Thumbs Up: The first truly new automotive technology in decades.
Thumbs Down: New “lower” price makes car more expensive.
Buy This Car If: You want an electric car that has a virtually unlimited range.
Even before the current post-crash-test fire media hype, the Chevrolet Volt was the most misunderstood and politicized car in the history of the automobile. Detractors called it “just another hybrid,” without bothering to learn what makes the Volt different from ordinary parallel hybrid automobiles like the best-selling Toyota Prius. Worse, they panned it for “only” getting 37 miles per gallon in generator mode, or “only” having a battery range of 35 miles, missing the point of the car entirely. General Motors was upfront during both the development and the launch of the car: for an admittedly narrow range of the population, the Volt is the perfect automobile. For the rest of us, it’s a very good choice for a four-seat sedan that blends battery power and range-extending generator power.
I’ve covered the technology behind the Volt on several occasions, so I’ll just summarize here. Unlike conventional, parallel hybrids, which use a battery and electric motor to supplement a fuel-efficient gasoline motor, the Volt is what’s known as a series hybrid, or extended-range electric vehicle. It’s primary propulsion system is always an electric motor, driven by either a lithium-ion battery pack or by a gasoline powered generator, which produces electricity to power the motor when the batteries are 70 percent depleted.
If that’s hard for you to wrap your head around, don’t think of the Volt as a car. Instead, think of it as a miniature version of a diesel-electric submarine, or a diesel-electric locomotive (albeit with a gasoline engine). While critics will point out that the Volt is driven by its gasoline motor, too, we’d argue that this is only partially true. Electric motors have the benefit of making peak torque at zero RPM; in other words, they can move an electric car from a standing start with a surprising amount of haste. The downside to electric motors is that they run out of speed at high RPMs, which make them less than ideal for automotive applications. What good is a car that doesn’t have sufficient power for a passing move at 60 miles per hour?
To solve this problem, GM engineers used a planetary gearbox to provide supplemental torque from the engine to the Volt’s electric motor under certain conditions, such as passing at (or above) highway speeds. Critics point out that this means the gas motor can drive the wheels, but that’s not entirely true. There is no direct linkage between the motor and the drive wheels, and should someone steal your electric motor, you can’t just start the gas engine and drive home. The Volt is an electric car, but it adds the functionality of a gas-powered range extender.
As for the fire issue, the post-crash incident occurred in one car, with a fire risk presented in two others. To understand how minimal the danger is, first you need to understand the NHTSA crash test procedures. Following the side impact test, the car is put on a rotisserie and spun 90 degrees for five minutes to check for leaking gasoline (which presents a much greater risk of fire). In the case of the crash-tested Volts, the impact created a leak in the battery coolant system. Over a three-week period, this leaked coolant dried, crystallized, and caused a short-circuit in the electronics surrounding the battery pack. As a result, the batteries overheated and caused smoldering, or in one case, a fire.
Why is this a non-issue for Volt owners? First, an impact severe enough to rupture the battery coolant line (in the center of the battery pack itself) will likely result in the total loss of the car. Second, GM has now issued procedures on de-energizing the Volt’s battery pack for post-crash workers. Finally, there have been no documented cases of an undamaged Volt being the cause of a fire. If you’re concerned over a fire risk, ponder this: every day you likely park a conventional car, filled with highly combustible gasoline, in a structure attached to your house. All it takes to create a very real fire risk is a leaking fuel line or electrical short, yet few people give this a second thought.
Taken for what it is, the Volt is a very comfortable and reasonably entertaining four-seat sedan. In battery mode, it can travel roughly 35 miles on a single charge, using no gasoline in the process. In fact, Jay Leno now has over 11,000 miles on his personal Chevy Volt, and he’s yet to put gas in the car. If you travel less than 35 miles per day, the Volt’s gasoline-powered generator will likely start only to cycle fuel through the system.
On the other hand, the Volt is one of two electric cars on the market today (the other being the $96,000 Fisker Karma) that you can jump into in New York and drive clear across the country, stopping only for gas. The Volt will run in generator mode as far as you need it to, which makes it as practical as a conventional gasoline powered automobile.
“But,” critics will argue, “it only gets 37 mpg in generator mode. My Prius gets about 50 mpg.”
That may be the case, but try driving a Prius for 11,000 miles without once putting gas into it. The Prius may be a more fuel-conscious choice for commutes above a certain distance, but current models can’t be driven to work in battery mode. The Prius is a parallel hybrid, not an extended-range electric vehicle.
Therein lies the plus and minus of Volt ownership. It’s the perfect car for those who only need the ability to haul three others, drive less than 35 miles per day and have the $40,000 price of admission. In our eyes, it’s far more practical than a Nissan Leaf, which requires a lengthy charge when the batteries are depleted. Even a quick charge, which replenishes the Leaf’s batteries to 80 percent, takes 30 minutes, and that assumes you can find a quick-charge station.
For the rest of us, the Volt is still a solid choice even if it isn’t an absolutely perfect fit. Behind the wheel, the Volt accelerates with more enthusiasm than the 0 – 60 time of 9.2 seconds would indicate, and you can really feel the car’s 273 pound-feet of torque when you mash the accelerator. Since the Volt is silent in battery mode, it takes your senses some time to adjust to the lack of noise and vibration. On long road trips, the Volt feels more like a luxury car than a mainstream sedan.
In generator mode, you hear the 1.4-liter engine running, but the noise is minimal and vibration is never intrusive. Since the engine speed is determined by load on the electric motor and not by throttle position, the disconnect takes some getting used to. Stomp the accelerator going up a hill, and the engine may remain near idle. Lift off as you crest the hill, and the engine may suddenly go to redline, as the car attempts to replenish a charge to the batteries.
If there’s a drawback to the 2012 Chevy Volt, is that the car is, on an apples-to-apples basis, more expensive than the 2011 Chevy Volt. Last year the car had a base price of $40,280, but that included the Bose audio system, Bose speakers and navigation system. This year, the 2012 Chevy Volt starts at $39,145, but adding the audio system with navigation adds $1,995, while adding the Bose speaker system adds another $495. In other words, a car that cost $40,280 in 2011 will cost you $41,635 in 2012. Is that a big deal? No, but given that the most common objection we’ve heard to the Volt is its price, we’d say that it isn’t moving in the right direction.
Since Chevy is making an effort to get Volt testers to dealers in all fifty states, we’d encourage you to go drive one before you make your mind up about the car. While it isn’t perfect for all drivers and commutes, it works well enough to be worth a look for most of us.
Chevrolet supplied the 2012 Volt for my evaluation. My press fleet tester had a base price of $39,145, and came equipped with the $1,995 Audio / Navigation System, the $1,395 Premium Trim Package (perforated leather seats, heated front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel), the $695 Rear Camera / Park Assist Package (ultrasonic park assist, rear vision camera), the $595 Polished Aluminum Wheels and the $495 Bose Premium Speaker System, for a total sticker price of $45,170.
Since the Volt exists in a rather exclusive class of automobiles, comparisons to pure electric or parallel hybrids are somewhat irrelevant. The only directly comparable, series hybrid competitor to the Volt is the Fisker Karma luxury sedan, which has a starting price of $95,900.