Chevy Volt Rocks the Road, But Cost and Real-World Mileage Remain Concerns

· · 7 years ago

It's easy enough for a new car to look great revolving up on the display stand. And the steroid-enhanced versions that appear in advertising continue the illusions. But how do these new rigs work on in the real world, on familiar and unfamiliar roads, intermingled with traffic and dealing with the reality of stoplights, potholes and aggressive drivers in hulking SUVs?

GM gave me a glimpse into the real-world use of the Chevy Volt last week at a press preview and I'm happy to report the car lives up to most of the its billing in spite of being the "most hyped" car the company has ever produced, by GM's own admission. That's the good news and the short list of negatives will come later. My ride took me over roughly the same drive as editor Brad Berman, so consider this additional info and a different perspective. It's much of the same territory that I've covered in the Chevy Cruze, the non-EV cousin of the Volt, which leads to some interesting comparisons.

When I say real world, I mean a typical 45-mile cruise heading north of San Francisco for lunch at a well-worn Tamales Bay hangout. That may be a bit of a jaunt for some, but it's not an unusual trip among my itineraries (I drove a little more than 55 miles to get to the press preview starting point, for instance). Of course with the return trip, we're talking about a 90-mile round trip in the Volt. The point being made by GM, which was well-taken, was that the same trip in a Nissan LEAF, even if you topped off the battery at lunch, could easily have turned into a knuckle-biter as you watched your car's remaining charge dwindle.

So much for digs at the competition (after another shot noting the Volt is an all-American product compared to the imported LEAF), which were made to drive home the point that the Volt could serve a conventional one-car family (if there is such a thing)--as long as you have no more than two kids and don't plan on any extended trips that would entail every family member taking along their own luggage. So, in spite of the Chevy Volt crew's protestations, I would not expect to see a wholesale move from SUVs to Volts, which is actually good for a big chunk of the GM lineup.

But this was a driving exercise, the true test of whether a car can deliver its promises on the road:

  • How does it feel on the highway?
  • How does it handle twisty roads?
  • How well does it stop and take off from a stop?
  • How comfortable is it to drive for some distance?
  • How easy is it to use all of the controls--critical ones like wipers and lights and important ones like the heater-A/C and the radio?
  • Finally, most important, what kind of fuel economy did it deliver?

With only a few minor exceptions (which I'll note below), the Volt acquits itself well on all these accounts. It's a comfortable highway cruiser; its compact size fits in well on the road and with 400 pounds of batteries running down its spine, the center of gravity is low and favorable for gripping the road. The Volt's handling compares well with the Cruze, which is one of the best-handling vehicles in the compact class. It's power, especially when running in ranged-extended mode, is a little lacking since it carries the Cruze's engine, but without the turbo. And the little details of the car, from a comfortable but "grabby" driver's seat to a spacious and well-appointed interior, are well done.

Since its electric motor is the main mode of motivation for the car, take-offs from a start benefit from typical EV low-end torque. Breaking is solid with minimal regen feedback. The car is heavier than similar ones in the class (carrying about 430 pounds of batteries compared the internal combustion engine Cruze), but doesn't really feel that weighty. You can tell GM's engineers have taken care to make sure enthusiasts could appreciate the car's road manners.

The Volt's center stack contains a reconfigurable video screen that show powertrain functions and readouts for fuel economy, among a multitude of other items. The controls for radio, heating, A/C and such are also packaged in the touch-sensitive center stack, looking as one colleague commented like "the last generation iPod," which is a measure of where the auto industry stands compared to the high-tech industry. The long-range planning involved in a car almost always dooms it to be a step behind the latest gadgets coming out of Silicon Valley. They all worked, but definitely will require the new owner to take some time to sort out what controls are where and what each section does.

40 MPG, At the End of the Day

So that leaves the elephant in the room--fuel economy. It was tremendous (100+ mpg) heading out in full EV-mode toward lunch. A few miles on the freeway and several more on surface streets took us to a little side trip to shoot some rolling footage for a TV newsman. While giving me a great chance to get a feel for the Volt's road dynamics, turning radius and acceleration and braking, it also served to deplete the battery. About 10 miles later came upon a non-event--the transition of the Volt from EV mode to its extended range operation where the engine kicks in and begins supplying power to the EV motors. Other than the indicator on the dash showing the change of operation, there was no perceptive difference. There is something exhilarating about being about to use every electric mile available in a car as opposed to being focused on rationing your driving to make sure there is battery power left to complete a trip. But the fuel economy began its slow decline. By the end of the roughly 100-mile trip, our average was less than 40 mpg, or a little less than the highway fuel economy the Cruze promises.

