Is an electric car a vehicle that you could live with? We’ve seen the pictures and read the reviews of cars like the 2013 Chevy Volt, but how do we know what it’s really like to live with one? To find out if it’s worth it, do we have to buy one, only to discover that it’s not for us — too geeky, too much trouble, or worse? That’s why I’m here to help. I put one in my garage for a week, drove it through a few charging cycles, got to know its myriad controls — and I have some answers for you.
When GM brought a lovely burgundy Chevy Volt to my driveway, I was ready to dive into the electric car (or technically, the range-extended electric car) experience. So was my wife, who’s much less interested in technology and futuristic cars than I am, but always up for a novel experience. That would make her the ideal test subject, the canary in the coal mine who would let me know if something got too techie or impractical with this unusual conveyance that graced our garage.
So there we sat, inside a fully charged Chevy Volt, ready for a week of in-depth test driving and charging. What was my first impression? If you’re a golfer, you’ll recognize the way it feels when you put the pedal to the metal. I felt the same way about the Volt’s snappy acceleration that I did the first time I drove one two years ago. I recall the GM demonstrators repeatedly using one word to describe: torque. I would use a different word: exhilaration. You push your foot on the “gas,” and the car immediately bounds forward, silently and smoothly with nary a sound but rubber meeting the road and wind rushing past its aerodynamic outline. Placing it in “sport mode,” the acceleration was even more pronounced, taking us right into the edge of the thrill zone.
I was surprised when my wife faulted this sudden rush of acceleration, decrying how she was suddenly driving way too fast, unable to tell by ear how fast she was going. Before she was even aware of it, she was breezing through our suburb at a cop-attracting 40mph. Even though she thought this easy, quiet speed was a bad thing, I thought it was wonderful. The car was quiet as a church mouse, with no revving or engine noise whatsoever.
Overcoming “Range Fear”
We drove and drove. After we’d gone just shy of 34 miles, we had depleted the battery’s full charge. This is where the love for electric vehicles ceases for those who don’t have what GM calls the Volt’s “extended range mode.” With a subtle noise, the Volt’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine kicked in, acting as a generator to provide electricity to that electric power plant. That’s why it’s called a “range-extended electric car.” I noticed at the same time that if I really got aggressive with the throttle, the gasoline engine would rev up, to keep up with my greedy ministrations. So yes, the gasoline engine serves primarily as a generator, but also drives the wheels a bit when you really need it.
My wife objected to this switchover from electricity to gasoline, mostly on a philosophical basis. “How on earth,” she asked, “is an electric car useful when it’s not electric?” She wondered if we could just drive the car without ever plugging it into our garage’s electrical outlet. Of course we could, I told her, but then we wouldn’t be getting that spectacular “gas” mileage when in pure electric mode, well over a figurative hundred miles per “gallon,” that we could brag about. It’s great to have that extended range mode when you’ve run out of electrical power, but it would be even better if the Volt had longer range in electric mode.
After a few days, it started to make sense. We began to notice that almost all our trips were within the range of driving all-electric. A run to the market, a visit to a friend, hanging out at our favorite local restaurant — none of those things are very far away, and they’re perfectly suited to the electric range of the Chevy Volt. Even when we went to a concert in a city nearby, we only used gasoline for about 15 miles of the trip. Hey, we could get used to this. That gas engine/generator solves that problem of “range fear,” still letting you drive 300 to 400 miles on a tank of gas.
So how was the fuel efficiency? In a word, phenomenal — that is, if you don’t go beyond the car’s electric range. In fact, we drove 175.1 miles and used just 1.6 gallons of gas. That resulted in an eye-popping 105.6mpg, according to the Volt’s dashboard readings you see in the photo above. However, most of our trips were short, letting us use the electric motor most of the time, plugging it in every time we arrived at home.
But the numbers aren’t as impressive if you drive beyond the Volt’s electric range, which at its best was about 37 miles for us. If you regularly drive farther than that, your numbers will be more like 65mpg, the mileage our Volt has achieved over its entire life — combining electric and range-extended modes a lot more than we did in our testing. Either way, the car’s fuel efficiency is fantastic. See the image gallery below for a more detailed view of the Volt’s mileage we experienced.
Like Science Fiction
Although I couldn’t get my wife too excited about the technology inside the Volt, I was impressed. For instance, contacting your car using an app on an iPhone feels like science fiction to me. Telling the car to wait until late at night to charge itself (when electricity rates are the cheapest) feels like science fiction to me. Pushing a button on my iPhone to start the car and have it all warmed up for us by the time we get in feels like science fiction to me. Finding an address on my computer and then sending it to the car’s GPS navigation system felt like science fiction to me. All these put together added up to a noticeable enhancement in our quality of life. I liked that.
