Chevy Volt – Thumbing Its Nose at “Big Oil” 40 Miles at a Time

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2012 Chevy Volt
At this point, the Chevrolet Volt is well known as a game changer. We expected a car that displayed leading edge technology with great fuel economy, and we knew that our driving habits would define the cars ultimate mileage. It’s arguably the best of a unique genre. But we discovered much more. Some surprising revelations, and some maddening contradictions. What we never saw coming though, was that the car would change us. Indeed, our typical ‘racer’ style of driving vanished nearly instantly.

And that’s not a knock on the car, or how it drives. It’s suspension is actually quite capable. Well dampened, and appropriately sprung. While the steering had a distant and moderately artificial feel to it, it had admirable weighting and good on center feel. The Volt didn’t just convert one of us to “it’s way”, it converted each one of us. And we went willingly, happily, and came out of the experience with a completely different view. At first, I thought this was just a typical tech savvy racer type becoming fascinated by new technology, and learning how to manipulate his ride. But passengers became enthralled in the experience as well.

One morning on the highway, I was cruising along at about 65 in the left lane, and up ahead I saw another Volt in the right lane. As I passed, the window rolled down before I was alongside and the driver gave an enthusiastic wave. It reminded me of driving an old BMW 2002 or Jeep Wrangler. Unwittingly, I’d become part of a club. Clearly the Volt had converted my right lane friend as well.

Of course, it’s likely he was an easier convert, as he likely spent a considerable sum and was predisposed to the Volt’s draw. Our test car stickered at nearly $46,000. (The base version is just under $40,000.) To many, that’s the “wait a minute” moment when their interest hits a roadblock. Now, good old Uncle Sam will kick back as much as $7,500, but that still leaves a typical bill of about $32,000 to $39,000. For that kind of money, one could go all LUX and get an Audi A4 with Quattro. Or one could chase leading edge fuel economy and get a VW TDI loaded to the gills, and have enough left over to pick up his and hers matching Vespa scooters for sunny days. The price is the Volt’s most obvious contradiction. Not to mention the Volts obvious marketplace combatants, the Prius and the Leaf, which both can be had for an easy $10,000 less. Ouch.

On the surface, the Chevy badge itself is a contradiction. We wondered what GM was thinking putting a Chevy badge on a car we all assume to be all about economy, yet costs north of $40,000 typically? Well, dear reader, it’s not that simple. It never is. Certainly not here in the new world of ‘alternate fuel’ vehicles. We thought the Cadillac brand would have an easier time finding buyers at that price point. Heck, we thought they could charge more, glitz it up a bit, and still be safe. GM thought otherwise. Rob Peterson, SME for Chevy sat down with us and explained the corporations thinking at the New York Auto Show. GM feels that the Volt is a very visible and important statement, and they think the aura it creates will improve the public’s image of the Chevrolet brand as a whole. That’s a gamble. The reverse…where the Chevy ‘lower end’ image rubs off on the Volt… could happen as well because certain aspects of the Volt will actually help the ignorant think along those lines.

Inside the car, every single person commented immediately on the lack of power seats in a car costing so much. And they became further frustrated by the inexplicably difficult to find recliner levers (they’re way back and down there…you’ll need slender fingers!) Once seated though, and in position, we found the seats quite good, comfortable and supportive, and well trimmed.
But, in classic old school GM form (remember, this car was in development before GMs rebirth), there are areas of brilliance. The center console is actually very unique, and looks rather high end. It screams “high tech!” But storage space was a second priority after style. The dash upper section is designed and built with attention to detail, with sections that were overlaid with parts, trimmed in leather with edges painted in metallic gloss silver (as is the center console) reminding you that you’re in a special car. But I couldn’t help wonder what those extra parts weighed in a car that needs to be very concerned with weight. Visibility, which was aided by the reverse backup camera, and most noticeably road noise are without peer. With no engine noise to mask the usual shuddering of the chassis and tire noise, GM had it’s work cut out if it wanted the car to feel worthy of it’s price. They succeeded in spades. Solid, with tire and suspension noise exceptionally well controlled, the Volt feels nearly BMW-like. Uncannily so, actually. And the feel of the controls and switchgear is hard to fault as well. But, as soon as we finish praising the build quality, the same console and controls that look so good raise more odd contradictions. On the steering wheel, certain controls, such as the cruise control on/off are mechanical toggle switches. Odd, and not readily apparent either. Others are the usual push buttons with click feedback we’ve all grown accustomed to. However, as you move your hands to the console you are faced with smooth surfaces with markings. No rockers or buttons here. (Well, except a couple.) The console is like a touch screen, but without the visual feedback. Often we triggered functions accidentally. By night, the console is awash in glowing labels. Eventually you will learn where the function you wish to control is located, but don’t expect logic to be your guide. None of us could decipher a pattern or system that GM used in the placement of the controls. HVAC controls hang out with radio controls. Navigation buttons were everywhere. Maddening, as so much of the car was so well done.

