This week I was given a Chevrolet Volt to test drive. I received the car because I’m a registered user at Klout, and a promotional company, Page One Auto in California is trying to get people talking about the car.
The Chevrolet Volt represents the progress American car companies have made lately. After coasting on their reputations through the 90s, the domestic auto makers have realized stale ideas, bad build quality and low MPG is not going to cut it. The Volt is a hybrid, but with a twist. Unlike the Toyota Prius, which runs on electricity only at very low speeds or when stopped, it runs only on electricity for about 40 miles. And unlike the all electric Nissan Leaf, when the battery runs out, you aren’t stuck, there is a typical gas engine that goes for another 300 miles or so.
The idea is that for most daily commutes, people drive less than 40 miles a day. So, you could typically do your trip to work, run an errand, and make it home all without using gas. But, if you want to take that road trip up the coast, you don’t have to rent a gas car. Since moving to California, my commute is 12 miles each way, but it takes me about 45 minutes! I was eager to try out this car since it seems like the perfect solution for me.
As far as the commute, this car is excellent. I changed nothing about my driving habits or style, and made it to work and back home with 14 miles left on the electric battery. If I was using this as a daily driver, it is likely I would almost never have to pay for gas. The company states it costs about $1.50 to charge the car over night. If you charge it every night, thats about $45 a month. That is about half my typical gas costs a month. I wondered what would happen to stagnant gas sitting in your gas tank for long periods. Turns out the manual says the pressurized tank keeps gas ok for about a year, after which the engine will enter “maintenance mode” and burn gas if you haven’t done so in 365 days to keep the engine running smoothly. Well thought out solution by GM engineers.
While driving in all electric mode, you don’t notice that this is an electric car. It feels like a normal gas powered engine. Kudos to the engineering team for accomplishing this feat. At first I thought it was a little underpowered, but after I checked my speed on the dash, I realized I was wrong. I believe the lack of engine noise as feedback makes you feel like you aren’t pushing the car, but trust me, it goes.
When you lift your foot off the accelerator pedal, the car lightly applies the brakes, which helps to recharge the battery. It feels a bit like when you drive a manual and let the engine do the braking. This takes a bit of getting used to, because you end up going slower much quicker than you do when you coast in a normal gas car. But, it helps tremendously with milage. I drive downhill for a bit on my commute home, and my battery didn’t go down at all during this part of my trip.
Charging the car isn’t difficult. The car comes with an adapter that plugs into any three pronged normal household outlet. Using these 120V plugs, the car takes about 6-8 hours to charge. When you get home for the night, just plug in and then unplug when leaving in the morning.
Other systems exists that use 240V power and charge in about half the time. You can get these installed in your home, but you’re more likely to encounter them at the charging stations you see around town. I tried one out at a grocery store near my workplace. The system is easy enough, just pull up and plug in your car. Some cost money, so you swipe your credit card like at a parking meter. (the rates seems to run about $0.50 per hour on average) but many are free because they are hosted by local stores. For example, the one I used seemed to be paid for by the local grocery store. The incentive is that they figure you will shop at the green grocery store instead of the one without the charging station if you have a green car.
I had a thought about wondering how these cords will hold up to vandalism – a very real aspect of concern in Los Angeles. Turns out, if the cord is taken out before the car is unlocked, your alarm goes off. Another nice solution from GM.
The car is very attractively styled. Mine came in a nice sporty red color. I definitely saw people checking it out, and it is nice to see a hybrid car that doesn’t just have that angled slab prius look. The car is a hatchback that seats 4, with two captains chairs in the back instead of a bench seat. I was told the battery runs down the middle of the car. This helps with balance, but is the reason there is no middle seat in the back. However, what this does is actually make it feel like the chairs in the second row have more space. I also noted that the second row chairs have a kind of reclined position, which also seems to help give the allusion of space. This is important, because I found that the car was really about the size of a small sedan. Think Civic or Corolla, not Accord or Camry.
