Ears Wide Open, Chevy Volt Marketing Manager Collects Driver Feedback

By · February 03, 2011

John Hughes with Chevy Volt

John Hughes, charging up his Chevy Volt at G.M.'s headquarters.

John Hughes has strong feelings about the Chevy Volt that he’s been using as a daily commute vehicle for the past three months. But his own personal predilections are less important to him than the experiences of his fellow Volt drivers. That’s because he’s the Volt marketing manager in charge of coordinating owner opinions via the customer advisory board, and multiple other channels.

In an interview with PluginCars.com, Hughes rattled off a list of the many ways that G.M. is keeping track of what’s happening with real-life Volt drivers in the real world: multiple company websites, toll-free call centers, an OnStar team dedicated to the Volt, and even direct lines of communication. “I’ve gotten to know Volt customers personally,” said Hughes. “I feel comfortable with calling them up and asking them what they think.” He said that G.M. has “a lot of tentacles out there to understand what’s happening practically minute by minute in the initial launch markets.”

So, what are a few examples of what Hughes has learned?

  • Customers would like to have dashboard gauge to show percentage of the battery pack’s state-of-charge, not just an estimate of how many EV miles remain.
  • Customers like the redundant driver controls—on both the touch screen and dashboard—allowing for multiple ways to control climate, audio and other functions.
  • Customers don’t like that the alarm goes off if the car is unplugged while the doors are locked. “The EV community said that won’t work, because the protocol is that if there’s an EV plugged in and it’s fully charged, it’s common and acceptable for another EV driver to unplug that car and plug in their car that needs a charged,” said Hughes. “I think that’s insightful and we have to take a look at that.”

First-Hand Experience As Well

To better understand the feedback from owners, Hughes started driving a pre-production engineering Volt in early October. Over the course of his first 4,500 miles of, he’s averaged 89 miles per gallon. It took two months before his first visit to the gas station, and that's only because he went on a 200-mile Boy Scout outing. His normal commute is 20 miles, and he charges on Level 2 at work and Level 1 at home. He has managed about 38 to 42 miles of all-EV range, when the weather was moderate—and in the winter, about 28 to 32 miles of electric range. And that’s while driving fast.

“I have to be conscious of how fast I drive to make sure I stay within the speed limit,” said Hughes. “It’s quiet to the point that you’re going quicker than you think, because you don’t have the noise as a cue to how quick you’re going.”

It’s the quickness and quietness of the Volt that has most impressed Hughes. At that same time, he’s developed a real passion for driving on electricity—the first 35 miles or so when the gas engine is completely dormant. “I love the EV mode more than I thought I would,” said Hughes. “I feel very proud and excited and feel like I’m doing my part.”

Closing the Feedback Loop

Despite this love for the pure EV experience, Hughes doesn’t feel an urgent need for more electric range than the Volt is currently providing. He believes that 35 miles is “an awesome place to start.”

But are other Volt customers asking for more EV range? “That really hasn’t come up,” said Hughes. Yet, the marketing team is constantly asking customers what’s important to them relative to trade-offs. “If you ask somebody, if I make the Volt with better fuel economy and more EV range, would that be good? They say sure.” He added, “If you ask somebody should I lower the price of this car, they say, ‘yeah, that would be great.’”

I asked if he would ever consider owning a pure electric car—with no engine on board? “Probably not. I like the idea of driving in EV mode, but I also like not having a constraint,” he said. Hughes believes that pure electric cars are better suited to fleets, or as a third car for families. “There are times when I’m fully charged, but I’m sure glad that I have some energy in the tank,” Hughes said. “You know, like when I hear, ‘Honey, I need you to pick this up or pick that up.’ I don’t have to go home and swap cars.”

Hughes said that they are constantly collecting feedback, processing it, and figuring out where to go from here to make customers even happier with the Volt. Even though he can load up the Volt with three kids, and two bags of hockey gear, without a problem, he would like to see a larger Volt-style vehicle, maybe a small SUV with five seats. “Are different configurations possible with this drivetrain? Absolutely. You need to stay tuned for when we give information about where things are going.”