One area that GM didn’t skimp on was the color displays. There’s a large center color display, as well as a driver centric display where one would normally find dials for speed and engine temperature. The displays present a mountain of information, much of it configurable by the aforementioned touch sensitive console buttons. A prominent display in the drivers screen shows your relative effectiveness at using the energy stored in the battery, and keeps you informed on the driving mode. A floating ball morphs from green to yellow, and floats up and down in concert with acceleration and braking. The center stack display is an audio display, or an energy use display (choice of 3 of versions to track energy flow, and usage) or a navigation display or an HVAC display. Or, frustratingly, sometimes an odd combination. Navigating between them is a bit annoying due to some odd decisions made by the user interface engineers, and by the confusing control layout of the console. Once again, eventually you’ll get it but worryingly, the extra confusion steals your attention from the road.
But what those displays tell you is often nearly magical. You’ve driven to work, 14 miles from home. You’ve gone highways speeds, and you’ve sat at traffic lights. You’ve reversed your commute, and stopped for groceries. And you didn’t use a drop of gas. And you won’t tomorrow either. Or the day after. In theory you could never use a drop of gas if your lifestyle is short trip based. Heck, if you shop at Whole Foods as I did one day, you got a free charge while you selected the best cut of Ahi Tuna and your favorite “Arrogant Bastard” stout. Hopefully your Whole Foods won’t insist, like the one I stopped at did, on requiring the store manager to come out to enable the charging station. And more problematic was that it was only a Tier 1 charger. In my 40 minutes of shopping, I gained a whopping 5 miles of range. Hardly worth the hassle. Well, except that the manager who helped me was enthralled with the car and called it “sexy”. I’d call an Alfa 8C coupe sexy. Certainly some Ferrari models. But the Volt? No. But, I’d still praise it’s styling. It’s got a great stance, taut and compact with no extraneous elements. Most praiseworthy though is its space efficiency.
Finally, a GM that is actually rather compact on the exterior, yet well sized inside. Although, it only accommodates four people. The loss of three across seating in the rear is another cost (like the lack of power seats, or power sunroof for weight savings) of the electric power source, as the battery pack needs that space between the rear seats. Instead rear passengers get a center console with, of course, cup holders. And there’s decent room in the trunk for luggage. The battery pack was a real driver of the design, naturally. To provide the range Chevy wanted, it had to be quite large, and Chevrolet chose it’s central location for several reasons, such as weight distribution, and safety.

Yes….safety. We’ve all heard the story of the Volt battery fire. We wondered if that was a real concern, or just the press grabbing headlines. We believe it is much more of the latter. The specifics are that the fire occurred in one Volt of many that have been crash tested, and that it happened three weeks after the a side impact test and being rotated on its side. A coolant leak eventually caused a short circuit of the charged pack. It’s important to note that the procedure, in the real world after such a crash, would be to follow GMs prescribed battery discharge methods eliminating the possibility of short circuits post crash. For whatever reason this protocol was not followed with the government testing. GM did examine the situation, modified the structure around the battery pack, and added sensors to monitor battery coolant levels. The bottom line? Well, certainly, we can’t state absolutely that there is zero percent chance a Volt will experience issues with the battery packs post crash, no more than we can say that a gasoline fueled vehicle will experience no post crash gas tank issues. We are aware that such issues, when they occur with gasoline fueled vehicles, happen immediately after a crash. And we all drive with nary a thought in that regard, so we feel the Volt should get the same consideration. To us, it’s a non issue.

Regardless, the power source still rears it’s head in many ways. Want heat? Fine, but are your sure? Heat and AC cost range, and the display reminds you with efficiency ratings that decrease when you ask for a warm breeze. Or a cool one. Better to warm or cool the car before leaving home in the morning while it’s still plugged in to your wall charger, which saves juice in the battery pack for actual driving. If you are plugged into a normal 120V wall outlet, plan on a good nights sleep: it takes 10 hours to ‘fill up’. Install a 240 volt setup and that time is reduced to something workaholics can live with: 4 or so hours.

The drive to work, or wherever, is utterly normal or utterly mesmerizing, depending on your fascination with things electrical and mechanical. So smooth and seamless are the cars manners, one could completely forget they are driving a very complicated and sophisticated bunch of components and engineering. The best kept secret seems to be the fact that the car actually has a gasoline engine. Electric car geeks call it the ICE, Internal Combustion Engine. They love to never have it run.
There isn’t a single indication on the dash that reflects it’s operation. No tach, no temperature gauge. Only an attentive set of ears will sleuth it’s operation. Certainly the drivetrain won’t give it away. But, if you want to race that guy in the next lane, no worries, switch into the Sport mode, and summon all the available resources into acceleration. Odds are if you get the jump on the green, you won’t lose…the car is quick! Mode shifts are smooth, and finding fault with the regenerative braking was difficult, even for the chronic malcontents. The single fault with the brakes occurred while parallel parking in tight spaces, when the brakes needed to stop the car NOW, when the pedal was pushed. An odd delay panicked a couple unwary drivers who quickly learned to ask for stopping action 6″ before they actually needed it. The solution is to push a bit further than normal which engages the hydraulic brakes, as the regenerative braking is non-effective at such slow speeds. The actual on the road driving experience was hard to fault with. It certainly isn’t in the 3 series BMW league, but in my opinion it’s more composed and buttoned down than the ‘standard bearer’ cars many will compare it to: the Camry hybrid, the Accord, etc.

