2012 Chevy Volt: Plugged in for a day
I’m not completely sure how you’d categorize the Chevrolet Volt. For some, that’s a debate worthy of garment-rending and teeth-gnashing.
Some say, it’s not really an electric, because there’s a gasoline-fueled engine that generates electricity when the battery charge drops to a certain level. Some say, it’s a plug-in hybrid (mostly because it turns out at freeway speeds the gas engine does provide motive force). Some say, it’s a range-extended electric vehicle.
However you categorize it, the Volt is the vanguard of a radically different vehicle fleet, not only in the U.S. and Canada, but worldwide. In fact, the Volt is sold in Europe as the Opel Ampera.
The discovery that Sehome Village is getting a Level 2 charging station led to an invite from Jerry Chambers Chevrolet-Cadillac in Bellingham to take their Volt for a day. So I did.
Based on the Chevrolet Cruze, the Volt is about the same size. There are four very comfy individual seats, divided left from right by the tunnel that accommodates the battery pack. Being a 5-door hatchback, the rear seats fold down, making for a reasonable, but not cavernous, cargo area.
The Volt embodies the 2012 definition of well-equipped. It’s got power everything, automatic climate control, Bose audio, sat-nav, Bluetooth and, of course, an app for your smartphone.
Keyless starting is also included; as long as the key’s in your possession, you start it (or as the instrument display says, “initialize” it) by pushing a flashing blue button on the center console. As with the Nissan LEAF, this results in a colorful animated show on the instrument panel LCD, a pleasant little tone, and no drivetrain noise. Not even as you pull away.
The Volt (caps and lower-case, thankfully) gets under way silently, and when there’s juice in the batteries all you’ll hear is the low rolling resistance tires. Unless you have the stereo on, of course.
Its beltline is high, its roof is low, and even looking straight out the windshield initially made me think I was in a bunker. Were this Volt’s headliner black or charcoal gray, the feeling of claustrophobia would be magnified manyfold. For me, anyway.
The one I drove had the optional rearview camera. I would strongly urge anyone considering a Volt to get this—you really need it. While poor rearward visibility is a problem with nearly all new cars, it is acutely so in the Volt.
Like a Prius or any other hybrid, there is full regenerative braking capability. Which means as you slow down or come to a stop, juice is returned to the battery. (You can monitor this on the center stack LCD if you wish) I received the car with 25 miles’ worth of charge, and used about 6 of them noodling around getting used to the controls.
Hmmm, I wonder if a descent of Chuckanut Drive would put any miles back? Let’s find out!
Since I don’t place riding the GTS on Chuckanut Drive in the same category as some might put crack cocaine, I haven’t reached the point where I can navigate it in my sleep. I’d forgotten that traveling southbound includes an awful lot of uphill.
And even going downhill, the Volt won’t coast at 35-40 mph. Which is good, even though there wasn’t enough downhill action to replace the electrons I used on the uphill bits.
As I said, the Volt is quiet (but not tomb-like, as with a big Lexus) and comfy, tracking surely through twisty bits thanks to plump P215/55R-17 tires on wheels pushed to the car’s corners. The Volt has the best electric power steering out there—the steering wheel actually feels connected to the front wheels, and there’s no big dead spot on-center. You will feel every ounce of the Volt’s near-3800 lb curb weight; it’s not something that begs you to fling it into hairpin turns (like the one at the oyster farm).
The graphic showed 10 miles’ worth of remaining battery juice when I reached Bow Hill Road. Keep in mind, batteries in cars like this never fully charge, and never fully discharge (unlike the one in your phone, for instance). That’s how they last a decade or more.
I took the left toward I-5, so as to perform the second test: What happens when the batteries are discharged?
Merging was a doddle. In fact, the Volt is really in its element at freeway speeds. It won’t feel like it’s going 70 mph, but it does, effortlessly. I could easily picture doing a run to San Francisco in a Volt, and would’ve considered it had they let me keep it for the weekend! 😉
The green part of the battery graphic got smaller and smaller; the miles remaining ticked down, reaching zero just as I passed the exit for the rest area. Something’s about to happen, I think.
