By John Brandon
The Chevy Volt is a brilliant car, a ground-breaking revolution – and quite possibly the vehicle that could lead to the revitalization of GM. But the reasons for its superiority are probably not what you think. Yes, this is an amazing small car – it’s peppy, economical, and provides a tight driving experience. For some, it could be one of the best financial decisions you make. But the Volt’s real brilliance has more to do with the paltry EV infrastructure in the US. This is a car that is perfectly positioned for the scarcity of electric charging stations as they exist today. Whether the infrastructure catches up, or the car lags behind, is the only unanswered question.
You might already know that this is the car that Motor Trend picked for the 2011 Car of the Year. It deserves the accolades. Not to diss a reputable magazine, but the fact remains that most of the coverage of the Volt has focused on the electric motor specifications and gee-whiz smartphone features. The Volt is actually a chameleon car – it can work as a commuter vehicle, or for long trips, or as a sporty family sedan for those who think a hybrid is something that uses E85 fuel. Yet, spend a day or two in the car, fill up the tank a few times, and charge the car back to a full battery state and you can see that the Volt is actually an amazingly well-suited vehicle to the current upstart EV infrastructure.
In a drive from downtown Detroit – using a Volt with barely 40 miles under its belt (and all of them on the electric motor) – all the way to Chicago, spending a few extra hours on some winding country roads and around Lake Michigan, and even testing this fledgling “extended range” vehicle in a circuitous downtown area, we found the Volt to be a smart and economical ride. The car adapts to your driving preferences. If your job is 10 minutes from where you live, it is possible to charge the car each night and never buy any gas. Yet, since charging stations are so sparse, you can also just use gas for now.
Getting behind the wheel
Before we explain how that all works, here’s the most remarkable finding: Once we slid into the driver’s seat, it became obvious that the Volt uses the same platform as the Chevy Cruze. You know this because the car is roughly the same size, and the steering wheel has the exact same options (cruise control, voice options) for example. The two cars look similar, although the Volt has a much more streamlined look and the Cruze is slightly more bulbous. Inside the Volt, there are some obvious differences: there’s a splashy side panel artistic rendering that looks like magnets circling around atoms. There are two LCD displays in the Volt, one behind the steering wheel and one in the center console area.
Unlike the Chevy Cruze, the Volt features a well-molded plastic dashboard that looks about the same as the VW Jetta we reviewed recently. That is to say, it is trim and well-designed, but not exactly luxurious or that distinctive. In fact, some have complained that the Volt doesn’t really stick out in a crowd, and both the interior and exterior are slightly understated. That’s likely because Chevy intends the Volt to be an everyday car for getting around town. It’s positioned for utility, not comfort.
That becomes obvious when you start making adjustments to the interior controls. For example, to save on power, Chevy chose to use a manual latch for sliding the seat forward and back. One of the strangest things about the car is that there is also a pump on the driver’s side seat for raising and lowering your eye level position. You literally pump the seat up or down. (A GM engineer told me some of the people who designed the Volt at GM are over 6-feet tall; they probably wanted to be able to drive it.) Like the Cruze, there is also a mechanical switch for enabling the cruise control, which is handy because you can then set the cruise speed without having to switch on cruise each time. There’s another switch, again the same on the Cruze, which you can use to prevent the kids from unlocking their doors in the back.
All of the similarities to the Cruze end when you realize the car runs on an electric motor. Now, there is a raging controversy about whether the gas engine used to power the electric motor actually turns the wheels. There is a condition with the Volt where, driving at high speeds up hill, the gas engine does mechanically link with the wheels to provide some power. But even in this condition, an electric motor is still providing power as well.
Driving the car
Let’s skip the jokes about golf carts and bad zings from Hollywood actors. The Volt is fun to drive. The steering wheel felt almost as responsive as the 2011 VW Jetta we drove recently, and its cornering was tight and responsive. We never felt that small car impression (see: older Ford Fiesta models) where the vehicle seems to strain around corners. Unfortunately, road noise is a problem. Even with the radio going and the heat fans purring, we could hear a distinctive hiss from the highway. A GM engineer mentioned that Chevy decided not to use as much noise dampening on the car because they knew the motor runs almost silent, but they maybe forgot that tires still generate an annoying whir.
