Chevrolet Volt–an electric car you can live with

The 2012 Chevrolet Volt—the world’s first electric vehicle with extended range—can drive between up to 80 kilometres on electric power alone and then keep going, thanks to the 1.4L gasoline-powered on-board generator. - Contributed
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt—the world’s first electric vehicle with extended range—can drive between up to 80 kilometres on electric power alone and then keep going, thanks to the 1.4L gasoline-powered on-board generator.
— image credit: Contributed

Could I live with the car on a daily basis?

That was the key question I had before a recent week-long road test of the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, a car that Chevrolet touts as a “breakthrough” and a “game-changer” in the automotive world.

Yet during my week with the car, I was amazed at how little many people actually know about it despite all the publicity it has garnered.

People I ran into think of the Volt as purely an electric car and are surprised when I tell them it also has a gasoline engine to generate power.

“Oh, so it’s a hybrid,” they say.

“No, not really,” I reply, getting that funny look as if I have two heads.

I explain that the Volt is an “extended range” car that melds together features of both gas-electric hybrids and all-electric vehicles.

It is similar to an electric car in that it has a l6 kWh lithium-ion battery that can be recharged in 10 hours when plugged into a normal 120-volt household outlet.

Special charging stations using 240-volt outlets are available for installation in household garages and they cut charge times to four hours.

On a complete charge, the Volt will have a range of up to 80 km in all-electric mode. Unlike gas-electric hybrids, the gasoline engine doesn’t kick in when the vehicle exceeds a certain speed—the car runs solely on battery power at any speed until the battery charge is depleted.

I recharged the battery several times during the test period and was able to get 62 km on average in electric mode during extremely hot mid-July weather.

When battery power is depleted, a 1.4-litre gasoline engine kicks in. It operates a generator to create more battery juice, which in turn will give the Volt a driving range of another 500-plus km. Thus, unlike a full electric car, the fear of running out of battery power (range anxiety as it is called) is eliminated in the Volt.

The heart of the car is Chevrolet’s Voltec system, which transforms energy stored in the battery into mechanical force.

It uses two drive motors (one smaller than the other), a gasoline-powered engine generator, three clutches and a planetary gear set. Regenerative braking in the Volt also captures energy that otherwise would be lost as the car slows down and stops.

So, how does the Volt work in the real world?

It wouldn’t be ideal for me at this time in my life, living in a small town in southwestern Ontario and having 200-plus km commutes to Toronto to pick up press cars for road tests.

That said, I could easily live with the Volt thanks to its extended-range capabilities. Even with several lengthy commutes, I was able to average between 5.5 and 6.0L/100 km during my week with the car in mostly high-speed highway driving.

But I’m not the average commuter. General Motors says 78 per cent of United States commuters travel less than 40 miles a day and 29 per cent travel only 2-10 miles a day. Canadian numbers should be similar.

So, limit your driving to about 60 km or less a day and you’ll never have to pay for gasoline, just the cost of electricity for a recharge, which is estimated at under $1.50 for a full charge.

The Volt is a good-looking vehicle, not spectacularly styled but sleek and aerodynamic allowing it to slice through the air as efficiently as possible. With 273 lb/ft of instantaneous torque it gets up to speed in a hurry, covering 0-96 km/h in less than nine seconds.

This is no slug like some green cars with a top speed of 160 km/h. You have the option of selecting one of Normal, Sport or Mountain drive modes.

Inside, the Volt has a modernistic look, but a bit too much plastic for my liking. There is seating for four with limited legroom in the rear, meaning two adults and with two younger children would find this an acceptable family vehicle. Cargo capacity is a decent 300 litres (10.6 cu ft).

It is extremely quiet inside; like hybrids when they are in electric mode, you don’t even know the car is running. I often found myself checking the screen on the dashboard to confirm that the car was in fact ready to roll.

The T-shaped battery system runs between the front seats with the top of the T situated just in front of the rear bucket seats.

Instrumentation is high-tech indeed with a two interactive LCD screens loaded with information. In front of the driver is a reconfigurable digital screen that displays everything from range to driving efficiency and driving mode.

Both are 178 mm (7 in) touch-screen displays that give real-time information and even allow the driver to program battery charging to take advantage of off-peak utility rates.

This technology is great, but it’s not inexpensive. The Volt is priced at $41,545, but mine had options that took the as tested price to $44,135 plus $1,450 for destination charges.

Ontario residents are eligible for an $8,230 government rebate and in Quebec, the rebate is $7,769.

For those worrying about battery life, the Voltec system comes with a warranty of eight years or 160,000 km. GM executives have told me they expect the battery to last a lot longer than the warranty period.

So is the Volt a “game-changer” as Chevrolet suggests.

Not quite.

But it definitely is innovative and perhaps the best “green” car on the market. The extended range capability makes it an everyday vehicle, unlike the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi iMiev that both leave drivers with the dreaded range anxiety.

The high price tag will be a drawback for many, but in answer to my opening question, the Volt definitely is a car I could live with on a daily basis.

Chevrolet Volt 2012

Body Style: Extended range electric sedan.

Drive Method: front-engine, front-wheel-drive.

Engine: 110 kW primary motor; 55 kW secondary motor, 1.4-litre DOHC inline four-cylinder for a combined 150 hp and 273 lb/ft of torque

Fuel Economy: All-electric 22.3 kWh/100 km city/22.3 kWh/100 km highway; gasoline 6.7L/100 km city, 5.9L/100 km highway using premium unleaded gasoline.

Cargo Capacity: 300 litres

Price: Base price $41,545, as tested $45,585 including $1,450 freight and PDI.


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