GM’s Greenest Car Yet
Come along on our test drive of the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.
In the world of green machines, the terms miles per gallon, gas pedal and even transmission don’t apply. With the Chevrolet Volt, you’re talking kilowatt-hours and accelerators, and there is no transmission -- the electric motor sends power directly to the wheels.
The four-seat Volt is an Extended Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV) that boasts 40 miles of pure, emissions-free electric driving. After that, a range-extending gasoline engine kicks in to drive an electric generator.
Electricity is used to power the Volt at all times (hybrids, and even plug-in hybrids, rely on both the gas engine and battery for full power). All told, the range is expected to be 300 miles.
Behind the Wheel
I recently had the opportunity to take the Volt for a spin. After all the build-up, I thought there was no way it would live up to the hype. Boy was I mistaken.
In the automotive world, concept vehicles usually never see the light of day -- only the lights of the auto-show floor. While they’re meant to inspire future designs, production cars rarely keep the futuristic flair built into concepts.
For three years, GM has teased us with concept versions of the Volt, and the almost-final Volt, although not as sleek as the original concept, keeps lots of concept cool.
That’s especially true inside the cabin. The center stack looks as if it belongs in a cockpit and features a seven-inch display screen and iPod-like touch controls for climate, media and more. Smaller details, such as door inserts with futuristic designs, reinforce the illusion.
For all its forward-looking design on the inside, the Volt doesn’t reach too far on the outside. The exterior is fairly conventional, but sleeker and sharper than anything in Chevy’s current lineup. It’s not an easily identifiable design outlier, like Toyota’s Prius. It walks the fine line of being different without being too different.
On the road, the Volt surprised me with its tight handling and good road feel -- although acceleration isn’t especially quick, despite GM’s promise of instantaneous torque. Operation is nearly silent in electric mode, and it’s plenty quiet even when the range-extender kicks in. Top speed is 100 miles per hour.
The Volt has some cool techie features, such as feedback on how to improve energy efficiency based on your driving habits. An OnStar mobile application for smart phones displays the car’s charge status and lets you set times for grid-friendly charging, when electricity rates are the cheapest. (Using a traditional 110-volt outlet, the battery will charge completely in eight hours; it takes three hours with a 220-volt outlet.)
You can also use a phone to start the vehicle remotely and warm or cool it using power from the grid rather than deplete the battery after you get going.
Steep Price Tag
GM hasn’t announced prices yet, but the Volt is likely to be in the $35,000-to-$45,000 range. Although the car has some premium standard features, such as a rear backup camera and heated leather seats, the steep price may be a deal-breaker for some.
But you get a couple of discounts. First of all, operating costs will be lower than for gas-engine vehicles. With the cost of electricity averaging 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, the Volt operates in electric mode for about 2 cents per mile. With gasoline at about $2.85 per gallon, a traditional car that gets 30 miles per gallon costs about 10 cents per mile to operate.
In five years you’d save $5,840 compared with a gas-engine car, assuming you drive no more than 40 miles per day. Add to that a $7,500 tax credit that Volt buyers will be eligible for and you may be able to slice more than $13,000 off ownership costs.
Production on the 2011 Volt will start at the end of the year. GM hasn’t announced production numbers, but is says it plans to build “thousands” in the first year.