Review: 2011 Chevrolet Volt
By Chris Haak
Back in the sixties – a decade which, scary enough, began more than a half century ago – the creators of the cartoon The Jetsons imagined a future world in which robots served humans, there were pushbutton conveniences that automated mundane tasks, and the cars could fly (and fold into a space the size of a briefcase).
We’re now halfway to 2062 when The Jetsons was allegedly taking shape, and we certainly do have many automated conveniences, but we seem to be barely any closer to all having flying cars. People living in 2062 also only have to work three hours per day; it seems that we’re trending in the opposite direction from that. However, I really do believe that the Chevrolet Volt is about as close as you can get to driving (ahem, *not* flying) the car of the future.
I spent five days with the Volt, charging it overnight whenever I had the opportunity (it took about 11 hours to reach a “full” charge; though a full charge is not actually topping off the battery, nor is a complete discharge actually completely emptying it; those aren’t done in order to preserve the battery’s life) and never quite managed to eke out the 52-mile round trip to my office on battery power alone, but I got tantalizingly close on two occasions. However, because I used all allocated battery power a basically every day I drove the Volt, I was able to experience range extended mode a number of times, including the all-but-seamless transition between EV mode and RE mode when the gasoline engine is running.
What impressed me most about the Volt is how unremarkable the on the road experience with the car is, at least until you start thinking about what is going on behind the scenes. Sure, the instrument cluster (basically a large LCD screen that just so happens to be the same size as the navigation screen atop the center stack) looks futuristic, with no physical gauges. The capacitive touch-actuated buttons on the center stack for radio and climate controls are a modern touch. But you drive the Volt the same way you’d drive any other car. You put your foot on the brake, press the Power button (not start, of course, since most days you’re not actually starting the engine), drop it into gear, and drive away.
Acceleration, while quantitatively a bit on the slow side (zero to sixty happens in about nine seconds), feels more rapid than the numbers would indicate because of the strong, instantaneous torque of the Volt’s electric motor. This isn’t a 50-horsepower study in maximum efficiency; it’s a real car that can be driven like a real car. You don’t need to plan ahead when coming off of an on-ramp onto an expressway – the car just goes. Other than for your entertainment (trying to maximize EV mileage), you don’t have to worry about so-called “range anxiety,” which occurs when you worry about where you’ll be when your EV battery dies and you’re not at a place where you can charge the car.
The Volt costs about twice as much as a Chevy Cruze – twice as much as a base Cruze when including the Volt’s $7,500 federal tax credit, and twice as much as a better-equipped Cruze when excluding the tax credit from your calculations. According to our friends at TrueDelta.com, the Volt costs $8,882 more at invoice than a Cruze LTZ when you include the tax credit, and account for $1,225 in equipment that the Volt gets that the Cruze does not. Plus, the Volt’s interior has more high-tech features and nicer materials than the Cruze’s does, appropriate for its higher price point. Nevertheless, depending on your driving patterns and the price of gasoline, there’s very little economic argument to buying a Volt over a Cruze. In some scenarios, you’d never recoup the Volt’s price premium (for instance, the Volt gets about 37 MPG on the highway with the gasoline engine running; the Cruze Eco can hit 42 MPG under ideal conditions).
What impressed me the most about the Volt is the attention to detail. You really get the feeling that the car is extremely well engineered, and that the car’s engineering legion took the time to think of nearly everything. Want an example? When looking through the owner’s manual to figure out why my kids couldn’t open the back doors (because the window lock switch on the driver’s door also disables the rear doors’ inside handles), I stumbled across a few pages on EMM and FMM.
EMM stands for Engine Maintenance Mode. I’m depending on my sometimes-hazy memory, but I believe that EMM kicks in if the Volt’s gasoline engine hasn’t started in 30 days. When the car decides that it’s time to enter EMM, it prompts the driver to start it; if the driver declines, the car will wait up to 24 hours, but will eventually just do it to keep the car’s mechanical parts in working order. Here’s a video of a Volt in EMM taken by a GM engineer who is leasing a Volt, and had driven 1,554 miles, using just a half gallon of gasoline.
