Ride Review: Chevrolet Volt

Volt Photo 10

What if you wanted to own a vehicle that everyone’s been talking about?

That would include many vehicles out in the marketplace. The BMW M5 had many enthusiasts excited when it was announced that its turbocharged V8 packed 560 horsepower. The Lamborghini Aventador effectively replaced the Murcielago with an incredible look that had the supercar crowd wanting a piece of it.

Not all the talk was about fast automobiles. Conversations about electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids have not quieted since the buzz about their potential growth. The Nissan Leaf may not have a foothold here in the Twin Cities, but people are talking about it as they wished their dealers could order one for them today. The Leaf will soon be joined by other EVs – including the Fiat 500, smart forTwo, Tesla Model S and Ford Focus. The Toyota Prius recently introduced a plug-in version of their popular hybrid very soon in our market.

However, there was one “green” vehicle that generated the most conversations above all the rest: The Chevrolet Volt.

Why all the fuss about the Chevrolet Volt? Simply put, it is an extended range electric vehicle. Just like a regular EV, the electric motor provides the primary source of power. When it can no longer keep a charge, a 1.4litre ECOTEC “range extender” keeps the Volt going. To fuel the range-extending “generator,” you are required to fill the 9.5-gallon tank with premium-unleaded petrol. A single-speed transmission keeps things running through the front wheels.

That is all fine and dandy, but does it work? Is it really an automobile for the masses to own and maintain? What fundamental changes does the average motorist have to do to operate a Volt in contrast with any regular automobile?

The first thing to understand about the Volt that it is a car – just like any other car on the road. The difference is the propulsion system that powers the vehicle and the kind of energy it uses to run it. However, there are some nuances that make the Volt different and distinctive than other automobiles.

One look outside, it may seem a bit different than most General Motors vehicles. Actually, there are design cues shared by most Chevys and other GM products inside and out. The extra styling bits have a futuristic sheen that broadcasts its advanced vehicle status. Strange looking? Perhaps, though you might even mistake a Volt for a Cruze. That would be easy to do since Volt and the Cruze share GM’s Delta II platform.

Inside is a mix of the present and the future. The instrumentation is a LCD screen that is customizable for every bit of data needed to make your drive an efficient one. A second LCD screen is in the upper part of the center stack that also provides additional vehicle data as well as a navigation screen and readouts for the audio and HVAC systems.

Plunge into the menus on either one of the screens and you will get absolute information overload. A lot of it is very useful information. The center screen has a menu for tips on how to maximize the use of the electric motor – ranging from using the HVAC system to charging tips at home. If you switch the right side of the driver’s side screen, you get a bouncing and spinning ball that guides you on your driving. One might think that this Efficiency Gauge is some form of video game, but it helps the driver take control of his or her right foot while operating the Volt.

Switches are familiar in and around the steering wheel – even a Cruze customer would be familiar with it. On the second stack, the switches have a completely different feel. You might, it is something dreamed up in various concept cars from the 1990s. They have a light touch so you don’t have to punch buttons to get the setting you want.

Finding space behind the wheel should not be a problem for most of us. There is enough play in terms of seat and steering wheel adjustability. One complaint I had was the firmness of the front seatbacks. I also noticed that the seatbacks lacked side bolster support compared to on the cushions. However, if you venture to the rear seat, you may walk away disappointed. It everyone is of average height and build, no problem for four to sit comfortably. Any imbalance would limit any space in the rear. Oh, and in case you’re wondering – the Volt only seats four thanks to a center console that runs all the way to the cargo hold. The reason for this: The battery pack is underneath the console.

I will also admit to my glee on the leather upholstery in this particular Crystal Red example. While the sticker says it’s a “Light Natural” perforated leather with “Dark Accents,” I wondered exactly which color the stitching was. Though the exterior was red, I was trying to find the logic of this bluish stitching on the seat that appeared to match the extra cost Viridian Joule exterior paint. I doubt if even red stitching would help this interior color scheme.

Once you get used to your surroundings, the overall impression of the Volt is of a normal vehicle. It’s not a Lifecycle from “Tron” or something George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry had in mind a few decades ago – it is a good ol’ GM compact car!

It is also a good ol’ GM compact car with 273lb-ft of torque! That is a number reserved for one of their V6 powered models. When you press the throttle enough, you will feel the whirl of electricity churning out that 273lb-ft of torque immediately. The Volt simply goes like a V6-powered front drive sports car. However, you have about 35 miles of battery power before the range extending ECOTEC kicks in. Once you do, you get 275-300 more miles of premium-fueled operation. The good thing about the range extender is that you never feel the transition between the two motors. It just switches with no drama or noise.

