For four days I took a 2012 Chevy Volt as my around town car to see if it’s really worth it. What I found out even shocked the hell out of me…
Today’s EV culture has gone berserk. It used to be that the only way you could get a true electric vehicle was to purchase a standard Scion, Toyota, Honda, etc. and send it off to California or a few other states to have it turned into a fully electric car by a handful of companies. Now, though, Tesla, BMW, BMW, Mini, Fisker, Chevrolet, Ford, and a few other companies, are producing factory created electric cars with driving ranges anywhere from 30-100+ miles.
Let me be honest, this will not be a very technical review of the Chevy Volt, if that’s what you’re looking for, then Motor Trend should have you covered. Instead, this is my driving experience and feelings on the car after I was done with it.
Now we can get all petty and talk about the bailouts, whether they were right or wrong, who created the Volt, the controversy that surrounded it during its birth, the concept to reality differences, the amount of time it took, the supposed Liberals who love it and the potential Conservatives who hate it, and so on and so forth. But that’s not what this is. It’s a review of how the car performs as a day-to-day machine.
One thing that makes the 2012 Chevy Volt a rather interesting car is its technology, obviously. Officially known as a PHEV, or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Volt isn’t too difficult to wrap your head around. There’s a 16-kWh lithium ion battery with a 149-hp, 273 lb-ft of torque electric drive unit all attached to a 84-hp 1.4-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder gas motor. Basically, the battery -Voltec, as GM likes to call it- drives the car from anywhere between 25-50 miles, depending on conditions and whatnot. When the battery runs out, boom, the 4-banger kicks in to charge the battery that runs the car. According to General Motors, the gas powered motor never at any time actually drives the car, it just charges the Voltec system so that it may continue to turn the front wheels. Think of it like charging your phone. While it’s plugged in to the wall or your computer, you can still talk and text on it without any issues. Same with the Volt when the gas motor is charging the battery to drive the car.
Chevrolet says with this system that the front wheels -the Volt is a front-wheel drive car- are never directly powered by the actual 1.4-liter gas motor.
The navigation screen neatly shows you where the power is coming from, as well as where it’s going. So when you start to apply the brakes, it’ll show brake energy being applied to the battery power (the Chevy Volt utilizes brake regeneration to recharge the battery as you drive in traffic and any other conditions you use the brakes).
My test vehicle was loaded with $5,685 worth of options, including the navigation system with 30GB hard drive ($1,995); premium trim package with perforated leather, heated front seats and a leather wrapped steering wheel ($1,395); rear camera and park distance assist ($695); polished aluminum wheels ($595); Crystal Red Tintcoat paint ($495); and Bose premium sound ($495). All of this added up takes it from the base MSRP of $39,145 to a whopping $45,680. This is all before the $7,500 tax incentive/rebate.
Charging the Chevy Volt is a very easy process for anyone with a garage and an outlet in it. GM recommends that you attach the supplied 120 V charger to the wall to prevent any pulling on the actual plug. For me, I charged the Volt every night, taking roughly 10 hours each night to fully charge. I was home each night around 10 PM, and the car was charged up fully around 8 AM, which is, I should add, way before I usually wake up. If you’d like, you can buy and have a 240 V charger installed that only takes about 4 hours to fully charge any Volt.
I found myself being curious as to how much battery range I could squeeze out of the Volt on a given drive, so I set out on early one Sunday evening around 7 o’clock taking nothing but back roads and city roads to drive from my little town of Wendell, NC to Raleigh, our capital, and on through to Cary. Wendell and Cary are both suburbs of Raleigh. Now a normal drive on the highway or most back roads would have me to Raleigh from my house in about 30 minutes, and to Cary in about 45. So this was obviously going to be a little tricky, since Google Maps showed me the whole trip from Wendell to NC State’s campus in downtown Raleigh, and there to Cary would be right at 37 miles. My range, with a full charge was showing me 36 miles of battery power. This meant that I’d run out of battery power as soon as I hit the city limits of Cary. Ugh.
If I’m honest, I was truly hoping to use very little to no gas power, instead praying that I’d drive so well that I could get 50 or more miles, or halfway back to my house, without the motor kicking in.