The instrument display swapped the green battery graphic for a blue gas pump, the way an app opens and closes on your smartphone.
It was an experience akin to the ball dropping in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The transition from battery to engine power was totally seamless; had I not been paying really close attention, I can’t say I’d have even noticed the gas engine firing up, and it only makes its presence known during hard acceleration. Slowing and occasionally having to tap the brakes even put enough electrons back in the batteries for the gas engine to hand off, if only briefly.
I’m not quite sure why, but I nonetheless breathed a sigh of relief.
Next mission was to find a charging station. There’s one (Level 2, no less!) at the now-closed Market at Fairhaven, so I swung by and backed the Volt onto the green paint.
A display on the station said, “Tap your (whatchamacallit) card to begin.” I don’t gotz one of those. But I was able to plug it in, so you can see how that works. You can open the flap with a button on the remote, or a button on the driver’s side door.
Luckily, I knew of another place to plug in: The Bellingham Public Market on Cornwall.
They have two spaces reserved for electric cars, but what you plug into is a 110-volt, 3-prong outlet. Happily, the two Miles electric box-cars normally occupying the spaces were absent.
Every Volt comes with an orange extension cord with an SAE J1772 connector on one end. Once plugged in, the middle LCD helpfully informs you that at 110 volts a full charge will be achieved in slightly less than 12 hours!
To take full advantage of the Volt’s fuel-saving nature, you need to maximize your time on battery power. So I’m afraid I have to call bovine excrement on this notion that electric vehicles will only be charging their batteries late at night while snuggled in their garages. Volt and LEAF and other electric-vehicle owners will be plugging in every chance they get.
It occurrs to me, I think the same thing regarding my phone and MacBook Pro. So I went back to the foothill villa to grab the laptop and the USB cables. Make productive use of the time spent charging, said I.
And have coffee and organic carrot cake while I’m at it.
Ultimately, the Volt (or something with a similar powertrain) would work best for me. I can only afford one car, and I need to go to Seattle occasionally; at the moment, pure electrics don’t have enough range to make that possible (and quite frankly I don’t want to have to stop once on the way, even if it only takes half an hour to get an 80% charge of the batteries. I can fill the Fourth Estate’s gas tank in less than five minutes.).
And I live in a cheapo apartment complex, so I don’t think Level 2 charging stations (one or two, never mind one for each unit) are in the cards. I would be going considerably shorter distances than most Volt owners between gas tank fill-ups.
Were my present footloose & fancy free status to change, I certainly hope a place to plug in would be part of the deal.
Others with living arrangements like mine might have such a deal; in the not-too-distant future charging stations are expected to be as numerous as gas stations.
But however you feel about the Volt and cars like it (just what’s up with the hatin’, Fox “News” Channel?), it represents the future. I for one am very glad that General Motors is leading the way, and that the Volt wears a Chevy bowtie.
Plus: For all its technology, a pretty conventional driving experience.
Minus: Forty grand is an awful lot of money… and you need a big enough tax liability to take advantage of the tax credits.
|Base MSRP:||$39,995 before Federal and state tax credits|
|Built in:||Detroit/Hamtramck, Mich., USA|
|Construction:||Pressed steel unit body|
|Curb weight:||3781 lbs (1715 kg)|
|Length:||177.1 in (4498 mm)|
|Width:||70.4 in (1768 mm)|
|Wheelbase:||105.7 in (2685 mm)|
|Front susp:||MacPherson struts with stabilizer bar, coil springs and telescopic dampers|
|Rear susp:||Torsion beam with coil springs and telescopic dampers|
|Brakes:||Power electro-hydraulic 4-wheel vented disc with ABS & regenerative capability|
|Front tires:||P215/55R-17 low-rolling resistance BSW|
|Rear tires:||P215/55R-17 low-rolling resistance BSW|
|Gas engine:||1398cc inline DOHC 16V 4-cylinder, liquid-cooled w/EFI and electronic ignition|
|Power/torque:||Gasoline engine: 84 hp (63 kW); Electric drive motor: 111 kW (149 hp); Generator motor: 55 kW (74 hp); Combined torque: 368 ft-lbs (273 Nm)|