The story on the Chevrolet Volt is bigger than the machine itself. The Chevrolet Volt is an impressive engineering achievement and we are impressed with the car. We think the story about the fires has been overblown and incompletely told. Not so overblown are the government subsidies, which irk many taxpayers. But as machines go, the Volt is quite good.
A four-seat hatchback, the Volt is a very good all-purpose automobile, with very low operating costs. It's electric-powered, but it carries its own gas-powered generator so when it runs out of juice it can continue for hundreds of miles. It won't leave you on the side of the road, wishing for an extension cord.
Introduced as a 2011 model, the Volt is largely unchanged for 2012. Now in its second year of production, the 2012 Volt is available in all 50 states and Canada. The 2012 Volt's standard features and options have been realigned slightly, and its base retail price actually decreases more than $1,000.
For 2012, Chevrolet has added structural enhancements to the Volt to reduce the risk of battery damage or coolant leakage in an impact. The changes followed news reports that the batteries in a couple of Volts had caught fire after government crash tests. Seldom mentioned is that the fires occurred two days or more after the Volts were crashed, and after the cars had been left sitting without the post-crash storage steps recommended by Chevrolet.
The Volt is not a traditional hybrid with a gasoline engine that frequently drives the wheels and directly propels the car. Instead, Volt's power system is similar to that used for decades in diesel locomotives. Think of the Volt's small gas engine as an electricity producer or a range extender, as GM calls it. When it runs, the gas engine turns a generator that recharges the battery pack. But the electric drive motor is always moving the car regardless of whether the engine is running.
So the Volt does not have the limited range of an all-electric car. Anyone who drives less than 30 miles a day should never have to put gas in the Volt, and drivers who can plug it in and charge it up while at work will double its plug-in range. Yet if a Volt owner forgets to plug it in, there's no fear that she won't get where she needs to go. The gasoline engine starts automatically when you run out of juice and provides the necessary electricity to propel you home. This happens seamlessly. Once the gasoline engine starts, you have a range of about 345 miles before you must stop and either fill the gas tank or plug it in. Chevrolet Volt owners will never experience the range anxiety owners of the Nissan Leaf and other all-electric cars must sometimes face.
We like the Volt's look, interior treatment and plentiful standard features. We think the Volt is a more rational choice for most consumers than the strict plug-in electric cars that are beginning to appear in the marketplace. Most of all, we like Volt's ability to do the work of a conventional compact car.
Driving the Volt is really no different than driving any gasoline-powered compact or mid-size car, and the Volt is more energetic and enjoyable than some of them. Its handling is much better than that of the Nissan Leaf and we found it fun to drive. The Volt is front-wheel drive.
Volt uses a T-shaped lithium-ion battery mounted under the center console and rear seat to supply power to its 149-horsepower electric drive motor. The 435-pound battery has its own heating and cooling system to operate efficiently in extremes of temperature. It can be fully charged in four hours with the available 240-volt charging station, or in 12 hours on normal house current. Chevrolet estimates an overnight charge costs $1.00 to $1.50, depending on utility rates.
When the battery charge runs low, the 1.4-liter gasoline engine starts and turns a 55-kilowatt generator, which supplies electricity to charge the battery so the journey can continue. All of this happens seamlessly as you drive along. The Volt will go as long as its 9.3-gallon fuel tank has gasoline, or a distance Chevrolet calculates as 380 miles between fuel stops. That's 35 miles on an initial plug-in charge, and 345 with the gasoline engine generating the electricity.
The battery is never depleted, and operates continuously between 50 and 65 percent of its capacity, but the system is geared toward preserving the battery's life and condition under extremes of heat, cold and continuous duty. Because there is the possibility of long periods of gasoline storage, the Volt is built with a sealed, pressurized fuel system. There's a warning system that tells the driver to go out for a drive to burn off any condensation that has reached the fuel.
The Volt comes with a full complement of air bags, all of the electronic driving aids, and a complex system of redundant safety features to protect occupants and the battery pack in severe impact, rollover or floods. It's been rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and rates five of five stars in four of the five government crash tests.
At $40,000, the Volt costs substantially more than conventional cars of similar size and capability. It's loaded with new, expensive technology, and Chevrolet has chosen not to subsidize its price, as other manufacturers have done when they launched more familiar hybrids. Instead, the federal government has subsidized it. In addition to that, the federal government is offering rebates of up to $7,500 to taxpayers who purchase a Volt. In addition, several states offer refunds or rebates. Colorado offers up to $6,000, Illinois up to $4,000, Pennsylvania $3,500, Maryland $2,000. There are forms to fill out, of course.