But let’s make believe that we’re waiting for the Volt to charge up for a bit so we can talk about the exterior and interior.
The exterior styling of the Chevy Volt isn’t ugly, but it’s not attractive. It’s just unique to itself, I guess you could say. The lines and simple design all point to an aerodynamic styling to aid the range of vehicle without adding too much undue wind stress. With the big ol’ Volt sticker printed on each side of the vehicle, everyone saw me coming before they even heard me. Yes, that was a joke. The doors can be locked and unlocked by way of silver buttons on any of the four door handles. Most car companies only do that on the front two doors, so Chevy makes it a bit easier to lock and unlock from anywhere around the Volt.
But the one area of styling I tend to like is the front. It’s creative and smooth, leaving no area for wind to get stuck and push against the car. The headlights I find cool looking, too. Although, the side and rear of the car certainly leave something to be desired, the taillights in particular drive me crazy. The overall style that they don’t have actually annoys me, because there’s the big butt on the car with the squinty looking lights. They do work, though, because I didn’t have anyone hit me for the lack of seeing their bright LED bulbs burning at a full stop. Another thing that I think has to go in the growing EV culture/design is the use of see-through materials for car doors, roofs, rear hatches, etc. The Chevy Volt has this black hatch door that is partly see-through between the taillights. Why? Is there an overall reason that only one small piece of real estate is partially invisible?
Moving on to the interior, which is a refreshingly interesting design. GM’s cars and trucks have been plagued with ugly, dull and just yikes-worthy interiors for many years. I point to the Corvette, nearly-$100,000 Escalades, and the like. The Volt, however, adds a nice single piece of touch sensitive plastic to the center stack. It’s not the greatest thing out there, but it’s a creative way for the General to go, I think. It’s certainly different for them, and all the buttons are easy to see, touch and cool to look at. I will warn you that if you are OCD, or enjoy cleaning excessively, don’t look inside the Volt. The finger print marks build up very quickly and easily, and while easy to clean off, it’s just annoying having to do so each day; or else it looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in weeks, sometimes months. But that’s really kind of nitpicky.
The parts of the interior that really matter are the seats, nav screen and gauge cluster.
The gauges in the Chevy Volt are 100% computerized. Turn the car on, and you’re welcomed with the sound of what you think may be mission control, and the cluster lights up showing you the battery life, gas motor range, speedo, acceleration and deceleration readout -the green ball in the center moves up or down as if inside a water tank just floating around, showing you how much of either accelerating or braking you’re doing at that moment- as well as the other information we’ve come to expect, such as odometer, average this and that and miles traveled.
I was able to fit three other people in the car at various times with pretty decent comfort, although one that was almost 6-feet was rather uncomfortable. So anyone under the 6 foot range should be alright in the back seats, making road trips an easy process with tons of hatch space, too.
Since we’ve reviewed the other stuff, now it’s time we talk about my short journey to the other end of town, so to speak.
With a fully charged battery reading 36 miles of range, I set off, expecting the 25-35 mph downtown Raleigh roads to help create some extra range. Just a few miles into the drive I started getting a little scared, because I was hitting speeds of 60 mph on part of the back road drive. You see, my house is a tad rural, so driving to a city means taking 60-70 mph highways, or 45-55 mph old roads. I opted for the slightly slower back roads, for obvious reasons. However, neither were working in the favor of the Volt. I decided to not let this bother me, and instead plug my iPhone in and listen to some good music while I had the air conditioning running on an eco setting.
Once I reached the downtown drive I noticed a lot more people walking around and checking out the car as I was driving by. A few, in some of the harsher parts of town, appeared to be wondering what I was doing in said area; others were genuinely checking out the Chevy Volt, quite proud at what they were seeing, it seemed.