The good news is that whichever direction G.M. moves next with its electric program, it will be informed by feedback from real customers. So PluginCars.com readers, what do you want G.M. to know? Mr. Hughes is listening.


· · 7 years ago

>>electric cars are better suited to fleets, or as a third car for families.<<

Ouch. Used to be that EVs could only hope for *second* car status. Now they've been demoted to third!? Only by those who've never had one in the family, of course. Everybody who has an EV that I know considers it to be the primary car. The one that's driven every day.

· JJJ (not verified) · 7 years ago

Darell, of course a car executive wishes that every household owned 3, 4 maybe 10 cars. Perhaps cars 3-7 would make good EVs.

· George Parrott (not verified) · 7 years ago

First, I, and many Volt owners, are very disappointed that the locking/unlocking process is not "passive" and proximity based as on the Prius, Camry, and most other cars over even $30,000. It is a shock to have the push button start inside, but to have to find and pull out the key fob to lock and unlock the vehicle.

Second, there should be a wiper on the back hatch, the rain does collect there and it does reduce visibility.

Third, the colored panels on the doors really should be quality vinyl if not leather, rather than hard plastic colored to sort of match the selected interior (leather in our case). Tacky big time !

Fourth, one should be able to TURN OFF the radio and still have the Navigation screen and operation screen stay on?

Fourth, the seat belt anchors should be a bit higher/extended on both sides. If you have tall drivers or even simply tall torso people, then the seats are placed lower and it is very easy to input the seat belt to the anchor slot, BUT for short bodied people (both my wife and I), we are fumbling down in the dark abyss to find that slot, and my wife has already broken a finger nail trying to find that insertion point.

Heated back seats might be a further PART of the upgrade leather interior, since that would also reduce the battery drain as opposed to heating the whole interior when one has only one passenger or even two in the back seats?

1. Love the firm ride feel. This car is replacing a Camry Hybrid, and the Volt rides much more like our earlier 3 series BMW, A4 Audi and AWD Passat cars.

2. We LIKE the hatchback configuration for general utility.

3. I like the dimensions and feel of the steering wheel in our leather optioned model.

4. I am VERY happy with the "standard alloy wheels;" they are exactly what I wanted as the "polished chrome" pattern seemed a bit flashy for us.

5. We have the Crystal Red, and it has drawn very positive comments everytime we have parked in public settings, and the backup camera option has been very handy functionally.

· SteveEV (not verified) · 7 years ago

In my family the EV is number one. It will be relegated to number two when the LEAF arrives. The gas burner can wait in the garage for long trips.

· · 7 years ago

That's funny! Your EV will only become your secondary car when the new EV arrives. Music to my ears.

· · 7 years ago

I'd like to see more EV/PHEV options for those who want/need AWD or 4WD. We'll probably be keeping our 2003 Pontiac Vibe AWD for a long time yet (we get ~30 mpg with it). When we replace the Vibe, we'll consider another GM vehicle, but it'll have to have a plug. :-)

· · 7 years ago

When my wife and I got our first EV in 2008, a 2002 Toyota RAV4-EV, with its limited 100-mile range, we thought it would cover about half of our driving. We were very wrong: it covered about 98% of our driving. It instantly became our primary vehicle. When we had to be in different places, we had a simple rule: whoever was driving the farthest got to drive the EV since that would save the most energy. Our gas burners languished in the garage. We had to make an effort to make sure they were driven occasionally.

After we got a second EV, we sold the last of our gas burners. We used to own three gas cars. Now we own two EVs that do everything that three gas cars used to do. We laugh when we read about EVs being suitable as second cars. It might start that way, but we know how it turns out in short order: the EV becomes the primary vehicle.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

I was eagerly anticipating the new Chevy Volt, but a big turn-off is the GM dealers gouging the customer 5K-10K over MSRP just to buy the car. Probably won't go back to look at another GM car. I'll probably wait until a different manufacturer comes out with a better EV.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 7 years ago

To complete the oil free interest of the volt, can we have a flex-fuel engine in it? On that can run on E85 but perhaps also on E100.

