Chevrolet Volt – The Perfect Compromise

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The all-new Chevrolet Volt may be the best solution today for moving to greener driving to reduce CO2 emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change. It’s an electric vehicle (EV) without the drawbacks.

The many advantages of driving an EV include smooth, quiet motoring, minimal service requirements, and the feeling that you’re part of the solution and not the problem.

The downsides of EVs include limited range and the long time it takes to recharge the batteries.

Regular hybrid vehicles combine gas engines with electric motors to extend your fuel out over more miles, but you never plug in. Plug-in hybrids provide a small all-electric range before becoming regular hybrids.

The Chevrolet Volt, which debuted for 2011, was designed as an electric car with a range extender: The Voltec electric drive system. You could charge it up, drive about 35 miles, and then its small gasoline engine kicked in to generate electricity to keep the motor moving the car along.

The totally redesigned 2016 Volt continues on this path, with huge upgrades. Generation one owners gave GM plenty of feedback. Gone are the hard plastic panels with haptic touch controls. The styling is in line with current Chevy gasoline vehicles, like the midsize Malibu. The new car looks great inside and out, with colors and metallic trim befitting a fancier vehicle.

What’s most important, though, is that the new Volt offers an electric range of 53 miles. In a week with my Mosaic Black Metallic test car, I drove in silent, serene full-electric mode for all of my commuting (18 miles each way to work and home), and all of my normal errands. On only two occasions did I need the extended range. The combined range for gas and electric is 420 miles.

When my Volt switched over to gasoline, the instrument panel indicated I had moved from battery power. I could hardly hear the engine when it engaged, and even when the battery was depleted, the car sometimes used it with power generated from braking.

An electric car is rated for MPGe. MPGe assigns a comparative value to the efficiency of different EVs, but it also stands alongside MPG. My week with the Volt generated 118.1 MPGe. The EPA’s ratings are 106 MPGe for electric mode and 42 MPG for gasoline (combined city/highway numbers). Green scores are 8 for Smog and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas.

Compare that to a standard Prius, which gets 52 combined MPG. The Chevrolet Cruze, the Volt’s gasoline cousin, earns 35 MPG combined, itself a laudable number.

The electric motor puts out 149 horsepower (111 kW), and a strong 294 lb.-ft. of torque. The gas engine generates only 75 horsepower, but it’s meant to charge the car rather than drive it. Chevy claims an 8.4-second 0-60 time. I felt confident in it driving uphill on a winding road in the rain.

The Volt comes in LT and Premier levels. My Premier tester flaunted attractive two-tone interior with tan inserts and silvery trim winding around the dash. The center screen is nicely rendered and there’s a jaunty blue plastic top on the “shift” knob. The rear seat now offers a center position, but there’s not a whole lot of legroom for that person. The hatchback is convenient, although it’s a high liftover.

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The Drive Mode switch lets you configure the Voltec system. Use Normal mode for maximum efficiency, Sport mode to take advantage of the bountiful electric motor torque, or Mountain mode for maximum power on steep upgrades. The fourth mode, Hold, lets you preserve your battery charge and use only gasoline.

Regenerative braking is crucial for hybrids and EVs, but the Volt lets you prime the pump with a paddle on the left side of the steering wheel for “Regen on Demand.” Use it like a brake, while banking charge. With practice, you can drive almost without using the brake pedal at all.

The Volt has its own personality, with a greeting sound and a “wind down” tone it makes when you turn it off. Because the electric motor is silent when you start the car, the blue Power button is more like turning on your iPhone than turning over your engine.

The LT starts at $34,820 and the Premier, with heated leather seats, a Bose stereo system, and more, starts at $39,270. My tester listed for $39,850. Various leasing options, plus some Federal and State rebates, can make these cars easier to drive home.

While an all-electric car may be the ideal way to go, it’s not practical for everyone today. But if you want a compact car that’ll do pretty much everything and let you drive electric most of the time, the Volt is a great solution.

The Electric Car Club

When I started testing my little blue Fiat 500e a couple of months ago, I thought, that as part of my EV awareness, I’d attend meetings of some electric car enthusiast organization.I pictured meeting in a place like an old Hof Brau, and standing in the parking lot before going inside for beers and roast beef, looking over each others’ cars in the fading sun.

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What I was picturing was the car club of the past. I met the Corvair owners club years ago that way.

Today, the action is in three places, for me. The first is at work, where I’ve created the Electriccars channel on Slack–our company instant messenger application. We have 12 members–most of the electric car drivers in the company. We post photos, talk about range and what we want to buy someday, and we’re pretty well represented. We have drivers of Teslas, Leafs, Volts, A Ford Focus Electric and a Fusion Hybrid, BMW i3s, and a couple of us with Fiats. Here’s our charging array. Fidelio, my blue Fiat 500e, is at the top of the picture, because my battery is full, and I’ve moved aside to let another driver charge up. With 15 EVs and 6 spots, it’s the only way to make it work.

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I’ve had numerous conversations in the hallway and in our “Cantina” food and party area. One guy proudly showed me his Volt app, where he could get lots of stats on his mileage and driving efficiency. Another wanted to talk about the differences between the different EVs on the market–or the difference between living with a plug-in hybrid versus a pure electric. Another is eagerly awaiting his opportunity to put money down on a Tesla Model 3–that he’ll receive in two years. That’s patience.

The second way I meet EV drivers is at charging stations. While most of my charging happens at home or at my six-slot office charger, I had a fine conversation with two Leaf drivers in front of the Whole Foods recently. A fellow auto journalist drove to meet me for lunch in his EV test car, and showed me where he went to plug it in while we were eating.