That all goes back to the GM representative's strained answer to a press question before the drive. Asked about the EPA fuel economy numbers for the Volt, he said: "It takes some explaining." More than any other car you might have ever driven, the Volt's fuel economy is going to vary based on what GM calls the three T's: terrain, temperature and (driving) technique. To help guide you on the latter item, the Volt dash has a floating green globe that gives you immediate feedback as to how your driving is affecting fuel economy, leading the GM rep to say the car "changes the way I drive."

As GM's Global Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick said at the LA Auto Show introduction of the Volt he had driven from Detroit to LA. "In the first 1,100 miles of driving the Volt, I used I gallon of gas, then we drove 2,290 miles in five days." In those final five days, he averaged around 40 mpg even with an overnight charge.

Another Elephant: Cost

Finally, a word on cost. GM is logically pushing its $350 a month lease, which puts it on par with the LEAF and helps protect the company against the future shock of technology that will be available in three years. Otherwise, the Volt purchaser will need to chase down federal and state incentives to try to bring down the $41,000 price tag.

This window sticker puts the Volt in the same territory as the Acura TL, BMW 3-Series, Cadillac CTS, top-line Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, Lexus' ES 350, HS 250 hybrid and IS 350, Lincoln MKS, Saab 9-5 and Volvo S80. Will any of those vehicles be cross-shopped by Volt intenders? Probably not, but it does give an indication of the expectations of that price range. The Volt is a fine vehicle, but not a $40,000 near-luxury compact.

Most of the early buyers will be willing to overlook that anomaly because they'll be getting technology that backs up the price of the vehicle. But long term, that will be an issue GM has to address. When challenged on whether the company was making any money on the Volt, GM representatives hedged and said their ongoing goals were to take cost and weight out of the vehicle. "Our goal is to be profitable by the end of the first generation," a time they declined to state, although most vehicles typically have a four- or five-year generational span.


· Jeff (not verified) · 7 years ago

All-American?!? No way...the Volt uses a Korean battery

· · 7 years ago

By all-american, they meant the executives

· · 7 years ago

To me, it seems the Volt is only really a great car if 90% or more of your driving is under 40 miles/day, AND you only want to own one car but still be ABLE to drive anywhere at anytime. For someone who regularly drives 80-90 miles a day, they're better off with a Prius or similar. They'd still get the EV benefits in parking lots, etc... but better overall fuel economy at a MUCH lower price.

· · 7 years ago


If, like most people, the bulk of your driving is around 40 miles/day, you could run the Volt for a year before the engine has to turn on. If, on the other hand, you need to make a 100-mile jaunt like I did, the mileage will drop, though it will average out. If you're driving 80-90 miles a day (likely freeway miles), my suggestion is to get a diesel. More consistent fuel economy, more power and better driving experience. Remember, it's efficiency, not just EV miles, that count. That's why I think the Volt concept is right on the money; they just need to work on the cost. At twice the cost of a Jetta TDI or Prius, it doesn't make economic sense to anyone except those with money to burn.

· · 7 years ago

If you're going 80 to 90 miles per day, get a Leaf and a charger at work.

· · 7 years ago

And keep your fingers crossed it isn't a hot or cold day or you have a lot of hills to traverse.

· Priusmaniac (not verified) · 7 years ago

I may be asking this several times, but we still don't have any information about how the Volt is driving when it is using E85 instead of gasoline. The Volt is a Flex-Fuel vehicle, that is one of the things that make it special. It is surprising to see that no one has been testing this very specific feature up to now. If I had the opportunity to do it, it is the first thing I would try in the real world.

· Bobby (not verified) · 7 years ago

Buy a Leaf if you're blind, because you'd have to be to buy such an ugly POS. Make sure to get good walking shoes as well considering the extreme variance in driving distances on a charge.

· George Parrott (not verified) · 7 years ago

Both of our daily work commutes are under 25 miles, so either the LEAF or the Volt would work for us in terms of "clean driving." Both of our work sites will soon have charge points installed, so topping off AT work will also be an option for us (CSU, Sacramento and UC, Davis are our work sites and our home is between those work locations).

So, what would/did we do?