Mileage also started to look on the up and up as I was driving in a lot of stop and go areas with traffic lights. I decided while I was driving to call up a friend of mine, Mr. Jack Baruth, the man behind many the properly scathing automotive editorials over at The Truth About Cars. We chatted it up a bit, about how one another was doing, and then we got down to business: “Jack, what’s the point of the Chevy Volt?” I asked. His answer was simple, there’s no point for some, but a good point for others. He drives roughly 108 miles round-trip each work day, so a Volt is utterly useless to him, even if he charges it up twice a day. Doing that, though, will severely hurt the battery. Jack told me his theories on why the Volt is only half as good as it could be now, because later it’ll be better technology used for the Cruze, or another GM car or truck, because the Volt’s body is disposable. Underneath is all you need. With that, you can fit most types of small-medium sized car bodies on the Volt’s undercarriage.
After we talked I remembered reading another friend’s reviews of the Chevy Volt: Jonny Lieberman loves this thing, I thought. He’s driven it around Los Angeles and has given it rave reviews for the comfort, range abilities, among other things.
While driving the Chevy Volt, I’m enjoying the fact that I don’t at all have to worry about anything. The computer says I have about 15 miles left on the range, and while that annoys me, it doesn’t scare me. Why? Well because I have a gas powered generator, of sorts, attached to the battery pack. The electric range may only read 15 miles, but my gas range is reading over 100 miles. And with the gas motor only needing 9.3 gallons of 93 octane fuel, it’s not necessarily too costly per fill-up, especially since the EPA rates the gas mileage per tank at about 379.
Finally, I’m on the phone with my buddy Tom talking about the Volt and there it goes, you hear the gas motor kick in, and feel it, too. The transmission feels much more like a crappy CVT, also, which is a little disconcerting. Now the whole time I was driving I had the shifter in L position, under D. When in this mode, the Chevy Volt acts a lot more like an electric car, even having more brake regeneration. My one complaint the first day I had it was that it felt too much like a regular car for GM to be calling it an EV… However once I learned about putting it in L, I was far more pleased to feel it drive like a normal car, but still have the electric tendencies, such as the sudden loss of power when taking your foot off the accelerator.
After everything was said and done, I headed home, this time via the highway system, which took about 30 minutes less. All the way home I was being charged/driven by the 1.4-liter Ecotec motor, which isn’t really a great engine, if I must say so; it gets the job done, but not in a fun way. The sound is similar to that of an old lawn mower that just wants to spend its final days in the shed. Once I got the car back to my garage, I checked out my energy usage and saw that I went 41.9 miles on the battery and 37.0 miles on the gas motor, only using 1.09 gallons of gas and 12.3 kWh of electricity. I had also achieved 73.4 mpg average using both battery and gas power. At almost 42 miles, I had exceeded my 36 mile charge driving in downtown areas, as I had hoped.
In the end, I came away very impressed with how the Chevy Volt drives, acts, and the innovation of having gas, mixed with lithium ion batteries, and plug-in capabilities. GM seems to have it all covered, except for the fact that I think this is just slightly better than a good enough product. It’s good, but it’s not great, nor is it the answer, I don’t think. The answer, for me, lay in the future GM vehicles that will take advantage of the current car’s concept of the future. Is it a bad car? By no means. Yet if the Volt, or any other PHEV is to succeed, we need more battery power. I’ve been told that the Chevy Volt uses roughly 60% of its full battery power to increase the overall battery life of the car due to charging. See, each time you charge a battery, you’re actually depleting its abilities over time. This is why I believe Chevrolet need to get government assistance to replenish or replace each Volt’s battery after about 3-5 years under a factory warranty to each owner. This way, it’ll always benefit from proper technology.
We must give General Motors a proper golf clap, though, for making the Chevy Volt a proper PHEV that can still move and act like a normal car. I mean, you have purely electric capabilities, but a gas motor to keep you off the phone with AAA. Eat that, Toyota Prius! But we need to get more people looking at the Volt, because it’s well known that most of the people purchasing this car actually have 2-4 other vehicles, making it somewhat of a pointless buy at $45,680, before the government $7,500 tax rebate incentive.
I’d like to thank Universal Chevrolet of Wendell, NC for supplying me with their 2012 Chevy Volt for a few days. You can go to their website, or call them at (919) 374-2175.
[Photos by Corey Privette / Pictures of Chevy Volt driving taken from GM’s media site]