Volt sets preconceived notions aside
"It’s not the kind of car that stands out in a crowd - a five-door hatchback/sedan profile that is attractive without being head-turning."
I have to admit to a pre-conceived notion that I would hate the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, the plug-in hybrid that General Motors calls “the electric car with extended range.”
The notion was based on some of the more outlandish presentations I had heard from GM officials at car shows, comments like “the people who buy this car are heroes; the people who buy this car are patriots; trend-setters.” Hype is one thing, this (along with the claim “we have more computer connections than the F-35 stealth fighter”) was enough to make me ill.
As it turns out, it’s not bad at all. Oh, sure, there are some shortcomings, but the ability to go for a time on pure electric power and finish the trip with a gasoline engine putting power to the motor, is not one of those defects.
I spent a week with the Volt, driving it 579.4 km – roughly 60% in urban traffic and 40% at highway speeds. I used 13.4 litres of premium gasoline, meaning the total cost was under $20. I haven’t received my power bill yet, so I can’t work out an approximation of the cost of electricity from coal-fired or gas-fired power plants. So that leaves the carbon footprint to be determined.
The exterior is far from the futuristic theme one might expect in a car with futuristic power intentions. It’s not the kind of car that stands out in a crowd - a five-door hatchback/sedan profile that is attractive without being head-turning. And an extremely low front air dam is in danger of scraping on even the slightest of parking lot speed bumps.
The rear deck opens on a fairly generous, although shallow, cargo area that can be expanded by folding down the two rear seats. No claims of seating for five in this car!
The driver gets an instrument panel that features two video screens – one directly in front, the other on the top of the centre stack - that offer data on every onboard system. The displays are attractive, if a little distracting. When the Volt is operating in EV mode, there’s a vertical power level meter that automatically changes to look like a gas pump when the drive mode changes to gasoline use.
In the course of my week with it, Volt’s EV range varies greatly depending on things like temperature and wind conditions and my driving style.
The furthest I get on strictly EV power is 52.4 km; the shortest is about 36.
Running on the battery, the front-wheel drive Volt uses an electric motor at each front wheel to produce fairly brisk acceleration utterly silently. The switch to gasoline is seamless, the only clue really being the switch to that gas pump graphic on the screen.
The gasoline engine, uh generator, provides equally brisk acceleration and doesn’t add a heck of a lot to the noise factor. Shifting is handled by a continuously variable “electric drive unit.”
Range with both EV and gasoline is at least acceptable, but because the fuel tank is relatively small – just 35.2 litres – you will find yourself looking for fuel stations on longer trips.
The car handles well and the ride, while a bit firm, is not at all uncomfortable.
Rearward visibility is not great thanks to the spoiler bisecting the radically slanted rear window but proper use of side mirrors minimizes the problem.
Do I like the Volt? Kinda.
The only concessions I make to its electric vehicle with extended range design is that I plug it in when it’s in my garage so it’s usually at full charge when I leave.
The upside is that the gasoline engine (that’s what it is) lets you plan longer trips. The Downside? It takes about 10 hours to fully charge the lithium-ion battery on normal household current when it’s run right down. A 240-volt charger system cuts charging time to about four hours.
2012 Chevrolet Volt
Price as tested (before taxes): $44,835
Options on test vehicle: Premium Trim Pkg. ($1,695) inc.: leather seats and steering wheel, heated front seats, premium door trim; rear camera and park assist ($795); 17-inch polished aluminum wheels ($695); MyLINK ($105) with 7-inch colour touch screen, voice activation, Bluetooth and Gracenote audio system.
Configuration: front engine/ front-wheel drive
Engine/transmission: 111kW electric motor with 1.4L 4-cyl./ electronic ratio select automatic electric drive
Power/torque: 150 hp/ 273 lb.-ft. (electric drive unit) 63 hp. (gas engine)
Fuel (capacity): Premium (35L)
Fuel economy ratings (combined): 2.5 L/100km equivalent (EV); 6.4 L/100km.
Observed fuel economy: 2.3 L/100km over 579 km
Warranties: 3 years/ 60,000 km (basic); 5 years/ 160,000 km (powertrain); 8 years/160,000 km (hybrid components)
Competitors: Ford Focus Electric, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius Plug-In
Strengths: economy; electronics, overall range
Weaknesses: rearward visibility, charge time; ultra-low chin spoiler; rear seat headroom.