Not surprisingly, the Volt does not drive at all like a gas-powered car, and one of the ways it seems different is that there is no sweet spot on the accelerator. For many cars, you can press halfway or even a third of the way down on the gas pedal to get a nice burst. On the Volt, it is more like two thirds of the way down, or even all the way down. There are settings for the transmission (sporty, standard, mountain) that adjust the throttle accordingly, although GM told us that the car will respond with all of the power you need in tricky driving situations, such as passing on a two-lane road.
Many of the LCD indicators are extremely helpful while you drive, but they can also be distracting. There are options to see how you are driving, such as your current MPG, battery saving measures like regenerative braking (which actually causes the motor to feed power back to the battery, almost like running the magnetic field in reverse), and even whether the car is coasting or the wheels are powered. Some of these options wear thin after a few hours in the car and we wondered how many people would use them routinely. We’d prefer most of these options to connect over a 3G connection to an online portal where you can see your driving habits and maybe adjust them for the next drive. In addition, the buttons for setting up the navigation or adjusting the radio station were a little confusing – not horrendous, but arrayed too close together and a bit hard to see.
For in-car driving, we prefer the green leaves that Ford uses in the Fusion Hybrid that provide a quick summary of whether you are driving economically or not. Actually, we’d like something even simpler, maybe just a black/yellow/green status light that helps you see if you are driving bad, okay, or good.
Will the Volt really save you money in the long run?
The economies of EV driving dictate that the Volt could be a smart commuter car now, and it could get even smarter as options for dodging the pump continue to spring up. If there was a charging station at the mall, at your place of work, and even at a friend’s garage, it is conceivable that we’d all be able to drive EVs and skip the fuel stations. That’s just not the case now, and it became obvious after about 40 miles of driving. Our Volt had been driven only on a charge, and the lifetime fuel and electric motor rating said 119MPG. We barely got outside of downtown Detroit and that lifetime indicator fell dramatically. When we were done, the lifetime rating had dipped to only about 40MPG, and we had only used the electric motor for 26 of about 400 miles. That said, commuters who drive just a few miles to work might end up paying only $10-$20 in electric power draw to keep their Volt running and can decide to fuel up only for longer trips.
Thankfully, the Volt does not scold you for bad driving quite as much as the Prius. There is an indicator (it looks like a green ball) that shows if you are driving like you’re on the NASCAR circuit or Grandma on her way to the grocery store at 20 miles below the speed limit. (Ironically, the slower you drive the more battery power you save, but you have to maintain that speed consistently.) There are no warning signals or hard-wired green-driving options. The only minor annoyance is that, if you do switch to the sportier driving mode, the Volt defaults back to the standard setting every time you turn the car off.
We noticed a few other interesting things about the Volt. One was that the stereo is tinny and under-powered, although it has somewhat acceptable bass. There’s also no option to emanate a sound from the car like there is with the Nissan Leaf, which warns other drivers and pedestrians that you are approaching, although you can use a nifty pedestrian warning chime (it works when you flash the headlights). The car is peppy enough, but not quite like the way some reviewers have described it – after all, the car only goes from 0 to 60mph in about nine or 10 seconds. Driving economically and never accelerating quickly, you might be able to get 56 miles out of the battery, but that’s going to be rare.
Charging times are a bit disappointing. The Volt can be charged back from a zero state in about four hours using a 220 volt connection. Using standard 110 volt power, the charge takes about ten hours. We’d like to see better charging times in future versions – how about more like 45 minutes, okay GM? The battery in the Volt is quite massive, extending from the middle stack all the way back to the rear, but most people riding in the car will probably not even notice. It looks like the car just has a center weight balancer.
Greener with age
Overall, we really liked driving the Volt. It’s like a Chevy Cruze with a much smarter brain. For those who drive short distances, it is brilliant now. For the future scenario when there are charging stations at every intersection, it can become more brilliant. For those in-between, it works well as a small hatchback that drives on electric power when you take the kids to school and back. And, in the end, we won’t even squabble too much on the price. For the $41,000 base price (before a $7,500 tax credit for driving an EV), you are getting a very economical car that could get 120 MPG for short drives.
In many ways, the price is high because of the innovation. We expect the price to come down by as much as $8,000 next year, but that is a guess. Early adopters will be pleased. The rest of us gas-guzzling SUV and truck drivers are content to wait until the oil companies all shrivel up and die.