The interior was plush, with heated leather seats, and a leather steering wheel. Faux brushed aluminum was everywhere in the cabin as well. The version of my car was fully loaded. It came with a touchscreen navigation system, bluetooth, XM radio, Bose stereo sound system, remote starter, keyless entry and rear backup camera system. These luxuries were a very appreciated change of pace for me. In particular, the Bose sound system, coupled with how quiet the electric car was to drive ended up in one of my most peaceful commutes to work. A much appreciated aspect for me.
GM cars have OnStar built in, which means I could push a button and ask for directions to be sent automatically to my navigation system. This was nice because the last thing I want to do on a trip is have to stop and type in an address or search for a location on a map program. However, I found the other parts of the voice activation system lacking. I could push a button and say “Call Dad”, but not “adjust temperature to 72″ or “change radio station to 102.7″. This seems small, but it comes into play when you examine the dashboard controls.
The center column is very attractive, but stumbles a bit in usability. Whereas most cars I’ve been in, which use buttons to control things, the Volt goes a bit too far on the “futuristic” trip. Almost all the controls are done with capacitive “buttons”. These are like the buttons on the front of many android phones. They don’t indent or “push” in. They are touch sensitive. Its very pretty. But while this is ok on a touchscreen, I have trouble when it is part of the physical radio/HVAC column. You expect to not get tactile feedback from a screen, but on a center dash, I like to keep my eyes safely on the road, reach over and kind of “feel” around for the fan button. Here, when I would try to do that I’d end up turning on my heat warmer and changing the radio station. It requires you to take your eyes off the road for almost every function. Form over function at its worst here. It seems like the designers spent so much time perfecting the electric engine technology they didn’t pay attention to some of the interior details.
Otherwise, the bluetooth system had great sound quality. Callers had no trouble understanding me. And the navigation system displays on the second screen behind the steering wheel, so that music and air adjustments can be made on the center screen without you losing directions. Smart touch. The car features a USB port which recognized my iPhone. All my audio apps worked, and responded to the controls on the radio (play/fast forward/skip) including third party apps like spotify and stitcher.
My one other complains about the interactive system is that it cannot be operated unless the radio is on! This means I can’t adjust the AC without the radio on. Sure you can turn it all the way down, but that fact that is has to be on to use anything else (navigation/bluetooth) is ridiculous.
There were a few amenities that seemed to be missing about this car’s feature list. For example, the seats required manual adjustment. My friends and I postulated that this is because having hydraulic systems that you just push a button to move your seat would require more equipment that would add to the car’s weight and worsen the MPG that the electric car would get. But, in other aspects, this doesn’t apply and makes them just seem like oversights. For example, only the driver’s window is one-touch auto up and down. All the other windows only auto down. That can’t be an equipment issue, and is very annoying.
The reason I bring that up is the cost of this car. Keep in mind this is a Chevrolet. GM chose not to use their luxury badges like Buick or Cadillac. The Volt starts at $39,995. My version was $45,000. I understand you are paying a ton because of the new technology that GM developed for this car. But it is hard to justify paying over $40,000 for a small prius sized sedan with a Chevy brand on the front. They counter that you receive a federal tax credit of $7,500 and you save $7,500 in gas over use of it after 5 years, which would put it at $26,000. But thats a lot of incentives you have to make up over a long time versus paying $40k right out of pocket.
In fact, that is where they will have the most problem with marketing this car. I got a ton of questions about the car. Including a question not even an hour into my week with it when the security guard at my job asked about it. Considering some of the super cars we see from stars on the lot, this is no small detail to note. But when I told him the price he winced. And despite how it differs, most general consumers are going to think “ok this is a hybrid, like the Prius, but costs twice as much. Why would I pay more for a Chevy?”
So, would I buy this car? If I had the money, I would buy an electric car, absolutely. The time I spent with it destroyed all my fears about unreliability and the money saved from not having to buy gas is tremendous. Plus, there is just the cool factor. However, I’m less certain I’d buy a Chevy for $40,000. Make this car $30,000 and we can talk. I think with time, like all new technology, the pricing will come down and it will be far more attractive.