Can there be an option for a park and forget charging system? An haloPRT style system www.haloipt.com/advantages.aspx#n_performance , or simple contact on a ground pod with contacts under the car.

· · 7 years ago

I still do not like the over all complexity of the Volt but it does sound like it's making a good mark for itself. I want pure EV so I can say good bye to all the maintenance of the common car.

That being said if GM can take what they have done and make their next Volt with a very small ICE to charging. Lets say under 1000cc, make the pure EV range closer to 80 and only make the ICE charge the batteries never drive the car then I would indeed consider a Volt like car. I imagine with a small ICE for "charging only" they can drop all the crazy gearboxes out of the Volt. I fear GM has just make a car that people will spend large sums of cash on to maintain farther down the road.

Then I can drive my pure EV 95% of the time and my Volt like car on those cross country excursions. At least till batter tech improves some.

Nice list Mr. Parrott. Thanks. I can't believe you need to have the radio on to see the Nav system. That is just plain short sighted.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 7 years ago

The inside door panels in the back seat are just slabs of black plastic, even if you get the upgraded interior - the front and read door panels don't even match. It looks cheap.

· · 7 years ago

I have the neutral leather interior, and I think the champagne colored plastic inserts look awesome on it. The level of finish is outstanding. You don't just mold those panels on the cheap, they are actually painted to a very high standard. Admittedly, the silver colored panels don't look as nice, IMO.

So, I love my Volt-- best and coolest car I've ever owned. However, 35 miles on a charge (as mentioned in the article) would be acceptable if that's what it delivered all the time, in all weather. My car so far has only lived in the northeast winter, and on the very best day it might go 28 miles on a full charge. On other days, like today, I'm on pace for only 23 miles. For this reason, I'm really hoping they can increase the efficiency and Kw/h capacity of the battery, without making the car any heavier. I'd like to see 35 miles MINIMUM, not just on a beautiful day. We don't get all that many of those around here!

· · 7 years ago

The car I'll use 330 days a year is my "second" car - and the one I use for 3 weeks is the "primary car".

This is the same logic GM execs use to classify their holiday homes as primary residence in tax filings.

· Brian (not verified) · 7 years ago

@George Parrott:

I find it surprising that you count "firm ride" as a plus for the Volt. I was fortunate enough to test-drive a Volt back in November in Paramus, NJ, and although I instantly got the "EV grin" (instant, silent torque), the next thing I noticed was how squishy it was around the corners. I don't know, maybe they tightened it up for production, but I was disappointed with how soft the ride was. I was hoping for a nice road-gripping "firm" ride, but what I got was soft, kind of like a Prius. This driving behavior is what drove me to buy an Insight over a Prius a year and a half ago. I'm still hoping that the Focus EV will provide me with a firm, sporty feel unlike the washiness feeling I got from the Volt.

· · 7 years ago

@Anonymous - Patrick Wang, another Volt owner, told me that he placed a call with lots of different dealers in his area (N. Cal.) and all but one wanted to charge price premiums. The only that was willing to charge MSRP is where he bought. The others were taking bids $5k to $10k over MSRP. It would be interesting to find out from John Hughes what the sales price has been for Volts around the country.

· merlinus (not verified) · 7 years ago

I'd love to have one for my 100+ mile daily commute.
Currently I'm commuting on my motorcycle which gets about 45 to 50 mpg.
Due to the price tag of the current stock of EV's these are relegated only to the wealthier class. Still hopeful and waiting for the EV to hit the "average Joe" price range and the 2nd hand market.

· George Parrott (not verified) · 7 years ago

We have owned a 1998 3 series BMW, a 1996 Audi AR wagon, and two VW Passats (1 sedan and the other an AWD Wagon) all at times in the last 15 years. As I noted our most recent cars were a 2007 Camry Hybrid and a 2006 Prius (we had a 2004 Prius, but I upgraded to get the leather interior and backup camera options when the 2006 changes were introduced).

The Volt is much more like the BMW and other German cars in ride feel than the more recent comparisons to the Toyota hybrids.

