Next month, General Motors Co. will begin selling its electric car, the Chevrolet Volt. It’s costly for a midsize vehicle -- $41,000 -- and only about 10,000 will be produced next year.
So, is GM serious about the Volt? Should we even care?
The answers are yes and a resounding yes.
This unassuming four-passenger car speaks both to the future of the automobile and to whether U.S.-made cars still matter. It’s revolutionary and clever, and it drives really well. It’s made in Michigan. I’m still kind of in shock.
Here are the nuts, bolts and batteries. The Volt runs on electric motors powered by a 435-pound lithium-ion battery pack. That battery power will propel you some 25 to 50 miles down the road and to a top speed of 100 miles per hour.
When the charge is depleted, a small gasoline engine kicks in, turning generators which power the electric drive system. Just like any 21st-century car, the only range limits are gas money and rest stops.
The Volt delivers on its promise of the best of both worlds -- electric power with no tailpipe emissions while driving short distances, and the ability to motor cross-country when the need (or urge) arises.
Unlike the Nissan Leaf, which is also being released in December, the Volt isn’t a pure electric car. The inclusion of a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and 9.3-gallon tank means that it is a hybrid, though the gas engine is not used to primarily drive the wheels, unlike a Prius. The electric system is key to its movement. Chevy calls it an extended-range electric vehicle.
I call it semantics. Until we get an infrastructure of quick-charge stations, pure electric cars will be severely hindered. It’s no fun to constantly keep an eye on the range indicator, terrified that a sudden drop could mean getting stranded. All kinds of stuff affect range, from temperatures below 60 to blasting up a hill.
A Volt owner could recharge every night, and not use a gallon of gas for months. (Gasoline does get old, so the engine will eventually turn on to cycle out the tank.) Alternatively, you could never plug it in and get along fine, though that would be asinine.
On gasoline alone, the Volt gets mpg in the mid-30s. But with a full charge you’ll get many miles on electric power, so figuring out exact mpg involves fuzzy math.
Those two figures have to be mixed in a way that becomes meaningful. Remember GM’s oddball early claims of 230 mpg? The Environmental Protection Agency is currently wrestling with its definition, but expect the numbers to be conservative.
$1 a Day
The short answer is the more often you recharge, the better mileage you’ll see. If you run only on electric power and recharge on off-peak rates, you’ll probably spend somewhere between $1 and $1.50 a day. GM is selling a 240-volt in-home unit for $490 that recharges the car in four hours.
Frugality and fancy new technology don’t necessarily make a good car. I’ll be honest: My expectations were low.
After 200 miles of all kinds of driving, I wanted to hug an engineer. The Volt not only drives like a real, grown-up car, it’s actually lively and fun.
Power is the same whether you’ve got a full charge or are running on gas, with off-the-line starts that have a sense of purpose and enough oomph to pass slower traffic.
The steering wheel is a well-calibrated instrument with a nice solid weight in your hand. I just wish it gave more feedback about the surface of the road.
The 17-inch Goodyear tires are specially designed to lend low rolling resistance, which increases mileage, yet they also hold surprisingly well onto the asphalt. I tackled narrow, rolling roads in the rain, and never lost confidence in grip or safety.
My major complaint was brake feel. The brakes recapture energy, but the blend between regenerative and friction modes needs work. The change is abrupt.
The Chevy even gets a sport setting, making the car peppier. GM claims the car will go up to 100 mph, which I can personally verify. No shimmies or shakes -- the only surprise is how oddly quiet it is at highway speeds.
Range of all-electric driving certainly does vary. At first I drove like a granny on Percocet, incensing drivers behind me. I got 49 miles from the batteries. After a full recharge, I set off in my normal, all-systems-go style and managed only 34.
The biggest problem most consumers will have is the price. While the interior is acceptable, with a high-tech-looking center console, good screen graphics and okay seats front and back, this is no luxury car.
Even with the $7,500 Federal tax break, a $41,000 sticker is a lot. The three-year, $350-a-month lease option, with $2,500 down, is probably the way to go.
Designing a car like this wasn’t cheap, and GM won’t be making money on the Volt for quite some time. Yet it proves that the art of making a new and important car hasn’t passed the U.S. by after all. The Volt matters.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt at a Glance
Drive system: Electric drive unit with 111-kW (149 horsepower), 1.4-liter four-cylinder motor, and a 16-kW lithium-ion battery pack.
Speed: 0 to 60 in 8.8 seconds.
Range: 300-plus miles.
Price as tested: $42,990.
Best features: Electric driving with no range impediments; handles well.
Worst features: Brake feel; ingress into back seat is difficult.
Target buyer: The eco-minded commuter who doesn’t want to compromise driving freedom.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)