Driving NW: Living with the Chevy Volt

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by TOM VOELK / Special contributor to KING5.com and NWCN.com

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KING5.com

Posted on June 23, 2011 at 12:03 PM

Updated Thursday, Jun 23 at 12:08 PM

I became familiar with the Chevrolet Volt at a GM press event in San Francisco early this year.  I talked to engineers, drove it around and came away very impressed.  As a piece of technology it’s a deep product, more than just hype as some have suggested.

At those events we generally get to spend half a day with the car.  Owning a car is completely different though and I wanted to know what it was like to live with the Volt for an extended period of time.  So I arranged for Chevy to drop one off for a week so I could experience the lifestyle.  Turned out to be a pretty dramatic seven days (though the Volt was flawless).

A Tech Recap

Volt is an electric car that ‘s supposed to travel around 40 miles on a charge (GMs press info now says 35).  After the battery gets low, a gasoline-powered generator automatically kicks in to make more power to run the electric motor.  With battery and gas tank full, Volt’s range is supposed to be 379 miles.

Coasting and braking recharges the battery.  Dropping the transmission into low puts it into a more aggressive charge mode with the added drag making it possible to drive around without using the brakes much.

My mission is simple- Use as little gasoline as possible without altering my regular lifestyle.  I will not drive my usual 200 to 300 miles like a slug or Speed Racer.  Whenever the car is parked at work I’ll plug it in.  In the end I want to know two things- How far it will go on battery power and what are my energy costs for the week.

Day One

Including delivery mileage from the warehouse, the Volt only gets driven 20 miles so it’s battery power every mile.  One thing is certain.  Volt is a rock star.  People want to know everything about it and I quickly realize I will have to budget extra time on every errand I run.  For the most part, people like the design a lot.

Up till now all Volt interiors I’ve seen have had a white iPod-like material used for the center control panel and mod 70s like printed door panels.  This one’s charcoal with gold inserts and it’s very tasteful.  The center column is mostly touch sensitive and it takes time getting used to.

There’s no real gauge cluster, two LCD screens can be configured to your liking.  Controls like the transmission selector and keyless ignition are just like a standard car.  There’s no gas engine on start up, instead there are Star Trek-like sound effects.

Day Two

Chevy says most consumers drive 40 miles or less per day.  No problem for me, my commute is eight miles round trip.  As I leave for work my wife looks very tired.  Two hours later she’s back from work and in bed with a 103 temperature.

Life happens.  I am now responsible for the scheduled pickups and drop offs for both kids and all of their friends.  At day’s end I have still not exceeded the battery range.  I consider driving around for a few miles to feel the transition to generator mode but realize I need to get the kids fed.  It’s clear that Volt will easily hit 40 miles using no gas though.

Temperature can effect range.  GM says frigid Michigan winters can drop battery performance down to 25 miles.  Conversely, warm summer days in southern states can boost it to 50 or 60 miles.

Day Three

Mariko is feeling worse if that’s at all possible.  The kids climb into the Volt and I deliver them to school, adding another 8 miles to my morning commute.  By the end of the day I dip into the generator for just 3 miles. It’s very hard to tell when the generator kicks on, it’s seamless, and often unheard.  The best indication is graphics on the instrument panel.  The best part?  I’m not stranded, though I wouldn’t be in a Nissan Leaf either because of its 100 mile range.

Charging is simple, just plug in to the port on the driver’s side.  The connector is tough enough to be driven over (ask me how I know).  There’s an LED flashlight at the end of the charger, great for plugging in at night.  A full charge takes 11 hours with a standard 110 current, 4 hours with 220, the kind your dryer uses.  FYI, Leaf essentially double that time, making 110 charging impractical.

Worried that pranksters will unplug your charging car?  If the doors are locked, the alarm goes off to call attention to the act.  A smartphone app will also alert you so can spring into action. Volt can be programmed to charge during off peak rates.

Day Four

My lovely wife is still bedridden with no sign of feeling better.  Kids are shuttled, medicine is retrieved, and people want to chat about the car wherever I go.  I hold up the prescription and apologize that I must rush off.  It’s a great time saver.  I save the bag to use as excuse for future encounters.

I’m driving much more than normal and I have used only 2/10th of a gallon of gas in four days.  Thankfully Volt is fun to drive.  The battery is mounted low between the seats giving it excellent balance.  Overall, it has a European feel to it, solid and hefty with much better handling dynamics than Prius or Insight, a bit better than Leaf.  The brakes have a fairly linear feel, rare for a regenerative system.

