Culture

Chevy Volt: American Ingenuity at Work

Image: chevrolet.com

While the Tesla grabs the limelight as one of the most desirable, environmentally friendly automobiles, the Chevy Volt rarely gets credit for offering a solution that may work better for some and costs substantially less. No, it can’t compete with the Tesla’s ability to travel 200 to 300 miles on a single charge, but the Volt never suffers from range anxiety, the need to recharge the electric car’s battery while on a long trip.

That means planning a stop at a charging station along the way. Tesla has done a good job at building quick-recharging stations along major highways, but you need to hope they’re available when you arrive for the half-hour or longer recharge. And with its success at taking advance orders for hundreds of thousand of its new Model 3, they’ll need to up the number of stations to avoid even longer waits.

The Chevy Volt, when it was first introduced in 2010, was unique in the approach it took. The car is equipped with a smaller battery than the Tesla (18kWh vs 60 to 85kWh), but also adds a gas generator that can keep the car going for almost 400 miles on one tankful of gas once the battery is depleted.

The battery in the new Volt will take you about 55 miles on one charge. So if your daily commute is 26 miles or less each way, you may never need to buy gas, except for a long trip. This kind of vehicle is called a Plug-in Hybrid Electronic Vehicle (PHEV). It falls in between the Tesla (EV for electric vehicle) and the standard Prius (Hybrid) that also has a battery and a gas engine. But they work in tandem and the car can’t be driven only on the battery.

If this is not confusing enough, there are an increasing number of cars that have tried to emulate the Volt, including a plug-in Prius, the Ford Fusion Energi and cars from Audi, Kia and Hyundai. All of these provide just 15-20 miles on a charge, but use a hybrid engine when using gas. Other options include the EV vehicles: the Nissan Leaf and the upcoming Chevy Bolt that get 100 and more than 200 miles per charge, respectively.

While the Tesla costs upwards of $80,000 or more, the Volt has a list price of $35,000 to $40,000, depending on the trim levels. With the federal tax credit of $7500, the car can be purchased for under $30,000.

I’ve been testing a new 2017 fully loaded Volt Premier model with a $40,625 sticker price. It’s a well-engineered car that’s a major improvement over the first-generation model.

I know the first generation well, since I’ve owned one for three years, and it’s served me well. Over that time, I’ve averaged 101 mpg based on a combination of driving locally and several long trips each month of more than 200 miles each. I typically charge the car at home each night, and my electric rates have stayed the same, thanks to lower rates offered to plug-in car owners in California and some other states. The car allows you to set the charging to go on when the rates are the lowest.

The new generation Volt is significantly better in nearly all respects. Its driving range, using a more advanced lithium ion battery, is now 53 miles versus 38 to 40, and it gets 45 mpg when running on gas versus 35 mpg.

Image: Chevrolet.com

Image: Chevrolet.com

The car is attractive and sporty looking, handles well with its low center of gravity, and accelerates quickly (0 to 60mph in 7 ½ seconds running off the battery.) The car I tested is loaded with technology features. Most noticeably is a brilliant 8-inch color touch display in the middle of the dashboard, looking much like an iPad.

It provides access to the navigation, heating and cooling, phone, and other functions displayed as icons, much like on your phone. But there are now easy-to-use physical controls for commonly used functions such as climate. It’s one of the easiest to use and most comprehensive systems of any of the recent cars I’ve tried, including BMW, Lexus, Ford, Toyota, Subaru, and Mazda.

Included is Apple Car Play and Android Auto that transfer information from your phone to the display as a set of additional apps when the phone is plugged into to one of the car’s USB connections. While limited to displaying maps, phonebook and some music and radio applications, it provides an alternative to buying the navigation package. But the Volt’s navigation is so good you may rarely use Apple Maps or Google Maps.

The Volt comes with a WiFi hotspot that keeps your car connected. After the trial period it costs $10/month. It lets others in the car connect to the Internet and it connects the car to it as well, so you can search for destinations for the GPS, just as you do on Google, and need not type in an address.

And there’s the perennial GM OnStar that’s come a long way over the years. I’ve found it to be surprisingly useful, including sending directions to your navigation system on request, getting help, and monitoring your car’s condition.

The Volt also offers Active Cruise Control, which controls the speed of your car automatically, slowing and speeding up depending on the traffic, and a parking feature that parks your car automatically, assuming it detects an empty spot among a line of cars.

The Volt’s hatchback design provides a good amount of space for luggage, groceries and even a big outing to Costco. The back seat space is tight, seating 2 adults or 3 children.

The car comes with a charger that plugs into an ordinary 110-volt outlet and charges the battery in about twelve hours. I use a $400 240-volt charger mounted on the wall in my garage, which charges in less than 4 hours.

The new 2017 Volt, like its predecessor, is American ingenuity at work. It represents a significant breakthrough in concept and execution. Many years from now the Volt will be remembered as one of Detroit’s most innovative automobiles.  In my case it caused me to switch from years of foreign car ownership to an American-made product. I liked this car so much I might even buy one when my lease is up on my original Volt.