Road Test: 2012 Chevy Volt

Driving the Chevy Volt is going to require a significant change in my life.

I’m going to have to remember to plug it in.

2012 Chevrolet Volt

I know that sounds like a simple concept, but it requires a certain amount of discipline. Don’t get me wrong, I’m confident I can do it. After all, I figured out how to plug-in my phone every night so that it doesn’t die in the middle of the day. On the other hand, when my wife leaves town, the plants hover near death from lack of hydration.

The point is that driving the Volt requires a little more effort than a regular car. The first few days I had the Volt, I dutifully plugged in the special charger each night. (Plugging it into a 110 outlet will charge the Volt in five hours, 220 will take about half that time.) But by the end of the week, it was just another task. Sure enough, one evening I dragged myself and a load of groceries into the house leaving the Volt waiting for juice. It never came. The next morning I walked out and instantly remembered what I hadn’t done.

Should say Volt + Gas

The good news with the Volt is that forgetting to plug it in is not a crisis. It just means you’re not going to use the electrical system that you paid so much extra for. You see, the Volt has both batteries and a gas engine. But it has two big differences from other hybrids. The first is that instead of weaving back and forth between gas and electric power, it uses all the electricity stored in its batteries before switching over. Each morning (that I remembered to plug it in) the Volt’s display told me I had enough charge for about 30-35 miles. Of course, electric cars are no different from gas in the “your mileage may vary” department. Drive surface streets with braking and coasting, and you’ll likely go the full distance (assuming you’re not zapping the throttle from each stop). That’s because the regenerative system creates electricity as you slow down. If you blast along the highway, you’ll probably get a little less because there aren’t as many chances to generate more.

Chevy Volt Power Display

Of course, running out is not a crisis. The car seamlessly shifts over to gas power. This is where the second big difference comes in. The gasoline engine in most hybrids drives the wheels. The Volt’s gasoline engine is little more than a generator creating electricity for the motor. I hit the switchover point nearly every day, and never noticed a difference.  The gas tank isn’t just for emergencies. You can travel about 300 miles before you need to fill up with more antiquated petroleum-based fossil fuel.

Now if you’re one of those people who commute only a few miles a day, you may never switch over. Of course that creates a whole new problem: your gas may go bad. But wait, Chevy has a plan. You get a little warning telling you that it’s time to sip a little 87 octane.

Chevy Volt

I guess I should talk about the car. The bottom line is that it does everything a car is supposed to do. It’s not huge (after all it’s a compact based on the Chevy Cruze). On the other hand, it wasn’t cramped. My Prius-owning friends who went for a ride didn’t feel that the back seat had as much leg-room as their car, although the contoured seats were very comfortable.  The instrument console is unique because it doesn’t have the usual buttons that click when you use them. You simply touch the hard plastic and it senses your finger has hit the spot. It’s no different from the touch screen of a smart phone, but it does take a little getting used to.

It's all about the power

The Volt has enough power to get you where you’re going without getting carried away. But then, that’s what this car is all about. For people with an average commute, it will get you there and back every day with only the rare stop for gas when they want to visit grandma on the other side of town or take a weekend jaunt into the county. In fact, there’s no way to really give an adequate MPG rating. Some people will only rarely use the gas in the tank, while other folks may dip into it every day.

OK, let’s talk about the downsides. The biggest thing the Volt has to overcome is its price. The base sticker is nearly $40,000. My test model came in at $43,000 (with audio/nav option and leather trim package). Most people will get a $7,500 tax credit from the feds. Still, $32,500 is a lot of money to spend for an economy car. This is where you have to sit down and do the math. You need to figure out how much money you spend on gas and how long it will take to recoup the extra you spent for the Volt. (Of course, if the price of gas keeps creeping up, the math will look better.) And if you work somewhere where you can plug it in between commutes, the deal gets even better.

And then there are those pesky battery fires. A few Volts have had their battery packs flame up. Chevy is convinced that those fires were aberrations and that the Volt is perfectly safe. Still, there are some folks who are going to avoid the car just in case.

And there’s one other minor concern. People who park their car in a garage every night will simply plug-in, close the door and call it a day. But for those who park outside, there’s always going to be the concern that some thief in the night will steal the charging unit (which is a lot more expensive than an extension cord). Urban dwellers who park on a street are not only going to have a hard time finding a handy outlet, they’ll also run the risk of stringing the cord across the sidewalk.

The reality is that the Volt is not for everyone. But it’s a perfect answer for some people. You just have to figure out if you’re one of them.



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