There’s lots of EV action online. I belong to the Fiat 500e group on Facebook. For now, I have a car to show photos of, and stories to relate. So do they. There are proud new car photos, oddball charging shots, and interesting customizations. One guy installed new, more powerful, but less energy-consuming, headlamps. Another posted a shot of his little Fiat next to a giant Chevy Suburban. I had recently taken a very similar shot of my colleague’s orange 500e next to the same kind of behemoth, and posted it in reply. We have fun.

Of course there are numerous websites to visit, too. And on Twitter, I post links to this blog, and have picked up a bunch of folks to follow–and who follow me–by going there.

I was expecting more camaraderie between EV drivers on the road, but so far, no-one has waved to me from their car. I, of course notice all of them. Maybe they just like not buying or burning gas and aren’t the social type. More (electric) power to them.

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I did look around for an actual car club, and found the Electric Auto Association. They have various chapters, but from what I can tell, they are the old-fashioned kind of organization. These are the techie guys who used to install dozens of regular car batteries in an old Honda Civic years ago. They are hands-on, and less of a purely consumer group–although I bet that’s changing.

If it were September, I could participate in National Drive Electric Week, but who knows what I’ll be driving by then? I may own my own EV by the time any local events start on September 10.

I love the social part of  being an EV driver. Perhaps it’s the excitement about doing something special that brings some folks together like this. When you drive an electric car, you fit right into the flow of traffic, and especially if you own a model that also has a gas version, you may be invisible to the other drivers. But YOU know you’re battery powered, and that it all makes a difference. Someday, it’ll be the norm.

What’s MPGe? Why Should I Care?

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When the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began measuring the fuel economy of cars decades ago, they created a miles-per-gallon (MPG) rating. It was designed to be posted on the Monroney (window) sticker, so consumers could compare different cars when they were shopping.

However, what happens when you have a car powered completely or partially by electricity? How do you measure a “gallon” of volts? The agency had to find a way to measure all energy, as a “measure of the average distance traveled per unit of energy consumed.”

So, in 2010, in response to the arrival of the new Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and the Nissan Leaf all-electric vehicle, the EPA came up with the MPGe rating–miles-per-gallon-equivalent. See this Wikikpedia entry for more detailed information.

I went to my favorite comparison/information hangout online–fueleconomy.gov–and set up a comparison between four kinds of cars, including my Fiat 500e. The Fiat represented a pure electric vehicle, I listed the Chevrolet Volt as a plug-in hybrid, the Toyota Prius as a regular hybrid, and the popular Honda Civic sedan as an efficient “regular” internal combustion engine (ICE) car.

Here’s what I got. Check it out for yourself. There are lots of numbers there, but here’s what I take away from it all.

  1. Electric cars have only the MPGe/MPG score, and it’s much higher than the MPG scores. The Fiat was tops in this comparison, with the Volt just below, with the two non-plugin cars way below. Use this number to compare all-electric cars to each other (and check the range, too).
  2. Hybrids are much more fuel efficient than regular cars. Keep in mind that the Prius has the best fuel economy of any hybrid car, and the Civic is one of the most fuel-efficient ICE cars.
  3. Driving the Volt in electric mode–keeping your trips within the battery range and recharging regularly–delivers nearly as good a rating as the Fiat. Driving it long distances using only gasoline isn’t much better than the ICE Civic. But if you’re the typical driver, and make sure to charge up regularly, and you’ll get the best of both worlds.
  4. Hybrids, like the regular Prius, don’t plug in (there is a plug-in version too). They’re given an MPG number based on overall performance, because they switch back and forth between gasoline and electricity, depending on driving conditions. The numbers look pretty good, though.
  5. The Prius, in this four-car comparison, saves the most per year compared to the average car. Remember, there are lots of other factors, though. Still interesting.
  6. Notice there’s a “per 100 miles” measurement in the same box that contains the MPGe and MPG number? That’s where the “equivalent” comes in. The Fiat, for example, shows 30 kWh per 100 miles while the Honda shows 2.9 gallons per 100 miles. The question then comes–how much does it cost for 2.9 gallons of gas or 30 kWh of electricity? My experience, using a public charger at work, is that I can get around 15 kWh (about 50 miles worth) for a couple of bucks. Gas, in California now, is currently running about $2.25 a gallon. Doing the math, the Honda costs roughly $3.50 for gas for the $2.00 the Fiat runs. Charging my car at home, at night, would likely run a bit less.

Are you enjoying that comparison chart? Good. Now, click the Energy and Environment tab and you’ll see where electric cars come out on top for greenhouse gas emissions. The Fiat gets a lovely zero grams per mile. The Volt is mighty good at 51. The Prius more than triples that to 170, while the Civic gets 256. Many larger cars can emit 400 or 500 grams per mile. So even downsizing from a large to a smaller ICE car is an improvement.

Yes, it’s true that an electric car must use electricity that’s generated someplace using some method that could cause an environmental impact. And there’s the fuel that went into the tank of the transporter truck that delivered your EV to the dealership. Ideally, you generate power from solar panels on your roof, although remember, some energy was consumed to produce the panels. If your power is generated using hydroelectric, wind, or a giant solar farm, you’re good. Natural gas–not as good. Coal–not good at all. Here in California, there are no  coal-powered plants (as far as I know), but PG&E, the utility, could  buy power from another company that used coal to generate it. We have some nuclear power generation here, too.

Still, at this point, there are many fine reasons to drive an electric car, if it fits your lifestyle. But even driving a Prius cuts your carbon footprint down significantly. If you work it right, a plug-in hybrid, like the Volt, would be even better than the Prius (the more you use the electric and the less you burn fuel). And if all else fails, you can still drive a Civic instead of a Cadillac and reduce your environmental impact a bit.

Until we have affordable electric cars with a 300-mile range, these other options–plug-in hybrids, hybrids, and highly efficient regular gas-burners, will have a place in the automotive market.