So did the Volt impress? As usual, that all depends on your expectations.
In three drive cycles, the Popular Mechanics team recorded electric ranges of 31, 35, and 33 miles. To some of us who got used to hearing and repeating the 40-mile estimate that GM has used for years, that might be a little disappointing. But it shouldn't be.
As most people familiar enough with EVs to pay attention to these kinds of reports knows, there's no such thing as a hard electric range number. Your results can and will vary significantly depending on how you drive a plug-in car. Last month, Chevy basically admitted as much, revising their "about 40 miles" claim to "between 25 and 50 miles." This admission of reality was refreshing, and a smart move for any company trying to avoid a backlash when drivers achieve only half the range they might have expected in extreme adverse conditions.
So in reality, Popular Mechanics's electric range findings shouldn't be all that jarring to anyone who would care enough to read them.
But what may come as a surprise to many, is the once again disappointingly-low gas mileage that the Volt seems to get when operating in extended-range, or "CS" mode. Early on GM was using an estimate of 50 mpg when discussing the fuel economy for the Volt once its battery is depleted and its engine has turned on. Over the last few years, however, GM's CS-mode mileage claims have come fewer and farther between, to the point where GM has said almost nothing concrete on the topic in the last year. But over the course of roughly 800 miles of extended-range driving, Popular Mechanics says it recorded averages of just 31.7 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway.
Not That There's Anything Wrong With That
These numbers aren't too much higher than the 27 MPGs that AOL Autos reported two months ago—and yet somehow, they have yet to elicit the strident denials from GM officials that those reports were met with. As with Chevy's long-held claim that the electric motor in the Volt will be the sole source of power for the vehicle's wheels, it would appear that the company has again overreacted to a report that turned out to be mostly true. Sure, the 27-mpg number probably was a little lower than what most drivers can expect to get in CS mode, but it doesn't seem to have been as far off as GM's outrage at the time suggested.
Even though the Volt team has been pretty consistent in its use of the "your results may vary" disclaimer when discussing the vehicle while it was still in development, at this point it looks like Chevy should probably adjust its 50-mpg rhetoric in the same way it did the 40-mile range claim. It's still possible that 50 mpg really is a reasonable expectation for the Volt in some ideal conditions—but that's no reason to use it as widely as GM has over the course of the last few years.
We'll find out soon enough what the EPA numbers for CS mode actually end up being. Those figures could very well end up being smack in-between the disappointing independent calculations that we've heard so far and the 50 mpg Chevy has trumpeted in the past. (Hey, 40 mpg ain't so bad, right?)
But regardless of whether the EPA numbers end up being 32/36 or 40/45, GM seems to once again be stuck in the position of having to manage expectations that nobody ever forced it to set so high to begin with. The question isn't so much whether fuel economy in the low- to mid-30s is enough for a vehicle that shouldn't have to run on gas very often anyway—it's why GM would go to the trouble of making overly-optimistic claims about a car whose reality is pretty darn impressive on its own?