Even though the Nissan Leaf greatly exceeded our expectations for what a mainstream electric vehicle (i.e. not the Tesla Roadster) was capable of, the Leaf is a viable purchase for only small number of buyers. For everyone else, there’s the Chevrolet Volt.
|1. Powered by an electric motor with a 25 to 40 mile range, a small 1.4L gasoline engine automatically kicks in to recharge the battery pack and deliver an additional 310 miles of range.
2. The Volt has an EPA rated 93 MPGe rating and a 37 mpg rating once the range extender takes over. A real world “composite” number is pegged at 60 mpg, 10 mpg ahead of the Prius.
3. Charge time is roughly 12 hours in a 120V household outlet or four hours with a special 240V charger.
4. The Volt starts at $39,145 or $31,645 after a $7,500 tax rebate.
Unlike the Leaf, the Volt has a “range extender”, an on-board 4-cylinder gasoline motor, displacing 1.4L that works to keep the electric drivetrain going even when the battery is dead. And with only 40 miles of juice – on a warm day, with batteries charged to 100 percent – you are more likely to end up burning hydrocarbons during your commute than not.
Our Volt test drive occurred in the middle of a frigid Midwest winter, with temperatures well into the low 20 degree range, we saw as little as 25 miles of battery life. On days when it was above the 30 degree mark, we could manage more range if we kept a light foot on the throttle. Unfortunately we didn’t have the option of charging it at work, but we are lucky to have a charging station nearby. And as we found out, however, the fact that a charging station exists doesn’t mean that you can charge it every day – other EVs or unscrupulous motorists can take your spot, and when we tried to trickle charge the Volt via the included 110V charging unit, we discovered at the end of the day that someone had cruelly unplugged us from the wall, leaving us to drive home using the gas motor engaged for the whole trip.
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Charging follies aside, the Chevy Volt drives like a normal hybrid for the most part. Electric driving is smooth, quiet and rich with torque. When the gas motor engages, it produces substantial amounts of noise and vibration, like a marine engine idling at a high rpm. The brakes feel like a typical hybrid car, with a strange feel that tends to come with regenerative braking.
Moving the gear lever from D to L amplifies the “regen” effect, but your preferences may vary by taste. We personally find the idea of being able to barely use the brake pedal a fun novelty, and so we drove it in L model for most of the week. Others may prefer the more traditional feel of leaving it in D – we didn’t notice much of an efficiency delta between the two. For a car that weighs nearly 3,800 lbs and isn’t exactly powerful, the Volt was fun to fling around on ramps, though nobody will ever win an SCCA Autocross championship with one.
The interior of the Chevy Volt looks similar to most GM products, although buttons and knobs are replaced with touch-sensitive versions, for a completely flat center stack. While a nice idea in theory, we found the haptic controls to be a nuisance, often turning up the volume when we wanted to turn down the fan speed. The LCD screen displaying battery life, range, the split between gasoline and electric motor usage and other metrics was far more entertaining and useful. Passengers expressed a particular interest in watching the real-time graph that showed power flowing from whichever powertrain was being utilized, as well as the graph detailing the regenerative braking process. We too found ourselves captivated by it, although only in short bursts, lest we get too distracted while driving.
Due to the location of the battery pack (mounted in the center tunnel of the cabin), the Volt only seats four, and back seat space is tight. Children would be fine ensconced in the rear seats, but full grown adults over 5’10” would likely have something to say about being trapped back there.
When looked at in isolation, the Volt is a neat little car, a viable alternative to the Leaf or the Toyota Prius, but when its $41,000 price tag (before tax rebates) comes into the picture, the Volt’s appeal diminishes. While the cost of developing this all-new drivetrain is high, those looking for fuel efficiency (not to mention frugality) would be better off opting for the Chevrolet Cruze Eco. While the Volt wavered at around 30 mpg in gasoline mode, the Cruze Eco gets 28/42 mpg city/highway and costs $22,000 less than the Volt.
As much as we enjoyed the Volt’s smooth electric powertrain, the novelty and ease of plugging it in at the start of the day and coming backed to it fully charged after work, we would likely opt for the Cruze Eco, especially one with a 6-speed manual, over the Volt.
Make no mistake; we wouldn’t discourage someone from buying one, but the noise and harshness of the gas motor, the impractical 4-seat configuration and the small chance of a Volt purchase ever being economically sound are unfortunate demerits against an otherwise interesting and innovative vehicle.