While you enjoy the silence from underneath the hood and through the driveline, you can also feel the solidity of the ride in the Volt. Again, there’s no drama on the road with Goodyear Assurance tires soaking in imperfections through a very well damped suspension setup on all four corners. There is some slight waffling when the battery juice of gone. It does ride a bit light even in range extender mode.

Another surprise about the Volt has been the way it corners. Since it feels lower the ground, it takes the corners with minimal roll or lean. The electrically assisted steering is a bit soft and lacks true feel, but it has a tight turning radius. The braking however feels a bit over-assisted. Partly is to the regenerating system that sends energy back to the battery pack. I would prefer a surer brake action that stops with less effort and assist than at current.

Driving the Volt in and around town yielded some very interesting energy efficiency numbers. The overall consumption figure between the battery juice and premium petrol came to 74.3MPG. During the course of this review, only 3.6 gallons of petrol was used over the course of 259 miles driven. Everything else was right from the battery. The maximum range from a fully charged battery was only 34 miles.

I will admit to some range anxiety – a condition where a person is overly worried about the mileage until the battery runs out. Personally, I would prefer at least another 15 miles on the EV side of the equation. Realistically, to achieve a petrol-free commute in most metropolitan areas, either more battery capacity or ways to extend the range of battery life and energy regeneration would be helpful.

One discovery I made was in part to a tip by GM: If you do not have the Volt plugged in, you may lose some battery range. For the times I left the Volt alone on an extended period of time, I found that my battery range was lower than when I had it last – an average of three miles lost. Perhaps another suggestion for GM was to ensure battery energy retention even when unplugged inside a garage or outside on the street.

In several conversations about the Volt, one great concern that was brought up about the car was the price. When it was announced that 2011 models would start at $41,000, there was plenty of discussion whether the price was too high for a compact extended range electric vehicle. For reference, my fully loaded 2011 example came to about $44,200. However, GM reduced the price for the 2012 models, starting at $39,995. You do get a tax credit for buying one – $7,500 from the Internal Revenue Service. You actually get that when you file your 1040s, not when you get to the dealership.

Buying the Volt means more than just your commitment to wean off your use of petroleum. It will also mean a chance to get some work done on your garage. When you buy a Volt and choose the Voltec 240-volt charger, (also known as a Level 2 charger) you are also set up with a local contractor to do the work for you. The VOLTEC charger is $398, plus the labor cost depending on the age of your wiring inside the garage – per the contractor supplied by GM.

If you do find that you need a charge-up away from home, there are plenty of charging stations available in your area. The U.S. Department of Energy has a website on where you can find the nearest charging station. Just plug in where you are at, and it will give you your nearest options.

In the Twin Cities, the City of Saint Paul is setting up 20 locations to charge up your Volt or any other plug-in electric vehicle. Five are already up and running as of going to press – all at downtown ramps. The Hennepin County Public Library’s Central Branch has a charging station in their ramp, as well as the Mall of America and Southtown Center in Bloomington. All of the charging stations in the Twin Cities are on Coulomb Technologies’ ChargePoint network. For more information on working with the Volt and other electric vehicles in the area, log on to Drive Electric Minnesota‘s website.

Keep in mind while some stations may require a credit card or an account with the charging station network, others are available for free. It is worth investigating which ones charge a fee for charging or not.

Before you commit to the Volt, ask yourself whether you have the capacity to own one. The perfect Volt owner is one who owns their own home, has a garage that takes 240-volt electrical power and is able to have some work done to upgrade the wiring, change out the breaker to a higher capacity one and have a Level 2 charger installed for quicker charges. If your garage has upgraded wiring that is up to code, even with just 120-volt electrical power, you should be fine with plugging in the charging cord located in underneath the hatch floor of the Volt. Make sure that you have less than 18-feet of distance between the plug and the Volt since it is an absolute no-no to run an extension cord to the 120-volt charging mechanism.

By knowing where to charge your Volt – and having that infrastructure available at your home – you can see your range anxiety simply fade away.

The Chevrolet Volt is quite a good car based upon many aspects of it. The fact that it stretches the boundaries of what is possible in today’s automobile certainly warrants the conversations about the Volt. However, GM did a good job on designing the Volt to be as close to normal as any automobile that it does not draw a lot of attention to itself. There were plenty of people still walked by the Volt, wore quizzical facial expressions and walked away. However, I was approached by others who asked some very good questions about the car. These interactions made for some great conversations about whether this is the right vehicle for today’s marketplace.

The moment you step away from the Volt, you will come up with the same conclusion as I did: It is simply a car with a completely different propulsion system.

Photos by Randy Stern

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