Friday, March 16, 2012

Getting a Charge out of the Chevy Volt

The Chevrolet Volt is unique in the world of hybrid and electric vehicles. It is powered by an electric motor all the time, unlike a hybrid, in which the gasoline engine powers the car part of the time. However, an on-board gas engine is called in to service the charge the battery when the car runs out of electricity, which, in my case, was when the 32 miles worth of power was exhausted. The engine itself never powers the wheels directly.

This gas engine is meant to remove "range anxiety," a malady suffered by owners of all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf can go up to 90 miles on a charge, but when you're out, you're stranded.

The Volt is a compact sedan--not a large one--and will hold four people--not five. The rear seat has a console along the middle to prevent that. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing today that it limits the weight the car must bear, thereby increasing the range of the electric powertrain.

Chevy showed a concept car of the Volt several years ago and it was much more angular than today's car. However, it was "futuristic" and the production car is, too. Styling is a little bit advanced and different from end to end. Especially notable is the silvery "grille," through which no air can pass (it comes in under the bumper for the engine--a common setup today). The dark strips below the side windows are an iteration of a design concept from the original show car and make the smallish windows look--but not feel--larger.

The interior is where the Volt goes wild. Despite being finished in hard plastics throughout, it is very evocative of modernity and even a little adventurous. The twin cockpit theme--from as far back as the original Corvette, is in evidence, and the shiny plastic door inserts convey the old painted feeling of those cars. But of course this car is built like a fortress and has umpteen airbags to protect you.

The instrument panel has two rectangular screens-one directly behind the steering wheel and one in the center spot on the dash Both convey, in brightly colored graphics, what's happening with the car, and you can make numerous selections to monitor such functions as where the power is coming from, how the battery is being charged, and recent fuel economy. It tells you after every charge how well you did--and what proportion of your mileage was powered by electrons and how much was thanks to hydrocarbons.

I was thrilled to be able to drive my Crystal Red test car the entire 23 miles to work each day on pure electricity. The car feels strong, pulls eagerly away from stops, and sails down the road in blissful silence. My car's stereo was happy to put out the music, although one time, I sat and let it play for about 20 minutes and I could see that it was draining my battery!

Everything you do affects range, and you learn to behave carefully to maximize that. You can monitor your habits to see how efficient you are. And, there's a little gadget you can select for the panel directly in front that shows you visually, using a rising or falling sphere, whether you're rolling along fine or are accelerating or braking too much. The goal, for economy, is to keep the ball in the middle, and it stays there if you are just rolling along. Hard acceleration or braking make the ball stop move off-center. It's a learning tool, much like the ones in Hybrids, but this is especially three-dimensional--as are all the displays in the Volt.

Charging is easy. You just uncoil the thick orange cord and plug it in the wall. Then, pop open the nicely-finished mini door on the left front fender and plug in the flashlight-sized plug. It has a handle and a built-in light to locate the outlet easily. The lights on the charger glow green, the car chirps its horn once, and a small green light goes on on the dash near the windshield. You can check how it's doing by opening the car and looking at the dash display.

I was happy to see, each morning, that I had a full battery. It's displayed like a row of gold bars in the T shape of the actual battery, which is hidden below the central tunnel and back seat. I enjoyed the quality of the car--despite its non-luxurious interior materials, it felt sold, looked fine, and worked perfectly. The seats, with optional leather in my tester, held me comfortably.

Two regrets. One--I wish the car had a longer range, because it feels great to drive under electric power. Two--the price. My car had a $40,000 base price, plus $4,000 worth of options. At $44,000, I could be looking at a Mercedes-Benz. But--only Chevy makes the Volt. I assume that future versions will increase the electric battery range and, with volume sales, the prices should come down. There is a $7,500 tax credit to help ease the pain, as well.


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