Tribune Print Share Text

Can a green car go the distance?

An owner’s account of the Chevy Volt

Created date

February 21st, 2012

Back in December of 2006, I fell in love. The object of my affection was big, brawny, and distinguished; a real head-turner named Mercedes. The fact that my GL 450 got just 14.6 miles to the gallon didn t even phase me because, back then, gas cost about $2.20 a gallon. As gas prices climbed upward, however, the relationship grew strained. At $3 a gallon I considered the possibility that I had chosen unwisely. When the transmission died prematurely, it was time to break it off. I sold the gas-guzzler. Free from the suffocating financial and environmental drain, I turned my attention to a new vehicle. I wanted something light and efficient. I wanted something that didn t put me on a first-name basis with the guy who owns the filling station around the corner. I wanted an EV (electric vehicle), which is how I ended up with the Chevy Volt.

The Volt

The Volt is Chevrolet s entry into the green market, the result of many millions of dollars of research and development. Introduced in 2011, it arrived in showrooms with a great deal of fanfare.Motor Trend Magazine, Automobile Magazine, andMotorWeekall named the Volt 2011 Car of the Year. Hailed as the green car of the future, the Volt travels between 30 and 35 miles on battery power alone. After that, the car runs off of gasoline, making the vehicle s range limitless. This flexibility was an important feature for me. With family that live a few hundred miles away, I needed a vehicle that could go the distance without requiring a charge. Slide into the comfortable interior and you ll feel like you are driving a computer. There s not a mechanical gauge to be found. Rather, the instrument panel is an attractive and easy-to-read, blue-and-green computer screen. There s also a touch screen in the center of the dash surrounded by a hard plastic touch-sensitive command center to adjust the sound system, the climate control, or even make a phone call through the car.

Getting charged up

Charging the battery from a standard 120-volt outlet takes about eight hours. Fast chargers that work twice as fast are available but need to be installed by an electrician because they require a dedicated 240-volt line. The Volt can be fueled entirely by battery power or in combination with gasoline; it just depends on how far you drive. For example, Chevrolet gave Jay Leno a Volt to drive for the year. He had a charger at work and at home so he never had to fill up his nine-gallon tank. I, on the other hand, use the car enough that I rely on both the battery and the gas tank almost daily. I anticipated a certain amount of getting used to driving the Volt, but, in fact, the car has been a delight. I have a garage so charging the battery has been easy, but apartment dwellers might have difficulty. Only once did I forget to plug the car in and as I pulled out of my driveway the next morning, I silently thanked the folks at Chevy for anticipating my absentmindedness and designing the Volt as a hybrid.

How s the ride?

When the car is relying on battery power, the ride is extremely smooth and quiet. In fact, it s so quiet that they even included a special chirpy horn to gently alert pedestrians who may not hear the car approaching. I ve used that a few times. Between the ever-present cell phone in the ear of city pedestrians and the Volt s stealthy sound, that chirp can literally be a lifesaver. When the car switches from battery power to gas, there is a noticeable rumble as the Volt begins to feel and drive like just about every other car on the road. While it is similarly peppy and responsive in either mode, the battery-powered ride is so uniquely fluid, the switchover never fails to make me wish the battery would last just long enough to get me where I m going. How far the car actually goes on battery power depends on a number of factors, the biggest of which is the outdoor temperature. The cold impacts the battery s range, as does using the heater. When blessed with a few days of unseasonably warm weather in January, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself exceeding the 35-mile range of the battery.

A new love

While it s a lot smaller than my Mercedes SUV, the four-seat Volt is comfortable with a roomy cargo area in the back. The ongoing mileage calculator estimates that I m getting 85.4 miles per gallon. I ve only spent about $115 on (premium) gas in the last six weeks. With the Mercedes, I would have spent about $540. Of course, I m also using electricity, but each 35-mile charge costs less than $1.50. Given the economics, I can honestly say, I haven t missed my old gas-guzzler one bit. The Volt has won my heart and apparently, I am not alone. According toConsumer Reports, Volt owners rated it number one in customer satisfaction with 93% saying they would buy the vehicle again. Volt owners experience notwithstanding, the car has come under intense scrutiny in recent months. One of the vehicles caught on fire after being crash-tested. There s also the issue of the relatively high sticker price of around $39,155. And finally, the tax rebates available to Volt owners have drawn the ire of some. Check back with theErickson Tribunenext month as I discuss those issues and the practicality of owning an EV in a gas-driven society.