal style.)
You see this layout in fashionista four-door “coupes” like the Mercedes CLA but the Volt is supposed to be a practical car. And in a way, the four seater layout is practical in that it’s not there because of styling considerations but rather functional ones. To keep the car “in the weeds” it was necessary to make room for the drivetrain components this way — or jack the car up, like the Prius and C-Max.
There’s not much trunk (just 10.6 cubic feet) but the hatchback layout and fold-down capability of the second row effectively double the usable cargo-carrying capacity. It’s still not as cargo-capable as the Prius (24.6 cubes, total) or the C-Max (42.8 cubic feet, total) but it’s more than most sedans and might be enough for your needs.
The gauge cluster is “dual fuel.”
To the left, a parenthesis-shaped bar graph indicating the state of battery charge in green, and an LCD bar graph that fluctuates from “charge” to “power” as you drive. There is a digital readout underneath that which tells you how much range you’ve got left.
On the other side of the cluster, there’s a similar parenthesis-shaped bar graph indicating how much gas you’ve got left. It’s blue backlit.
You can call up a secondary display on the LCD tablet in the center stack that shows you the power feed in real time as you drive. There are secondary menus to hip you to fuel (and energy) usage in real time as well as over time. You can use this to keep track of your “eMPGs.”
Aside from its best-by-far range on electricity-only, another Volt sell is that it’s nicer than its putative plug-in competitors — without costing fistfuls of money more than these competitors.
The “base” LT trim comes with leather seats, automatic climate control, in-car Wi-Fi, iPad-style eight-inch LCD tablet in the center stack (with AppleCarPlay and smartphone integration), 17-inch wheels, a very good six-speaker audio rig and all the major power options.
You can upgrade the audio a la carte (not as part of a package) to an eight-speaker Bose rig and there’s also a Comfort package that adds seat heaters and a heated steering wheel.
The Premiere trim qualifies as entry luxury — very comparable in terms of what you get (such as heated rear seats and an automated parallel/perpendicular parking system, wireless cell phone charger, etc.) to something like a loaded Toyota Avalon or even a Lexus ES350.
The only complaint I’ll register is that the base LT’s cruise control is not adaptive. It’s optional, but first you have to buy the Premier and then buy both Driver Confidence packages, which bundle lots of stuff you may not want or need (such as addled-driver/idiot-proofing forward collision alert/automatic braking and lane keep assist) as well as a much higher price tag.
Having nearly doubled the Volt’s electric-only range and lowered its price, GM has done all that probably can be done to get people interested in this ride.
GM has a history of getting things right the second time around (see, for other examples, the Pontiac Fiero or the Cadillac Allante). The first-gem Volt was a fizzle. It cost too much (even when gas cost a lot) and it didn’t go far enough.
Both those issues have been solved.
But one may be only superficially solved.
I’ve personally driven the car extensively, so I know the touted electric-only range is real. It may be less in winter (when battery performance tends to wane) but unless it drops by half (not likely) the thing still gits ‘er done.
What I question is whether the touted price is long-term realistic. If GM is “selling” the Volt at a loss, it won’t be able to do so indefinitely. Certainly not on a mass-production level. The need to Be Green notwithstanding, a business needs to make green to stay in business.
This is the same issue, incidentally, with regard to the Jenga Castle that is Tesla Motors. Musk’s operation is a grotesque money loser — and he hasn’t got money-makers (real cars, that sell at a profit) to make up the shortfall.
But even so, the Volt and cars like it will never be more than very interesting demonstrations of what’s technologically possible so long as they are economically questionable.
The good news in this case — for you, the potential buyer — is that it’s no skin off your nose if GM’s not making a cent off your purchase.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’m still suspicious about the macroeconomics — whether GM (or anyone) can sell a car like this at a price point people will accept that still makes the car company a profit (without “help” from Uncle). But I can’t argue with the Volt’s function.
It’s the only plug-in hybrid I’ve test driven (and I’ve driven them all) that I don’t feel the urge to douse with keyboard vitriol.
God help me.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos