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Road Tested: Chevrolet Volt – Too Expensive for Electrics or The Price of Practicality?

Ramin Talaie, Getty Images

As many governments continue to increase fuel standards for the future, it seems that it will be a necessity for most car companies to have at least one model that is either a full electric vehicle or gets extremely good mileage by using electric technology. After all, by 2025, automakers will be required in the United States to meet a fuel economy rating of 54.5 mpg corporate average.

A few weeks ago, I tested the Nissan LEAF, their first fully-electric vehicle. While there were a few good qualities to the car, I simply couldn’t get past the fact that after 100 miles of driving, you’re done for much of the day. While a few charging stations are being installed in some areas of the country, they won’t be widespread enough to make much of a difference, and the average motorist would be stuck charging it for 10 hours at a time while trying to go on any sort of extended trip.

For the motorists that never have the urge to leave their general area, or can afford to have a LEAF as a secondary vehicle, this may never be an issue. For many others however, the poor range is a deal-breaker for this pricy little vehicle.

This is where the Chevrolet Volt can roll in silently to save the day for those interested in electric vehicles, but aren’t able or willing to submit to the puny range offered by the LEAF.

GM Corp.

While the Volt’s 288-cell lithium-ion battery pack can only help to propel the car between 25 and 50 miles, depending on driving style, terrain, and temperature, it also has a 1.4 liter engine to charge the batteries, somewhat like the diesel-electric trains running across the world have used for many years.

The batteries, combined with the small engine and 9.3 gallon fuel tank, can take the car an EPA-estimated 379 miles. Of course, when a Volt driver begins to run the car a bit low, they can always fill the tank up again. Beat that, Nissan LEAF.

The Volt is not particularly ideal for large families that travel together, because it only seats four due to the vehicle’s T-shaped battery pack which runs up the middle of the cabin. Luckily, all four can be seated comfortably.

As most people drive fewer than fifty miles per day, it may well be that the average motorist would be able to operate on battery power most of the time, yet still have the ability to take a road trip if so desired.

GM Corp.

As for the Volt’s styling, I believe that it’s one of the best looking eco-cars on the market. It’s no Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, but GM managed to eschew the standard Quasimodo-esque body lines that have been embraced by some green car designers and actually made the car quite striking. They avoided giving it the dopey catfish-like maw of the LEAF or the Bicentennial Man fascia of the current-gen Toyota Prius, and made it quite angular and somewhat aggressive. The rear of the car is the only generic eco-mobile styling measure, and does look extremely similar to the rear-end standard set by the Honda Insight in 2000.

The Volt I tested is a fully-loaded 2011 model, and was actually the very first electric vehicle I’d ever driven. It is a very odd sensation to get in, put your foot on the brake and press the on button, and not feel an engine begin to rumble in front of you. The Volt driver is greeted with a strange, yet enjoyable powering-up sound which is broadcast through the car’s speaker system.

The Volt offered enough room for someone of my height to fit in comfortably, though there was not much leg room left behind me for a passenger in the back. The heated leather seats were very comfortable, and offered plenty of support. Granted, since it was July in the Texas Panhandle, I chose not to turn on the seat heaters because the owner would most likely prefer me not to melt into the seat of his new car.

Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

You won’t find much in the way of dead trees inside of the cabin, or even fake wood trim for that matter. The interior of the Volt has a very cold, neat, and precise atmosphere, almost like an expensive and very modern kitchen appliance. Fortunately, Frigidaire has nothing on the Volt, in that despite the overall minimalist design of the center controls, the vehicle can have just about anything today’s driver could desire.

Most things are controlled by a simple touch on a designated spot, rather than the outdated clicky-buttons of the past. The controls for the stereo, air-conditioner, and other things in that area of the sweeping extension of the center console are quite small, and it would be best to familiarize oneself with the large number of buttons prior to setting off.

Wonderfully enough, the Volt has a normal gearshift rather than some new-age toggle switch. I slipped it into reverse, and nothing happened. These vehicles don’t have the same creep which most of us have become accustomed to. Once on the accelerator pedal, we began to move.

GM Corp.

I looked in the rear view mirror to be greeted by a rear window with a spoiler running across it. Normally, that makes me quite cross, but the reverse camera on the car’s sat-nav screen did the job quite well, and that, coupled with the guide lines which turn with the steering wheel made backing out from a blind corner very easy. The rear window is not particularly easy to see out of, so the backup camera is an option worth having.

In that the electric motor drives the vehicle, 100 percent of the car’s torque is available with one quick touch of the throttle. Sure, you won’t be able to drag race anything but large family sedans, but this shan’t be a concern for your average electric car driver.

The Volt does not feel slow while driving it, and achieves a 0 to 60 time of 9.2 seconds running on electric power only, and 9 seconds even when assisted by the engine. The steering is immediate, and the car handles quite well, even at higher speeds. It has a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour, which, given the lack of unrestricted autobahn in the United States, is a perfectly acceptable top speed. The stopping power is very good as well, which will give the Volt driver plenty of time to try and generate the maximum amount of charge from the regenerative braking system.

GM Corp.

There is a bit more tire noise audible inside of the Volt when compared with the LEAF, but it’s still quiet enough even at highway speeds to be a fairly nice place to be. GM has installed a noisemaker which can be used in spots with pedestrians to warn them of the moving Volt’s presence.

The instrument screen was by far, my least favorite part of the car. The display is cluttered with information, which includes current battery and fuel levels, speed, odometer, average fuel consumption, gearshift indicator, and of course, a little green ball. The ball spins around fluttering leaves when the driver is piloting the vehicle in an efficient manner, and angrily jumps up to the top and changes color when one becomes a bit more exuberant with the throttle. As you brake, the ball can drop down if you’re not stopping in a manner which can take full advantage of the regenerative system. Driving the Volt in an economical way really is a ball-balancing act, surprisingly enough.

If you do attempt to keep the Volt’s ball green all the time, prepare to be extremely bored. This isn’t through any fault of Chevrolet however, in that the most economical fashion of driving will not be the most exciting. Sometimes, a tradeoff in driving style is necessary, and even when paired with more voracious driving styles, the Volt will still do fairly well on mileage compared with normal vehicles.

Noah Berger, GM Corp

Storage space in the car is not particularly commodious with the rear seats up, but has adequate room when folded down. The Volt probably wouldn’t be the best car to take the kids antiquing in, but should be sufficient for day-to-day life.

One of the niftiest features of the vehicle is the OnStar Mobile application for smartphones. The application gives information about fuel efficiency, range, charging status, and also includes a lock/unlock and remote starting feature.

The standard Volt will include remote starting, cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity, navigation system, Bose six-speaker stereo system with a subwoofer, a 30 gigabyte hard drive to store audio, USB ports, and a charge cord. It does have quite a bit included in a base model, but that’s fairly simple to do when even the base model is quite expensive.

General Motors has cut the price of the 2012 Volt by $1,005, with the most basic Volt starting at $39,995. For a supremely-equipped model with leather, backup camera, and other goodies, expect to pay around $46,300. Buyers will be eligible for a $7,500 tax credit after purchasing the vehicle. The batteries have an 8-year, 100,000 mile manufacturer’s warranty.

GM Corp.

The Volt is a bit more expensive than the LEAF, which begins at just over $33,500, but it brings well over $6,000 worth of practicality with it. It is an expensive car, but for anyone dead-set on a plug-in vehicle, the Volt is the only one that makes sense to own.

Also, the Volt and the LEAF have the same plug, so Volt drivers will be able to benefit from any charging infrastructure installed around the country. While it will still take a while to charge, once the Volt driver has passed all outlets, a quick stop at the gas station will keep the motorist on their way.

It is still very early on to even guess at the Volt’s reliability, but I do have severe concerns on the resale value of this car after a few years. If the batteries are not replaced under warranty, the car could be effectively totaled by a failed battery pack years down the road if costs do not drop rapidly.

GM Corp.

For anyone dead-set on purchasing a plug-in car, I have every confidence that the Volt is the most practical one to purchase. It offers the best of both worlds to the driver: cheap and environmentally friendly commutes around town, with the freedom to drive it as long as one sees fit, regardless of the charge. Sure, it’s more expensive than the LEAF, but the Volt offers unlimited access to the world around you, rather than a plug 100 miles away and a 10 hour wait.

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