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2012 Chevy Volt: Plugged in for a day

December 30, 2011
The GTS and the Volt

The Fourth Estate got a spa day (Orin O’Neill photos)

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.

Volt, rear view

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.

Volt under the hood

The gasoline engine is accompanied by lots of thick orange cable

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.

Volt, plugged in

Plugged-in at the Bellingham Public Market

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! 😉

Volt under the hood

The LCD atop the center stack shows the state of battery charge, among other things

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.

Plugged in

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.

Free with every Volt!

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.

Carrot cake and coffee

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. Favicon

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.

The details

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)
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7 Comments
  1. December 30, 2011 6:28 pm

    Great review, Orin. I want to try one, in case I win more than $7 on MegaMillions.

  2. December 30, 2011 6:37 pm

    Get in touch with your local Chevy dealer. I believe most of them have demonstrators that they (or GM) own, so people can get an in-depth experience with the car. GM and Nissan seem to realize they must put considerable effort into assuaging peoples’ fears about electric cars—limited range, complexity and performance being the main ones…

  3. December 30, 2011 7:15 pm

    There are two kinds of hybrids: parallel, wherein which the electric motor and internal combustion engine are literally connected together (Toyota Prius, Honda Insight) and series, where an international combustion engine provides power (as a generator) to an electric motor, independently. If memory serves, diesel-electric locomotives are series hybrid vehicles.

    Everyone I talk to, who has any drivetime with the Volt really likes it. A neighbor who’d been driving a GEM (Global Electric Motorcar, a division of Chrysler) for years, saw a Volt last year at an open house for Griot’s Garage in Tacoma and was sold; now I see him tooling around the neighborhood in one.

    I’ve only driven parallel hybrids and electric (as propulsion source) automobiles. In fact, I just today turned a 2012 Mitsubishi i MiEV back to the manufacturer’s representative. The i MiEV is a great little electric vehicle, with a tight turning radius, low curb weight (about 2,500 pounds) and a good M.S.R.P. of just $21,000. However, the range is 67 miles, before the batteries are depleted and need to be recharged. So you can’t take it to San Francisco and a person would have to plan their trips. The instrument panel has a gauge that shows the magic number of miles left.

    A new generation of drivers will learn to look for that number, in the same way that people have been looking for MPG.

  4. December 30, 2011 9:52 pm

    Great review. I don’t think we are going to see any since we aren’t in one on the market areas. I do look forward to see how they do long-term and fascinated by the technology.

    Richard

  5. December 31, 2011 12:39 pm

    Terry, I’m not surprised your friend ditched his GEM for a Volt… GEMs are Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (i.e., glorified golf carts) with very limited capabilities. The Volt is a complete, modern automobile.

    Richard, you may not see Volts where you live, but GM will be building other vehicles off the Volt’s underlying architecture, and its powertrain (branded “Voltec,” as in the “Vortec” label applied to some GM ICEs) is definitely headed for GM’s trucks and larger cars…

  6. Dan Gould permalink
    January 2, 2012 2:47 am

    any idea just how much back on the tax and rebates? I haven’t heard what the actual cost of a volt is.

  7. January 2, 2012 10:02 am

    Dan, there’s a Federal income tax credit of up to $7,500 for purchasing an electric vehicle; California and Oregon (along with some other states) also have state income tax credits. No such deal in Washington or Texas (no state income tax), and while WA had a temporary sales tax exemption, that was allowed to expire a while ago.

    That’s the rub—to get the full credit, you have to owe enough income tax to cover it. An alternative that might be better for most people is the $399/month lease (base model), but it’s based on 12K miles/year. More miles will cost you.

    It also helps to own a house. The Level 2 charging unit is about $450, tho you need to have it installed in your garage by a licensed electrician. But you’ll be able to fully charge the battery, which will give you a 40-50 mile range on battery power.

    Bottom line is, owning a Volt won’t be cheap. But then, flat-screen TVs were as much as $10K when they first came out. A 2nd-generation model will probably be much less expensive…

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