With 1,000 Miles of Testing, We Discover That Your Mileage May Vary
James Riswick , Automotive Editor
No car in history has been developed so openly in the public eye as the 2011 Chevrolet Volt. All other cars are built behind tightly locked doors, kept under wraps like those alien flying saucers in Area 51. Yet from the unveiling of the concept car in January 2007, the Chevy Volt's progress toward production has been diligently reported. Hope is in the air — hope for American ingenuity, hope for Chevrolet, even hope for the idea of the automobile itself.
So much of the hope for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt has to do with the clean, futuristic image of the electric car that it's easy to be a bit disappointed when you realize that this car is actually a sophisticated yet familiar sort of hybrid. It has both an electric motor and a gasoline-fueled engine working in tandem, and you'd describe it in technical terms as a plug-in hybrid.
Ironically, this makes the Chevrolet Volt better than an electric car. You can drive it between 25 and 40 miles on battery power, then plug it in to recharge. If you want to go farther, the engine works both directly and indirectly to extend the Volt's cruising range to as much as 310 miles.
Think of this as an electric car, only without the anxiety about cruising range. You plug it in when you can, then fill it with gas when you have to. And unlike some science experiment from Area 51, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt comes with a real car attached, one that can carry luggage as well as people and one that can go across the country as well as down to the grocery store. The downside is, the price of $41,000 will probably have you thinking lease rather than purchase.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt has been portrayed as a sport sedan rather than an electrified transportation pod. After 1,000 miles of testing in our hands, we've found it to be a bit of both.
When it comes to leaving a stoplight or climbing an on-ramp to the freeway, the Volt has you thinking sport sedan. The 111-kW (149 horsepower) electric motor carries you away with a silent surge of 279 pound-feet of torque that brings up 60 mph in 9.2 seconds, according to Edmunds testing. This is not too bad for a 3,742-pound front-wheel-drive car that is carrying a 16-kWh pack of lithium-ion batteries that weighs 435 pounds.
Of course, the more that you become carried away with the silent yet irresistible omnipotence of electric power, the sooner the battery pack depletes, somewhere between 25 and 50 miles down the road. During Edmunds testing, we recorded a low of 27 miles, a high of 39 miles and an average of 33 miles.
After this, the Volt's 84-hp, 1.4-liter inline-4 engine comes into play, providing electrical power to the drive unit at low speed and then powering the car directly at high speed. When the gasoline engine is in play, 60 mph comes up in 9.0 seconds, according to Edmunds testing.
The Volt's powertrain actually works in four different modes, combining the electric motor and gasoline engine for optimum efficiency. The power delivery is seamless and there are no gear changes to interrupt the wave of power that carries you forward. The transitions among the drive unit's four modes are not obtrusive yet they are occasionally perceptible, and you're reminded that this 84-hp engine has a fairly coarse nature despite the science that has gone into optimizing its performance. The most unique impression from the hybrid power plant is the disconnect between the sounds you hear and the speed at which the scenery is passing by, as the electric motor, the engine and the unique drive gear are busiest when the car is at its slowest.
Like every hybrid or electric car, the 2011 Chevy Volt has regenerative brakes in addition to conventional disc brakes. Under extreme braking from 60 mph, the Volt comes to a stop in 124 feet, which is not bad considering the car's less-than-sticky eco-friendly tires, which are designed to enhance fuel mileage. Yet it's the regen brakes that you notice in everyday driving. Designed largely to recharge the batteries, the regen brakes don't actually have much stopping power, so you tend to brake earlier than normal and then have to press the pedal harder than normal to get the full benefit of the disc brakes.
The 2011 Chevy Volt is roughly the same size as the Lexus HS 250h, measuring 177.4 inches overall and riding on a 105.7-inch wheelbase. There are only four seats, as the spot normally reserved for a rear middle passenger is taken up by the Volt's T-shaped battery pack. Head- and legroom up front are generous, while the rear seat is acceptable.