We got BOTH the LEAF (ordered on day 1, 31 August) and the Volt (due to arrive for delivery today or tomorrow). We will use the LEAF for most of our local play commuting and for one of us to do work commutes and the Volt for the other daily driver AND for the longer weekend jaunts to San Francisco or Lake Tahoe.

And since our home here in W. Sacramento is fully solar PV equipped, even with both cars charging here, we still won't actually have a PG&E electric use charge (our PV panel system was set up with the charging of the EVs planned so it generated 1200kW MORE than we used last year and produced a credit of $438 which wonderful PG&E will not have to reimburse to us). With the special EV "time of use" metering now in place, we will produce excess electricity at $ .29kW and use the heavy load between midnight and 7 am at around $ .06kW. We had ZERO electricity use cost last year and spent around $2300 for gas and car regular upkeep. For this coming year, we will still have ZERO electricity use cost and reduce our car upkeep costs to around $300/year.

· · 7 years ago

@Priusmaniac, the first generation Volt's 1.4L is a premium gasoline only (no E85) engine. Maybe next gen when they also bump up the emissions specs of the engine so it's a AT PZEV in CA and might be able to make it into the HOV lanes.

· · 7 years ago

@George Parrott You are what is called in the business THE TARGET MARKET and you're performing well.

· · 7 years ago

@Michael Coates,
80 to 90 miles per day with charging at work will not require any finger-crossing with the Leaf. Without charging at work, I don't recommend counting on a leaf for an 80 - 90 mile roundtrip commute since there isn't sufficient margin unless you are ok with hypermiling every day.
Also, it is a misconception that hills hurt electric vehicle range significantly. On the downhill, one pretty much gets back any extra exertion from the uphill. The only issue I've seen is if you have a hill you must climb to get to your charger and you're nearly empty. This, however, is my life since I live about 1000 ft above the nearby freeway and it doesn't affect my range too much. I just need to leave a couple of kWhrs in the battery to be able to easily climb home.

· · 7 years ago

Question to all Contributors Please. What if one had the ability to continually charge SuperCapacitors in a vehicle as it is driven? What I mean is instead of the brake regeneration; I can provide between 10 to 50 or more continuous amps at all times while the vehicle is driven. Would this help and couldn't one use both less batteries and some SuperCapacitors at the same time? Thanks in advance!

· · 7 years ago

@alexrr60 What if? Great concept, but makes Better Place's challenges look like child's play in terms of cost and infrastructure development.

· · 7 years ago

Hello Mr. Coates. Thank you for your response. No, I've done it!, with several different prototypes. Since I don't have the resources at this moment, I hope to convert a small vehicle and conduct some further testing with both Capacitors and Batteries installed. Most expensive prototype is around $500. Smaller versions are less than $250. These of course are retail prices. I am just looking for more advice. I am not an engineer and should have studied it vice Business Management. Thanks again for your comments.

· · 7 years ago

@alexrr60 Where are you located? Have you got patents on the technology? Have you talked with angel or VC funding groups?

· · 7 years ago

Mr. Coates, I am in Florida. I have a Provisional Patent that will expire in June. This is why I am looking for help. Have not tried angel or funding groups. I have submitted a proposal to DOE. I am also awaiting for a potential investor in the next couple of weeks. You see, let me explain; I have not shown the device to anyone out of my inner circle due to the risks. What I have done is conduct tests and have shown my results to these potential investors and the numbers have added up. This is not a fluke, although we did use a Fluke tester on a day of testing with one of the Electrical Engineers at the end of last year. Also, as an example, if you have seen that the Volt, Leaf and or Tesla on the average can run on 350watts per mile. My device can match that; my problem has been how to quickly charge the batteries. This is why I asked about utilizing both the SuperCapacitors and batteries. I was thinking about 48V in AGM or Lithium and adding a Maxwell 48V units in order to have a 96V system on a honda I plan to convert in the next couple of months. My constraints have been economics; it's hard to survive and use on SS and a partial VA pension. Five years fighting with VA. Well that is not why I came on here. Again, thank you for your time and please your input on the 96V type assembly. Thank you!

· · 7 years ago

Mr. Coates, This is where I am researching at this moment:

· · 7 years ago

I'd suggest getting ahold of Andy Burke at UC Davis' ITS. He's kind of the guru of this segment. (530) 752-9812 And keep me posted on your progress; I'd love to do a story when you get to vehicle demo mode. I'm at

· · 7 years ago

Thank you Mr. Coates. I will look forward to contacting him. I will keep that in mind. Best regards. Alex

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