Being a car journalist, anyone who knows me well is used to the fact that I’m driving a different car every week. So when I pick up my five year old son, he always asks what kind of car we have when I show up in something new. I tell him it’s a Chevy Volt-it’s a car I can drive on electric power and plug in to charge, or drive on gas. The concept sort of blew his mind. My friends and family are pretty jaded about the constant comings and goings of press cars, but I can honestly say that no other car I have driven in the past three years has received the level of interest the Chevy Volt has.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, the Volt is a revolutionary car for Chevy. The Volt promises the best of both worlds-decent range electric use, and the assurance that a gas engine is there when the juice runs out. The concept of a hybrid vehicle is fully accepted, but with the Volt, Chevy has raised the concept to a new level. And what everyone wanted to know was how is it to live with the Volt? When I test a car for The Garage, that car is my only means of transportation for an entire week. It has to do it all. So how was it? Read on….
To start, the Volt manages to look futuristic and slick. The only other Chevy as slippery as the Volt is the Corvette. Some detractors have called the Volt a dressed up Cruze, a claim I feel is baseless. Instead, the Volt looks the part of a contemporary, cutting edge car but does not suffer the geek factor that plagues the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. The Volt presents itself as a more masculine car, yet with greater attention to detail. There is a tasteful use of chrome, and the piano black trim on the roof and window surrounds is a refreshingly different touch. The Volt has essentially schooled the Prius and Insight that you can set yourself apart as being modern and different without looking like a tool.
As for being modern, step inside the Volt and toss out your idea of a conventional gauge cluster. Facing you are two crystal clear, easy to read LCD screens. While it is certainly different from what you see in most cars, the Volt’s display is very easy to read and understand. All information regarding speed, range on electric and gas is simple to comprehend. Chevy deserves a round of applause for going unconventional yet so user friendly. The rest of the interior? Well, it’s not bad. But it is no where near the level of quality one should expect at this price point. Once the novelty of the LCD screens wears off, you are left with what is essentially just an average interior. While our test Volt had was loaded to the hilt, I was incredulous that the seats were manually adjustable-power seats aren’t even an option. The center-stack console is awash in touch-sensitive, but featureless ‘buttons’. Cutting edge, maybe, but easy and intuitive? Not so much. Because of the battery pack, the rear seat has only two bucket seats, and it’s a bit on the small side. While the Volt is a hatchback, again, the battery takes a huge bite out of the cargo area. Worse is that there is no separation from the cargo area to the rear seats. Chevy doesn’t even offer a proper means of covering the hatch area. Our Volt had a black cloth/tarp thing to conceal belongings in the hatch area. Inexcusable, Chevy, even the cheapest hatches on the market do better than this.
What separates the Volt from virtually anything on the road is its drivetrain. So, how does the Volt work? Let’s start with the battery, which is a 5′ 6″ 435lb T-shaped lithium ion battery pack, supplying power to a 111 kW electric drive, or the equivalent to 149hp. When electric power is depleted, a 1.4L gas engine kicks in that operates the car’s electric drive system. As exotic and otherwordly as all this tech sounds, the Volt is like driving any other car, with the absence of engine noise. The Volt feels torquey off the line, but this is no sport sedan. Rather, the Volt will have no trouble keeping up in traffic. Again, for what it is, the Volt feels very much like an ordinary car. I found it surprising how quickly I got accustomed to just the sound of rolling tires and wind noise, and the utter absence of internal combustion as I rolled along.
But the big question is, what is it like to live with a Chevy Volt? It’s actually pretty simple. The Volt comes with a plug that can fit any 120v outlet. So, if I wanted to charge the Volt, I simply parked her in my driveway, opened the Volt’s charger door with a push of a button, plugged it in to an outlet in my house, and could see the car was being charged. Chevy equips the Volt with a charger kit to connect car to outlet via a 20′ cord. On a 120 volt outlet, Chevy says it will take about 10 hours to charge the battery. Upgrade to 240 volts and charging time is cut to four hours. During my week with the Volt, I charged it overnight three times. Each time, the Volt promised, and provided around 30 miles of electric drive. And during that week, I never left town. At best I’ll say I drove about one mile with the gas engine on. Talking about gas mileage on a Volt is virtually impossible, because it depends entirely on how you use it.
It’s no news that the Volt has not met Chevy’s expectations. The all-electric Nissan Leaf outsells it 2:1, which simply amazes me. Chevy has come up with excuses, but the most damning thing to the Volt was the report of batteries catching fire after a side-impact crash. This only happened under testing, and no actual Volt buyer has been affected. Chevy has contended that the Volt is safe, and the problem would have been avoided if the batteries had been depleted. GM offered loaner cars to Volt owners who were concerned. Today, GM also offered Volt owners the option to bring their car to their local dealership for reinforcements to the steel containing the batteries. Of the 8,000 Volts sold to date, only 250 owners returned their cars.
The Chevrolet Volt is at once a revolution and an enigma at once. The bad press is not helping matters. The price of the Volt is doing it no favors either. A base Volt has an MSRP of $39,145USD. Our test car was fully loaded with GPS Navigation, Premium Package which added leather, heated seats, rear camera and parking sensors, chromed wheels and Bose audio for a whopping $46,165USD. With the US Federal Government offering a $7,500 tax break, that lessens the price to $38,665. Has the Volt met GM’s expectations? No. Are they losing money on each one they sell? Likely. But the Volt is a good car. If you were willing to stand in line at an Apple store before you even knew what an iPod, iPhone, or iPad was, then the Chevy Volt is the automotive equivalent.