Yes, finding a Chevy dealer that was not gouging on markup and who would actually take a specific option package order was HARD. I spend 2-3 weeks after Volt ordering opened before I found a dealer, 40 miles to the West of Sacramento who would take an MSRP specific package order. Once I found my dealer/salesman, the Volt post order process was incredibly open, informative and almost fun. I could track my order once GM accepted it daily through a 3rd party website and find out exactly where the production, and then delivery process was at.

We live in the Sacramento metropolitan area, and we got our Coulomb charge point free with free installation courtesy of the DOE/Volt promotion in this area. Currently we ARE getting 37-41 miles of EV range, and our ICE miles have averaged just a bit ABOVE 40 MPG mostly on freeway driving, as we took a short "road trip" from Sacramento to Bodega Bay and then down to San Francisco and back to Sacramento. Only the first 36.5 miles of that was EV, and we were right at 40.0 mph on the fuel use for that excursion. Our shorter town drives, when the ICE has kicked in after the EV range was exhausted have been at slower speeds and those have been around 41.5 mpg. Our total "fuel use" for 1200 miles of total driving has been about 9.6 gallons.

I am quite impressed with that, but would SUGGEST TO GM that a DIESEL range extender would be even better, e.g. a 1.0 liter clean diesel--they exist ! More torque for the special circumstance ICE clutch connection and MUCH better steady state fuel consumption for those extended drive settings.

· · 7 years ago

Although price gouging seems pretty sleazy, it is a part of the free market system, unfortunately, or not, depending upon perspective. It can be seen as a good trend for the Volt, and EVs in general, and is proof that people want EVs... so much that they will pay very high prices for them. One would hope that the Cadillac version will come out soon.

When GM realizes that there is also a market for pure EVs, will they recant their statement that EVs are only good as third cars?

I like George's suggestion for a one-liter diesel. This could be expected to improve fuel efficiency by about 30% on a miles-per-gallon basis, and would make biodiesel a viable fueling option.

· Brian (not verified) · 7 years ago

Again, I'm surprised. Isn't BMW supposed to be the "ultimate driving machine"? I'm not doubting your comparison, just surprised. And more than a little disappointed. The Volt has a heavy battery pack located low. It should help stiffen the ride more than it does (again, unless there's a significant difference in the production version). It's enough to make me hold out for another alternative (Leaf is not yet available here in NY), and continue to drive around my gas-guzzling Insight.

· George Parrott (not verified) · 7 years ago

We even took delivery of our BMW at the factory delivery setting in Munich. The first two weeks were on the German autobahns before dropping the car off for shipment back to California (all part of the European delivery/purchase program thru your local US dealer).

I was really not overly impressed with the BMW handling, and I found the new electronics in our model quite glitch ridden. The mileage computer was ALWAYS optimistic by around 10% and could not be adjusted, and the "memory seats" kept going back to the setting for my 5'2" wife and not to my setting which should have been the one activated by MY keyfob. Many sore knees were thereby produced.

The car has been reliable and is still being used as the daily driver by our sister-in-law with now 135,000 miles and not major service work at all.

But the Volt rides more like those German suspension settings and not as "floaty" as our Camry Hybrid of current use. Maybe GM tightened up the suspension settings from those early prototypes to the production run?

And in 3 weeks or so, we will be able to directly compare the Volt with the LEAF, as it is still scheduled to arrive before the end of this month (though the exact date seems to be skipping around when I check my "Leaf dashboard" for those updates).

· pat b (not verified) · 7 years ago

i would love the Volt to have a modular battery pack, so i could put an extra battery pack into the
Trunk. Let it be my choice how much battery I want.

· · 7 years ago

@pplstan92, Is it really necessary to SPAM every thread about the Volt? I don't much care for GM since I was one of the shareholders wiped out by the bankruptcy, but to think that the government rescue and current minority interest in GM has doomed the company to failure is the polar opposite of what actually happened. Chrysler is in a dicey situation but I'd be very surprised if the new GM failed anytime soon. In the not-to-distant future the US and Canadian government stakes in GM will be reduced to zero. What will you have to complain about then?

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