FMM stands for Fuel Maintenance Mode. If the weighted average age of the fuel gets to one year (at least that’s what my memory tells me the timing was), the car will run its engine to burn some of the old gasoline until fresh fuel is added to offset the age of the old fuel. In other words, if you have a half tank of gasoline that’s a year old and top off the tank, the weighted average age becomes six months.
Neither of the maintenance modes are exciting features, and may well be all but unnecessary (I’ve heard stories of 50 year old cars starting after decades in storage, using old gasoline, with only the help of a new battery and perhaps some ether), but they’re an illustration of how thoroughly the Volt’s engineering team considered various aspects of a new paradigm in automobiles.
Though you can choose to drive the Volt as you would any other “normal” car, that kind of takes away the fun. First, it’s not necessary to plug the car in every night (but that’s kind of the point of the thing, isn’t it?). You can also choose among three different drive modes – Normal, Sport, and Mountain. Sport mode allows the car’s powertrain to expend a bit more energy on acceleration (which seems to liven up the car’s responses), while Mountain mode leaves a larger buffer of battery power in reserve (about 4 kWh instead of the normal 1 kWh) so that the car has enough guts to climb a steep mountain, rather than depending solely on the small gasoline engine. If you switch from Normal to Mountain, for example, you’ll see the projected EV range drop by about 10-12 miles.
Inside the Volt, you’ll find leather seating surfaces, a combination hard plastic/padded dashboard, the previously-mentioned rectangular LCD gauge display, and shiny plastic accent pieces on the door panels that hearken to what you’ll find inside the Camaro. But other than the door panels, the Volt’s interior is quite different from the Camaro’s; for one, it has much better materials, and for two, it has a much easier to use design.
Because of the Volt’s large T-shaped battery pack, rear seating is configured with two bucket seats, bisected by a center console. The cargo area is immediately behind the seats, and there is no parcel shelf or anything else obscuring the view to the trunk. My preschool-age sons were both intrigued by the idea of being able to see into the trunk from the wide opening between the rear seatbacks. Rear seat room is a bit tight, but I’d call it adequate for most average-sized Americans.
The two LCD displays (one in front of the driver and one atop the center stack) are both high resolution with attractive graphics, and provide a wealth of information to the driver, including video game-like “scores” on driving habits and on climate energy consumption (both on a 0 to 100 scale). It’s actually easier to get a 100 with smooth, gentle driving habits than it is to get the C-note on the climate control system, unless said system is turned off. That’s not a really viable option in June in 80- degree weather, but you can be reasonably comfortable in the Volt in that kind of environment with the windows down and only the ventilation fan running (and the air conditioning turned off).
All of the data provided to the driver may seem overwhelming at first, since it’s displayed in small print and there’s a lot to view, but the important ones – range, speed, radio, etc. – are larger and easy to read. The biggest omission among all of the information provided is any kind of estimate of electricity cost or consumption. Though obviously it’s not the case, the Volt seems to presume that electricity is free, since every efficiency measure the car provides is based on gasoline consumed (or not consumed). It would be nice if the car allowed you to key in (or better yet, automatically download) your electricity costs to then calculate true operating costs for the Volt. Charging overnight in your garage very effectively hides the cost of the electricity in your monthly electricity bill.
As alluded to earlier, the Volt’s engineers outdid themselves in making the Volt feel as much like a normal car as possible. In fact, despite the car’s expected low rolling resistance tires (which have fairly low handling limits), it handles quite well, with well-controlled suspension motions and very little body roll. Part of the credit for its handling is no doubt owed to the placement of the car’s large, heavy T-shaped battery pack, which lowers the Volt’s center of gravity some two inches relative to its Cruze cousin. But I believe that it’s more than just simple physics; I think that with the high expectations riding on the Volt, its creators went the extra mile to ensure that the suspension tuning was done as well as they could possibly do it.
