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.

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