On the other hand, the complexity of a car like this is not to be taken lightly, especially if you’re not a geek. It can even trip up the nerdiest of us. For example, we both had a moment of frustration when we had entered a route in the GPS system, and then couldn’t for the life of us figure out how to cancel that route. Driving on a busy freeway, the robotic voice kept telling us to “make a legal U-turn.” But not until we had arrived back at home and I had dived into the owner’s manual did I figure out there was a physical button on the center console that allows you to “cancel guidance,” unlike every other GPS system I’ve ever used which plainly offers that choice on the touchscreen.
Speak to Me
After a few days, we got used to the constellation of buttons on that center console, which, by the way, is grossly overpopulated. Would the solution to that problem be speech recognition? My answer to that is, “Hell, no.”
I use speech recognition every day, leaning on Dragon NaturallySpeaking to supplant my decidedly inept typing skills. NaturallySpeaking is a techno-friend of mine. This, my friends, is no NaturallySpeaking — even though it is powered by the same company, Nuance. Its total inability to recognize a single thing I said resulted in shrieks of laughter from my wife, as the incorrect assessments of what I just said were pinned solidly at 100%. If you’re thinking you’re going to talk to your car like you’re in a science fiction movie, that’s not going to happen with the Chevy Volt, at least not yet. Its speech recognition is beyond lame — it’s a non-starter.
The attempt at speech recognition is a valiant effort toward reducing driver distractions, though. And GM’s effort at minimizing distractions while maximizing driver comfort and awareness is better than most other car companies making an effort toward in-car “infotainment.” On the other hand, if you haven’t learned where all the switches, knobs and buttons are — most of them necessary to the successful operation of this vehicle — you’re going to be a distracted driver for at least the first week.
Beyond its electric motor, the Chevy Volt feels like a high-end car. Its serious quietude, smooth ride, comfortable heated seats, generous cargo space, remote starting and nimble handling all make it seem like a great value. That is, until you see that its price tag. When loaded with options this car can total $43,020. But wait. Americans get a $7,500 tax credit from the U.S. government for buying a Volt, but even then, it’s going to cost $35,520.
Do the Math
Add it up: The 2013 Chevy Cruze — which is basically a Volt without the electricity — costs $25,140 comparably equipped to our Volt test car. Comparing its 33mpg EPA mileage to 65mpg with the Volt, it’s going to take a long time to recover the extra cost of the Volt at current fuel prices of about $3.30/gallon. Gas for the Cruze would cost you around $1,200 per year (driving 12,000 miles), and the gas/electricity equivalent for the Volt would cost about half that, around $609 per year. You’d have to drive the Volt for more than 17 years to make up that $10,380 price difference. You’re going to have to be committed to energy independence and the idea of an electric car to make this worth it. But get this: If you only drive short distances using the electric motor like we did, it could take you less than 10 years to save that extra $10K.
Which brings up the principal question: Would it be it worth it for me? Yes. I love the high-tech coolness of this futuristic vehicle. I’m wild about that spectacular torque, where the strong acceleration feels like it has no business propelling a car that’s hardly making any noise at all. And, since I don’t take many long car trips, that astonishing fuel efficiency while using only the electric motor is certainly appealing. On the other hand, the Chevy Volt’s technology is now more than three years old, and it’s starting to feel like it needs an upgrade. That feeling was underscored when I saw the newest tech inside GM’s Spark — it’s more advanced than that of the Volt.
Is it worth it for a non-geek, someone like my wife who doesn’t care a whit about technology? She and I both are deeply concerned about environmental issues, so as far as that’s concerned, she gives it a big thumbs-up. But she’s the practical sort, and doesn’t think it’s anywhere close to being worth $35,520, much less its steep $43,020 price without the tax credit. For her, the price of all those batteries is going to have to come down a lot for this equation to make any sense. And even when your fuel mileage is in excess of 100mpg as ours was over a week of all-electric and very little gasoline-assisted driving, the numbers still don’t quite add up unless the price of gasoline rises significantly.
The problem is, it doesn’t look like the price of such vehicles is going to be coming down for a while. I understand GM is already losing money on each Chevy Volt it sells, and that $7500 government handout for energy-efficient vehicles might not last forever, either. Still, this idea of an electric car with an extended range gasoline generator/engine is a sustainable proposition, if that price can be whittled down significantly.
The Chevy Volt is a delight to drive, and a lot of thought has been put into its design. Its tech is now more than three years old, and I think it’s due for an update. Even so, the Volt feels like a car from a science-fiction movie. If you drive only short distances and plug it in after every trip, its fuel efficiency is remarkable, exceeding 100mpg. If its cost could be somehow lowered by $10,000, I think the marketplace would welcome it with open arms. For an early-adopting gadget-freak environmentalist radical like me, it’s worth it now, though. But for the practical sort who doesn’t care about tech or climate change and has a long commute, no, it’s not worth it at these prices.