The duality of GMs approach is laudable. We were changed drivers. Attentive, and engaged in the act of getting the most from our nights charge. But unlike the Nissan Leaf, when the end of the line arrived, we merely sighed and continued our journey on the power generated by the engine. Imagine the paranoia the driver of a Leaf feels. It must be like the junkie who finds out his dealer is taking a five day vacation. An extra hill? An unexpected headwind? They must spend their ‘max range’ trips with one eye glued to the “miles to go” indicator while praying they die within reach of the 100 foot extension cord they packed “just in case”. Some compare the Volt to the Prius, but the Prius can’t haul me to work at 60 MPH and return me home while using the battery only. And comparing the driving experience is like comparing Cheez Whiz to a good cheddar.

The Volt has a brilliant drivetrain that can free you from infuriating trips to the pump, but has essentially unlimited range. The actual mileage is totally dependent on the driver, in ways never experienced in the past. Ideally, it could go months between fill ups. This aspect could actually cause issues as gasoline has a finite life. In a sidebar we’ll detail the technology that Chevrolet uses in this unusual fuel system, but in short, the issue is dealt with in two ways. One, unlike the typical car, the gas tank is kept under pressure, and secondly, the central computer monitors a variety of factors, calculates the condition of the fuel, and will actively start the engine if it determines the need. Of course that’s unlikely as most owners will use the Volt for varied distance trips. Even on longer trips, it can return excellent fuel economy, in the 35 to 50+mpg range depending on the trip length and conditions. Some of our days with the car returned infinite gas mileage. And the electric “Fill-up” that night cost less than $2.00. This varies depending on the actual charge and the cost of energy. (A big ‘fill’ is around 10-11Kwh, theoretically it can be as high as 13Kwh but ours were in the 10+ range, and at a rather high rate of $.18/Kwh, it’s unlikely that a charge will exceed $2.00.) The driving experience extracts no penalty for this efficiency. It accelerates, handles and brakes as well or better than most similar cars. Clearly, the money goes into the technology. There is a lot of expensive technology under the hood and chassis! Simply, a Volt has more components than say a Prius, which doesn’t have the battery pack that the Volt has, or a Leaf which has no internal combustion engine or capacity to self charge. And neither drives as well. But, in addition to the stout sticker, there are non financial prices to be paid, such as missing some creature comforts. No power seats, no power moon roof, no power closing doors, and so on.

For the sticker shock, there is an alternative that can help: For “well qualified” buyers, GM offers a very attractive lease package at $350 a month. Even with that, buyers looking to get actual dollar savings compared to say a Chevy Malibu, will find the payback rather distant even in the best scenarios. Of course, that’s the same story with nearly every hybrid out there. Instead the payback is found in different areas. The fun and challenge of extending the battery range through smart driving. The Volt somehow changes you, and you feel better for it. Then there’s the juicy up front parking spots reserved for fuel efficient vehicles. Potentially free charging at some parking garages and airport lots, which actually adds range greatly, are becoming more prevalent each day. Constant access to HOV lanes in most areas. And the feeling that you are doing your part in the grand scheme of things. It’s a car even a gearhead can enjoy, and one that is a great family car, freeing some carbon credits for an old classic car, or a race car, or any number of guilty pleasures. GM hopes these intangibles mean enough to cause many to sign on the bottom line. I think some will, but I still think the intangibles would mean more if the car had a Caddy badge and a redo of the odd user interface system….or a price that was more palatable. GM has done some great work here, but frustratingly, has made some odd choices and dropped the ball in places. Nevertheless, the Volt remains among the most unique car made, encompasses some amazing technology, and is a pioneer for truly practical electric vehicles.



RealWorldRoadTests Second Opinion – Dave Gran
Never did I anticipate enjoying an electric vehicle as much as I did with the Volt. It’s a car that easily catches the driver and passengers off guard. Not only did I find the Volt transform my driving style, its reach extended beyond that. While my family is pretty environmentally conscience, (I know, race car driver – blasphemy!) the Volt influenced me to be even more in tune to household energy consumption and overall going Green. I found this a bit strange, even discussed it with friends and family, but just went with the flow.

With gas prices continuing to rise, I also didn’t feel guilty driving the Volt around especially within its electric range. For those who are intrigued by this potential cost savings, we found it pretty easy to reach 40 miles on a fully charged battery even when traversing hilly roads. We have also heard that many people well exceed the 40 mile mark between charges. While the driving economy is quite good, it won’t overcome the Volt’s price tag but does go a long way to making this vehicle a sensible purchase. It’s a car that really has to be driven to fully appreciate.

Vehicle Pricing Summary
Standard Vehicle Price:  $39,145 plus $850 destination charge
Our Test Vehicle:  $44,815 plus $850 destination charge

GM Lease and Purchase Information

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