Sunday, January 30, 2011


Got some seat time in the new Chevy Volt last week. I had a chance to drive it last fall in Miami, but that was little more than a quick trip around the block.

Thanks to GM, some of us in the media had a nice drive from Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens (on the Dade-Broward County line) down the turnpike and U.S. 1 to Hawk's Cay Resort on Duck Key in the Florida Keys.

I know what you’re thinking. Sometimes life can be tough.

Even if you’re not a car buff, you probably have heard of the Chevy Volt. It has been in the news a lot lately and drawn lots of comment not just from auto reviewers but the general news media as well.

Some commentators have praised the Volt for its electric drive capability, others have panned it.

I’m in between, but leaning to the praise side.

Did you plug in the car?
The thing is, I’m not sure its critics are taking into consideration what the Volt is when they rip it for its limited battery range. It is not intended as a fully electric vehicle. Starting out with a full charge, the Volt runs on battery power for about 40 miles, though the exact milage can vary depending on speed, extreme weather temperatures, number of passengers, etc. When the lithium-ion battery’s charge runs down, the Volt shifts to a 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine to provide power until you get the opportunity to recharge it.

That makes the Volt a hybrid, though not of the type we have become familiar with in recent years, like Toyota’s Prius. Those have gasoline engines that, in models I have driven, kick in rather quickly and at fairly low speeds. The Volt will run  on battery power at highway speed until it is out of juice before it switches to the gas engine.

That power-train configuration also makes the Volt different from Nissan’s Leaf, which is a fully electric vehicle that requires recharging between stints.

Fuel economy figures will vary widely the Volt. If you drive it, say, 50 miles at a time between charges on a regular basis and use the engine for 10 miles you are going to get better mileage than if you drive it 100 miles at a time and use the engine for 60. It’s not the engine performance that is dictating mileage, but your driving demands.

Theoretically, you would never have to buy gas if you didn’t drive it more than 40 miles between charges and plugged it in every night. One GM engineer drove it 2,500 miles without making a stop at the filling station, but my guess is you’re not going to try that.

As noted earlier, the good thing about the Volt is that you don’t have to stop in the middle of a trip to recharge the battery when it’s down. Just let the gas engine take over and you’ve got a range of more than 300 miles, or what you have today in many compact cars.

That’s a big plus for the Volt over the Leaf in my book. Not to knock the Leaf, because I’ve never driven it, but with its range of 100 miles, we couldn’t have made our two-hour or so jaunt from the stadium to the resort in the Keys, a distance of about 110 miles, in the Leaf without stopping in Key Largo to charge up. And where exactly would we have found a handy place to do that?

With the Volt, the switch from battery to gas engine was seamless. The only way we knew it had occurred was because we all were keeping an eye on the instrument panel and navigation screen which showed where our power was coming from via all kind of modes and fancy diagrams with moving, swooping arrows.

There was no difference in performance, though the engine is rated at only 84 hp (and requires premium fuel) and the electric motor at 149. I comfortably got around a couple of slower vehicles in a two-lane section of U.S. 1.

I should mention the ride. The critics of the Volt (and the Leaf, too, for that matter) would like to give you the impression you are getting a pile of junk for your buck.

I would agree that the Volt’s doesn't have the panache of other $41,000 vehicles or even those in the mid-30k range, which is what the Volt costs once the $7,500 tax credit is taken. No power seats, for example. You’re paying for the technology, not luxury items.

But neither is the Volt the POS that critics would have you believe.

Designers did give it some thought with several nice touches in the interior with lines flowing from the dash through the door panels. It is roomy enough in the front, and the rear-seat occupants didn’t complain during our ride. It’s a hatchback, but there’s not a whole lot of room for luggage space with the rear seat up. But you can fold the back seats and pick up more stowage capacity.

Wind noise during our trip was virtually unnoticeable, but Goodyear’s Fuel Max, low-resistance, all-weather tries did transmit some road noise in some sections of the highway, which probably says more about our South Florida road surfaces than it does the car.

The Volt also offers some fun driving characteristics, such as the little indicator in the instrument panel that tells you when you are driving in the most fuel-efficient manner and when you’re not. It's almost mesmerizing.

Because of the Volt's silent ride when you start up on battery power, there’s also a little pedestrian horn to warn pedestrians who may be about to step in front of you. Flick the turn signal lever and you get a slight beep, not the blast you get from the usual horn.

The Volt is a car that in many cases could serve as your primary family vehicle, which gives it an edge over the Leaf, which carries a price tag about $9,000 cheaper than the Volt and would better serve as a “second” family car.

There’s something else I would remind supporters of both the 
Volt and Leaf (who seem to be taking sides the way Chevy and Ford people used to when I was growing up) and their critics, and that is this: The electric-drive technology in both vehicles is in its infancy stage and may not be a precursor to what we will be driving in the future at all.

But it is a first step away from interior combustion engines and a welcome one at that. Have patience. Detractors of early automobiles used to yell “Get a horse” at motorists. Haven’t heard much from them lately.
Winter can be real tough in the Keys. 

1 comment:

  1. Volt has received a bad rap; much of it has come from people who don't understand its place among alternative-fuel vehicles. It can get you from home to work and back, usually on pure electric power; yet, thanks to its unique power delivery system, can also get you to Grandma's three states away without recharging the battery. Pretty good compromise if you ask me.