Three Realizations from My Latest Drive of Chevy Volt

By · January 05, 2011

Chevy Volt

Prior to yesterday, I had driven the Chevy Volt around a large vacant parking lot in downtown San Francisco, and over a test course at Tirerack.com’s headquarters in South Bend, Ind. But I never took it on the open road. So, it was a pleasure to have a few solid hours with the Volt yesterday on the gorgeous back roads of Marin County.

Instead of focusing on the details of the car’s functionality or its efficiency numbers—those will be reported in great detail by the growing legion of Volt drivers—I simply enjoyed the day as if was my own car. This allowed me to indulge in a few reflections about Volt.

It really is an electric car.

The definition of the Chevy Volt as an extended-range electric car versus a plug-in hybrid has been fodder for web forums and blogs for at least a couple of years. Last summer, when it was revealed that in some rare circumstances the Volt can indeed use gears and clutches to (directly or indirectly) move some power from the engine to the wheels, I wrote a post entitled “Chevy Volt Is More Hybrid Than Previously Thought” for HybridCars.com. In October, my colleague Nick Chambers came as close as possible to defining the technology with Andrew Farah, the Volt's chief engineer.

But driving the car for a couple of hours in charge-sustaining mode puts those issues to rest. That’s because after a few dozen miles, you completely forget about the mechanicals under the hood or the official definition of the Volt as a “plug-in hybrid,” by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Instead, you begin to focus on the driving sensation. Whether in the first 35 or 40 miles, or for the few hundred that follow, the Volt feels like an electric car. It has the telltale characteristics of any EV—linear acceleration, smooth handling, and ultra-quietness. My driving partners on yesterday’s drive—auto writer Larry Hall and G.M.’s Phil Colley—and I tried to perk our ears to hear the engine. Sometimes we could, but mostly we couldn’t.

Over the course of those miles, it was a game of hide-and-seek that ultimately wasn’t worth playing. It was much more fun to forget about it, and simply enjoy the fact that we were riding in a vehicle that had all the qualities of an electric car—even if intellectually I knew that an engine was using a few cups gallons of gasoline to provide hundreds of miles of range. For my regular daily driving cycle, the Volt would be gas-free almost all the time. And beyond that, it would provide all the driving characteristics that make electric cars such a pleasure to drive. Full stop.

It really is more car than electric.

I guess I’m one of the guys that never really understood the Volt’s marketing tag line, “It’s more car than electric.” Until yesterday.

To me, the electric-ness of a car is a badge of honor—and should be trumpeted rather than downplayed. But after about five hours of driving yesterday, the conversation invariably veered off to the beauty of the landscape, the politics of the day, or how dangerously fast Larry was taking the turns. It felt like a 100-mile road trip with friends—with zero concern about range or where we might stop for a charge and for how long. That’s the point.

I’m on the waiting list for a Nissan LEAF and can’t wait. But frankly, I’m not sure if I would have had the same feeling of just being in a regular car if I was in an 80 – 100 mile range EV on that particular route. Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want any stinking internal combustion engine in my car. But I’m pretty sure that my LEAF will be an EV first and a car second.

It really is a halo car.

Here’s where one plus one doesn’t add up exactly to two. The Volt is both a great electric drive, and as accessible and useful as any other car. But the real value—to General Motors at least—is not in selling a gazillion Volts or other similar mostly electric cars. The market is too uncertain for that. As G.M.’s Dave Barthmus told us yesterday, “We don’t know what the size of the [EV] market will be. We’re going to build 55,000 of these vehicles for the next two calendar years.” He said that G.M. is probably not constrained from a manufacturing perspective, and the company wants to put the extended-range electric system in other cars. Barthmus said that General Motors will sell or lease every Volt it makes. He said, “The sky is the limit.”

Except when it’s not. Barthmus then asked: “Will we flip the switch and all of our vehicles are going to electric cars? That’s not going to happen. But this is a great image. This is a great halo, something that we lost when we ended production and marketing of the EV1 without anything to replace it. Boom.”

He told the assembled group of journalists that the Volt will not be for everybody. “But it may get people excited enough to go to a Chevrolet dealership and see what it’s all about. Then, they might see that 42 miles-per-gallon on the highway Chevy Cruze.” He said that the Volt is going to create a lot of excitement around the G.M. brand, about what we’re all about in terms of technology and leadership. “It’s as much about getting people excited about going to our showrooms again,” Barthmus said.

So, which is it? Just a car? Just an electric car? Just a halo car? I don't know, but I want one.

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