Electric motors have a nice torquey dynamic to them, Volt runs from standstill to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, a second or so quicker than Prius and Leaf.   Since it makes very little noise of it’s own, you can hear the suspension pieces working.

I plug Volt in at night using no gas today.  Tomorrow will be different.

Day Five (or Thank Goodness For The Generator)

Marriage is a team activity and with Mariko still on the injured reserve it’s up to me to get the kids and their friends to their destinations.  Note to self, my 17 year old daughter really needs to get her driver’s license. 

Volt has three drive modes, regular, sport (sharpens throttle response), and mountain which allows drivers to kick on the generator early to bank electric power for later if extremely hilly conditions are expected later.  For the most part the generator does not charge the battery.  There are also all sorts of graphics to encourage more efficient driving.  They will help little today.

My various errands involve traveling from Seattle to Tacoma (where the generator smoothly kicks in after 41 miles of freeway driving).  From there it’s up to Mountlake Terrace, a trip downtown to buy a new dress shirt, a few skirmishes to the hardware, drug and grocery stores and finally out to North Bend to attend the Emmy Awards.  This ends up being around 200 miles.  I estimate 37 miles per gallon when depending solely on the generator.

Donned in my new shirt, I actually manage to find an outlet at Snoqualmie Casino and plug Volt in.  I am feeling lucky.  Turns out I’m not.  The shirt gets stained, I leave empty handed (though it’s an honor just to be nominated) and the outlet I scored does not have enough amperage to charge the car.  If I had depended on it to get home with a purely electric car I’d be sunk.  As it stands the only commercially available electric car that can cover today’s range is a Tesla Roadster, and two friends came with me to the Emmys. 

Volt’s Achilles heel is the back seat.  The space seems sculpted out to accommodate my average sized 5’9” frame and it only seats two because of the big battery pack that runs down the middle.  On the other hand, the seats are exceptionally comfortable so those who do fit there will be happy. 

Day Six

Finally, Mariko is feeling better.  Still, there’s shopping to be done.  Volt’s hatch design is useful, the space behind the two rear seats is average sized.  At Costco, Volt scores a five in the TP trunk test, one less than most hatchbacks.  How weird, they ran out of the Kirkland brand so I have to approximate with smaller “brand X” bundles.  In case you’re wondering I only borrow that stuff, the folks at Warehouse #1 are very generous.

When driving on the highway using the generator, it’s possible to hear the gas engine when the throttle is pushed hard.  The overall dynamic sounds like driving a hybrid with a very lazy CVT transmission.

No sunroof is available, Chevy says it adds weight and aerodynamic drag.  Speaking of aerodynamics, the flexible chin spoiler seems to always be scraping something.  My wife, who has finally ridden in the car notices that sound and how exceptionally quiet Volt is.  I drain the battery at 43 miles today and hit the generator up for a dozen more.

Day Seven 

Chevy wants their car back.  A few more observations- For some reason I almost always forget to close the charge port door.  File this under operator error.  Visibility is average because like many modern cars the greenhouse is on the narrow side.  The backup camera helps.  Volt’s navigation system is easy to use and the lightweight Bose system with hard drive storage for your tunes sounds quite good.  While I didn’t really need the climate control much, it blows a huge volume of air with immediate cooling and heating (no engine block to warm up).  The very comfortable supportive leather seats have an auto heat setting.

It’s important to understand that I had no problem driving right up to the very limits of the battery range.  Unlike purely electric cars, the generator offers compete confidence.  Volt can be a person’s only car.  Some folks will be perfectly fine with the 100 mile range of Nissan’s Leaf, you just have to know your needs.

Drum Roll Please…

I head off to Gus Cooper’s Shell to gas up.  There I field the usual questions from curious folks who wonder why I’m there filling up an electric car.  I have driven a total of 497 miles. I top off the tank (yes, I know I’m not supposed to) for a total of five gallons.  Almost all of it is due to my marathon Saturday excursion.

Remember to add electricity costs.  As close as I can estimate, a full battery charge is about $1.30 in Seattle.  Total energy bill?  About 30 bucks for nearly 500 miles of driving.

The cost of saving money on your fuel bill for a 2011 Volt starts at 41 grand before generous tax credits (up to $7,500).  2012 models will begin at 40K with more paint choices and option packages.  This all assumes you can find a Chevy dealer to sell one at MSRP. 

Best of all, Chevy’s extended range electric car will be available in all 50 states by the end of 2011.  You can head down to the local dealer and order yours now.  It was great fun to tool around in the Volt for a week, it even got the attention of my wife (notoriously uninterested in cars) for the one day she rode in it.   She likes the idea of minimal gas use.  I’m just glad she’s feeling better. 

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