This is very much a car in the manner of a longer, lower, wider sedan than an upright transportation pod, and it gives the Volt a welcome dimension of normalcy, although limited outward visibility makes this car feel smaller than it is.
A rigid chassis and smart suspension tuning help the Volt ride with some poise, although the slap of the tires on the pavement undercuts the composure that you expect. Altogether, the Volt has a general demeanor of integrity and craftsmanship. It's far sportier than the usual hybrid car, yet it lacks the general refinement you'd expect from something costing $41,000.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt has a decidedly futuristic-looking cabin, but thankfully its usability doesn't suffer for it. Its center stack controls for the stereo, climate control and other systems are touch-sensitive, with an iPod-style presentation. A touchscreen houses radio presets and more in-depth functions, while displaying all pertinent information and the back-up camera.
The gauges take a bit more getting used to, as they aren't gauges, so to speak. An LCD screen shows all the usual information (speed, gear selection, turn signals, warning lights), plus a graphic that encourages energy-efficient driving. A battery life meter is displayed while in electric mode, but once the battery is depleted, that meter is replaced by a gas gauge.
As for cargo space, the Volt features 10.6 cubic feet under its hatchback. This is much less than the Toyota Prius offers and even a bit less than the similarly sized Honda Civic sedan. But since it's a hatchback with rear seats that fold down to expand cargo capacity, carrying around bulky items should be relatively easy.
Design/Fit and Finish
Forget the sleek, coupelike vehicle that was originally introduced to the world as the Chevy Volt. Reality has dictated that it needs to be a more traditional, practical shape for aerodynamic reasons and to accommodate people and their stuff. The resulting sedan is still handsome and arguably has more flair than the HS 250h or the Prius.
The interior is noteworthy for its unique trim options. Our test car featured an iPod-like white center stack and steering wheel trim, while the front doors were adorned with 3D graphics. There will be different trim and graphics available.
Who should consider this vehicle
When it comes to calculating the 2011 Chevrolet Volt's efficiency you have to consider that it has two fuel tanks — one for electrons and the other for gasoline. It's best to pretend you're pumping money into these tanks instead. Since energy in either form costs money, dollars make for a convenient universal unit.
During its 1,000 miles with us, our Volt tester consumed energy at the rate of 39.0 kilowatt-hours per 100 miles when in electric-only mode and averaged 31.4 mpg in gas engine assistance mode.
We paid an average of $0.31 per kilowatt-hour of electricity and $3.31 per gallon of 91 octane swill, so the arithmetic tells us that the running cost of this Volt tester while in our care was equivalent to a gas-only car that achieves 30.9 mpg on 91 octane. It also turns out the Volt's miles driven on electricity cost us more money than if it'd simply consumed gasoline instead.
This brings us to the crux of the plug-in hybrid cost situation, which is that the cost of electricity varies tremendously based on provider, region, season and time of day, plus there might (or might not) be special rates for plug-in hybrids and EVs. Many consumers will save money by plugging in rather than running the Volt on gasoline. Others will not. Figuring out those costs is a devilishly complex exercise, and would-be Volt buyers are urged to contact their utility provider, who will work up an analysis to help determine the cost of plugging in.
First, though, you'll have to decide whether the Volt's sticker is something you can swallow. The Volt starts at $40,000 and our tester, equipped with leather, a back-up camera and polished wheels, totaled $43,685. There's also the cost of the high-voltage fast charger that you will really want, as recharging with the wall socket is like filling a swimming pool with a syringe. A federal $7,500 tax credit helps to soften the blow. Leasing might be the preferred ownership strategy.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a significant car, a bold experiment that forces the issue of personal energy consumption to the fore. But the most tangible promise of the Volt is simply that it drives better than more established hybrids, deftly distilling its formidable technology into a package that suggests that there's hope for the future of low-emissions personal transportation.
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