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Chevy Volt: A short review

September 6, 2011

The first electric car (with a hybrid backup drivetrain).

I drove the Volt at a GM promotional event (Mainstreet) at Giants stadium in NJ a few weeks ago and am pleased to report that the Volt drives just like a real car. The acceleration, braking and handling were no better and no worse than an above-average compact sedan. The only noticeable difference was that it was exceptionally quiet (even with the backup gasoline engine running at the time of test drive) and the gearshifts were smoother than any other car (because there are no gear changes.) Acceleration was adequate. The most notable thing here for the average driver is not the 0-60 time (about 9.2 seconds), but that compared to any other car, it feels qualitatively better. No engine revving, no subtle hesitation at gear changes. Just smooth acceleration.

The Volt uses a unique drivetrain. Some people call it a hybrid, GM calls it a “extended range electric vehicle”. I would argue that it is actually most accurately described as an “electric car with a hybrid backup drivetrain”. Mine is the most accurate, but it sounds the worst. The fact is that the Chevy Volt’s place in history is secured because it was the first mass-produced passenger car that can be powered solely by electricity from a normal 110 V household wall outlet. An overnight (7 hour) charge time is plenty to get the Volt up to 100% charge for 30-40 miles of electric-only driving.

Where it gets confusing – and where the Volt draws flak from detractors – is that it does have a gasoline engine on board. I will spare you from the details of the Voltec powertrain, but suffice to say that after the battery powers the car for 35 miles, the gasoline engine activates so that you can fully complete the 50 mile drive to grandma’s house. Or the 350 mile drive to the other grandma’s house.

Things can really get complicated when explaining the Volt, so I’ve boiled down the explanation of how to use the Volt into the following four questions:

Is it possible to drive the Chevy Volt only on electricity from a plug?
Yes. It is absolutely possible to never use gas with the Chevy Volt– you would just have to limit drives to under about 35 miles between charges.

Why should I fill the Volt with with gas if I can just plug it in?
Because if you happen to drive for longer than 30-40 miles, you will get stuck and need to call a tow truck. If you fill it with gas, it will keep going for another 250 miles+.

Is it possible to drive the Chevy Volt only on gas without plugging it in?
Yes. The gas engine will generate electricity to drive the car, so you never have to plug it in.

Why should I plug the car in if it can run solely on gas?
Because the Volt uses less energy (and less money) when it is running on electric power from the plug. The initial 40 miles you drive using the battery power costs about $1-worth of electricity while each additional 40 miles you drive using gas costs about [whatever the price of gas is today].

So the Volt when driven on an everyday basis would save a lot of money on gasoline because the equivalent electricity would cost a lot less. Over 5 years a Volt owner could save anywhere between $2000-$5000 on gasoline compared to a conventional car. There are a few big catches, however:

First, the Volt only seats 4 passengers instead of the usual 5 for most sedans. The reason is that the battery is so large that it takes up the space in the middle of the bench of the rear seat.
Secondly, the Volt costs buyers $42,000. Even with the federal tax credit, the net cost for a well-equipped Volt starts at $33,000. Assuming a fuel-cost savings of ~$3,000 for owning a Volt for 5 years, one could reasonably compare the Volt to a $30,000 conventional car. For that amount, one could obtain a near-luxury four-door sedan with more room, more power and seating for five. The Volt is certainly not a value proposition at this point in time and is not particularly practical either. Anyone without a private garage and/or an electrical outlet available for charging the car should not even consider buying the Volt (e.g., apartment dwellers).

Despite the negatives, the Volt is very worth getting to know because while expensive, the impressively efficient technology is not exorbitant. It is tantalizingly close to being a real, practical, everyday alternative to conventional gasoline internal combustion engine drivetrains that power other cars.

As it is right now, the Volt is a niche vehicle for early-adopters that don’t mind paying extra for a new technology. For the Volt (and other electric vehicles) to become mainstream, one of two things need to happen:

1.) If the Volt as-is becomes significantly less expensive. If the Volt can be available for $30,000, it becomes a reasonable and affordable option for many drivers.

2.) If battery technology improves. Higher energy density in batteries is needed. Higher energy density would allow for smaller-sized batteries (which would allow for more passenger/cargo room and a lighter vehicle) and/or extended driving range.

Although these are formidable barriers to mainstream adoption of electric vehicles other serious barriers have already been addressed (operation at cold/hot temperatures, driving dynamics, safety) and the pathway to success is known.

Verdict: Wait. But it will be worth the wait.

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