2012 Chevrolet Volt - Being a Celebrity is Hard Work

Time recently spent with the 2012 Chevrolet Volt "Extended Range Plug-In Electric" sedan over Chicago's hot Fourth of July holiday was akin to being the Grand Marshal's car in an Independence Day Parade.  While behind the wheel making appointed rounds at the supermarket we received many hand gestures,  all "thumbs up." We fielded a barrage of queries from the awestruck public, typically "Is it really, is it the Volt?" It is as if it was a sign from manna. This, we mused,  is surely how celebrities must feel when they have to go out and about. However, who were we to deny our audience. For the duration of the Volt's stay at "Drive...He Said" we were suddenly quite popular with family members, friends and neighbors. Hence there were many rides given. What was most amazing was how well informed many were about the Chevy Volt.

Yet immediately we learned that there are some misconceptions and caveats about the overall mission of the first mass produced "Extended Range Plug-In Electric" offered by an American automaker.

1) It ain't cheap: But then, again, neither is gasoline. The $39,995 base price of the 2012 Chevy Volt is not affordable to all budgets. Current federal income tax credits max at $7500 with other incentives varying by state. (Illinoisans are eligible for an actual rebate of up to 80% of the cost premium over a comparable gas powered car, not to exceed $4000.) Did we mention that power front seats are not available even at out tester's $42,000 price? There is hope that once annual U.S. production rises dramatically over 30,000 units (in the U.S.)  prices may drop.

2) The Volt is not a "pure" Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), neither as the name implies nor is the case with the Nissan Leaf. GM, likes to tout the Chevy Volt an "Extended Range EV".  We still opine that the Volt is a series type gas-electric hybrid.  In semi English-Speak, the 88hp 1.4L gasoline engine, fed by a 9 gallon fuel tank, engages under hard acceleration or near depletion of the battery charge. When it does come on, the engine spins a generator which, in turn, drives the electric motor and/ or wheels and charges the battery (along with regenerative braking). WHEW.

3). Fill 'er Up: The Volt will charge off of 115 VAC North American household outlet current. However you need to have 9 hours to load 12kw/ hrs into a fairly discharged battery. We expect most North American Volt owners will opt for the $1000 240 volt charging devices to be installed at their homes. 240 volt systems should cut charging times to 6 hours.

The cost for a full charge from household supply based Chicago area electric rates per kw/hr and for delivery works out as follows: 12kw/hrs * $0.09 = $1.08Therefore 40 miles of travel in electric mode  in the Chevrolet Volt will cost barely more than a Dollar. At current retail gasoline prices ($4+ per gallon), the same 40 mile trip in a typical gas powered car will cost at least $8. One aspect if the Volt's efficiency could stand improvement, though. In extended range driving, where the gasoline engine runs the generator, we observed a not-so-remarkable 40 mpg.

Volt drivers who commute to urban centers and park in public garages  will find that most offer Level II 240V charging stations at specially designated parking spaces. For now, the electric charge at most garages are free of charge to paying parkers.

4) What Range Anxiety?: GM cites that 78% of American drivers commute 40 miles per day or less. Not coincidentally, on a full charge, we easily achieved the Chevy Volt's all-electric range of is 42 miles. This during mostly freeway driving, with the AC cranked. With 9 gallons of fuel aboard means an "extended range" of  estimated max range of 360 miles. Which is more range than that of  many gas powered cars.

4) She'll do 80 mph: Yes, if you have 17 seconds to spare, the Volt can drive in all electric mode with the Air Con and stereo cranked way up at speeds of 80 mph without the gas engine firing up.

5) Silent Running: It is a bit disconcerting to realize you are all of a sudden doing 30 mph without any noise and or vibration the type normally associated with driving an internal combustion engine powered car.  Even at freeway speeds the electric motor is not discernably louder.. though there is a bit more ambient wind noise and tire noise than in more refined cars. It follows that there will be a bit of a learning curve for Volt drivers  just as for pedestrians who will have to relearn to cross streets and parking lots where the near noise-less EVs will be locomoting. To that end Chevy has fitted the Volt with a feature which allows the driver to pull on the high beam lever on left the steering column. That activates a lower pitch horn meant to scare jaywalkers.

6) How Does the Volt Drive?:The 16 kw-h 288 cell battery pack takes up precious cargo room and weighs 450 lbs., making the Volt a fairly heavy sedan. By volume the Volt isn't much larger than Chevy's own Cruze compact. Weight distribution is better than in most front wheel driven sedans, due to the batteries being fitted under the body floor. So body roll in turns is fairly well controlled. Still, though, the Volt doesn't offer a sporting driving experience. It drives like a heavy compact. Ride compliance is on the floaty side, though frost heaves produce a fair bit  of chassis crashing and judder. Steering response is slow and artificial, thanks to the low rolling resistance Goodyear Assurance tires and electric steering boost. The brakes, however, slow the 3500 lb Volt down with relative authority, given the tires, and with linear pedal feel. We were put off by seats which are as flat and wide as pancakes. Svelte front  occupants may find themselves slipping and sliding in corners. Rear passengers will find things even tighter, with scant leg and foot room.

7) When will the Volt  Stop Dead in It's Tracks?: Even the world's most uninitiated electric vehicle driver cannot miss the Volt's charging requirements and all electric range limitations. The 7" LCD display in gauge cluster and center stack says it all. How much charge is remaining. The time required to fully charge. The second display a 7" touch screen atop the center stack displays trip info and energy routing . It also  does double duty to control vehicle climate and info-tainment settings. We think GM interior designers went overboard when specifying the in-numerous chiclet-size soft touch buttons set in a refrigerator white bezel. Since GM is initially marketing the Volt to the technically savvy we think they should have gone "whole hog"  and specified a single rotary controller or mouse for the vehicle settings - infotainment.

8) The Cool Factor: The exterior design is modern, near-coupe like, still bearing a Chevrolet family resemblance, without being outre to the point of embarrassing owners the way the original GM EV-1 would have.

9) For Trekkies: When you press the power button the audio system "whooshes" as if an industrial turbine is firing up.  On power down you could swear the Enterprise's reactor is shutting down.

10) Is the Chevy Volt the transition between gas-electric hybrids and fuel cells? Perhaps, but  mass produced [liquefied hydrogen] fuel cells vehicles and the hydrogen fuel infrastructure are at least 15 years away.

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