As with other EVs and hybrids, the Volt is equipped with regenerative braking as well as mechanical brakes. However, unlike most other regen systems, the Volt’s has a very, very linear feel during the transition between regenerative braking (the first bit of travel, when the electric motor acts as a generator to capture momentum to put back into the battery) and mechanical braking (when the conventional brakes inside the wheels convert momentum to heat, as on any other car. It’s extremely difficult to get two completely different braking systems to work together as a cohesive unit, but again, the Volt nails this.
The transition between EV mode and range-extending mode is as seamless as the braking. Without watching an animation happen on the instrument panel (as the icon for the depleted battery flips into the background and the icon for the fuel tank moves to the forefront), it’s all but undetectable.
It may be difficult for some folks to grasp, but the Volt was not engineered with maximum efficiency in mind. Instead, it’s engineered to work as a pure EV for as long as its battery power allows, and then to be reasonably efficient and cost-effective until its driver has the opportunity to plug the car in and charge its batteries. It’s not going to get 50 MPG on the highway like the Prius is able to achieve. Bob Lutz said so in his book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, on page 155:
“This isn’t about absolute, terminal efficiency. This vehicle is about giving the love of electric vehicles a pure electric battery-powered driving experience 80 percent of the time. They don’t want to hear a gasoline engine cutting in all the time. It ruins the whole experience.”
The particular Volt that I reviewed had a lifetime fuel economy (again, excluding electricity consumed) of about 47 MPG when I received the car. After five days, and mostly using it on batter power, but exhausting the battery at some point during each day (and therefore using gasoline), I got the car’s lifetime average over 50 MPG. Not bad considering the car had over 7,000 miles on its odometer. During none of my travels in the Volt did I ever average under 50 MPG for the day (which again ignores electricity consumption), including a 114-mile highway trip where the car ran on range extending mode after about 35 miles of highway driving at 70 MPH. Of course, had that particular trip been any longer, fuel economy would have dropped below 50 MPG until settling in around the 35 MPG neighborhood.
When the Volt is operating in EV mode, it’s very silent, with only the ventilation fan and radio audible when the car is stopped, and with some minor wind and tire noise after the car is rolling. Acceleration in EV mode is accompanied by a faint turbine-like whine; the car creates a similar sound when the regenerative braking is engaged.
After the battery is depleted and the car enters range extended mode, there is no perceptible difference in the car’s driving behavior. The Volt’s small engine is running, of course (except when the car is not in motion), but most of the time it’s fairly calm and unobtrusive. From time to time, such as during maximum acceleration, you’ll be able to hear the engine and feel more vibration coming from under the hood, but after you calm down, the engine settles down as well. The engine’s din at higher RPMs is somewhat masked by louder background wind and tire noise, so it’s still perceptibly quieter than a normal car with its accelerator pinned to the floor. Here’s a brief video of my Volt tester entering range extended mode:
The Volt is not for everybody. It’s expensive and very hard to get. It has limited utility for those traveling greater distances. But if you’re an early adopter, or if you feel very strongly about the need to wean our nation’s dependence from fossil fuels (but don’t want to be left stranded by a discharged battery far from home, or in a bad section of town), the Volt is a true technological tour de force. If GM put this much effort into every car it built, the company would truly be able to look its customers and critics in the eye and say that it is building the world’s best cars and trucks. There were huge, huge expectations heaped on this car, fairly or unfairly, and it delivers on every one of them.
When the second-generation Volt debuts in a few years, it also will probably not fly and will probably not fold into a briefcase. Nevertheless, I think George Jetson would be impressed, even with the 2011 vintage Volt.
Note: for additional perspective on living with the Volt, and its value proposition, click here to read a companion piece to this article, written by Techshake’s Kevin Miller.
GM provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas (which was barely used) for this review.