Chevy Volt 500-mile test drive: it's just unlike any other car

Last month, GM decided that it would be kinda fun to send some journalists from Vermont to Maine in a squad of Chevy Volts. For some reason, they decided that I would be one of those journalists.

They couldn't have known that I've been following the Volt for years, from the introduction of the original, awesome concept to the toned-down production model through all the powertrain and battery controversy to the ultimate commercial release.

So now that you can actually go out and buy a Chevy Volt, should you? It's a unique type of car: not quite gas, and not quite electric. Or maybe it's both. Either way, we'll be taking you through all 500 miles of our impressions, so let's get started.




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Amped Up: Volt Basics

For starters, let's just go through the basics of the Volt. The big deal about this car is that it's a gas-electric hybrid, but unlike just about any other gas-electric hybrid out there right now, you can plug it directly into the wall to recharge it, and it'll give you the first 30-40 miles you drive every day "free,"courtesy of a giant lithium-ion battery hidden underneath the seats. After you run out of battery power, a small four-cylinder engine runs a generator to extend the range of the car for another 300 or 400 miles, and you can always just keep putting more gas into it to keep on going.

I dunno about you, but that sounds pretty compelling to me: hypothetically, you get most of the gas-free advantages of something like a Nissan Leaf or a Tesla Roadster, without the potentially crippling range issues that come with a car that's entirely reliant on batteries.

Hypothetically.

The question, though, is whether or not this works in practice. And that's what we set out to experience for ourselves.




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Welcome to the Volt

It was a dark and stormy morning when we set out from Stowe in Vermont with our 2011 Chevy Volt, which we christened "Volty the Magnificent." Our mission: travel across New England to Acadia, Maine, over the course of three days. Our batteries were full, our spirits were high, and we were ready to beat the lithium-ion stuffing out of this car.

The first thing we did as soon as we turned out of the hotel was to floor the accelerator, and damn. It's not that the car is exceptionally quick (with a zero-to-60 time of nine seconds or so), it's just way, way quicker than we were expecting. It feels like a sports car, except there's no motor noise, no shifting, just torque like a continuous, unrelenting fist to the gut.

The backroads of Vermont and New Hampshire afforded ample opportunities to push the Volt to its limits at speeds that may have been, but most definitely were not (since it's illegal), approaching triple digits, and the car responded effortlessly.




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Quiet… Too Quiet

When I say "effortlessly," I mean that the car is exceptionally smooth and quiet when it's running on batteries. I might even go as far as to say that it was "freakishly" so. This can cause a bit of a problem if you happen to be driving somewhere where speeding isn't allowed, since you simply don't notice how fast you're going. There's no engine noise, the cabin is well insulated, and there's simply no significant difference (or not much of one) in either sound or feel between 55 mph and 75 mph. This makes it very easy to speed.

In most cars, as you accelerate, the engine revs up, but with the Volt in pure electric mode, you really have to pay attention to the speedometer to know how fast you're going. I don't want to imply that there's anything bad about a quiet and smooth ride, it's just one of those quirks that takes a little bit of getting used to.

Driving like maniacs (you know, for science), we burned through the Volt's batteries in under half an hour. They lasted for a respectable 34.2 miles of highly inefficient driving, and we held our breath and listened for the gas engine to take over.

And listened.

According to the info screen, the motor was now charging the batteries to power the car, but without listening very closely, we honestly could not tell. There are several reasons for the Volt's lack of noise: one is the itty bitty engine, two is the excellent job that GM did putting the car together, and three is the fact that the gas motor is completely independent from the actual engine of the car. Let me explain what I mean by that: all the gas motor does is charge the battery, under (almost) no circumstances does it provide power directly to the wheels. This means that to some extent, you can be driving fast or slow or accelerating or braking and the motor doesn't care, it'll just purr along consistently at whatever the most efficient RPM is to charge the battery.




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Revving it Up (Or Not)

This independence from the gas motor makes driving the Volt in extended range mode (with the gas engine running) a bit strange, especially if you have experience with standard (manual) transmissions. Since the gas engine is not directly connected to the electric motor (which is the thing that's actually responding when you press the accelerator), the engine RPMs are not directly proportional to the behavior of the car. Of course, if you're demanding more out of the battery by accelerating, the gas engine will need kick in some additional power to keep up, but this doesn't happen immediately, and it's still just ramping up to a faster (but still fixed) RPM.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: you've run out the battery on the Volt, and the gas engine is charging the battery to give you power to drive. There's a Prius in front of you plodding along at 62 miles an hour and you'd rather be going 75, so you put the hammer down and whip around it.

The gas engine, though, doesn't respond immediately, so even though you're accelerating hard, the sound of the engine and the feel of it through the pedal doesn't change. After a few seconds, the gas engine kicks up to a higher RPM to keep the battery charged, and then stays at that RPM for a bit even after you've blown past the Prius and slowed down again. The same thing happens on hills, or anywhere that you ask the batteries to deliver more power: there's a lag between the power demands of the battery and the power delivery of the engine, so if you're used to hearing and feeling what's going on under your hood while you drive, the Volt is going to take a bit of getting used to.




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Handles Like an Electron

What takes absolutely no getting used to is how well the Volt handles. My car of choice is a 1994 Volvo 940 wagon, so my standards of comparison are all based on that, but I've spent a decent amount of time driving around in significantly more modern cars, and the Volt stacks up very well. It doesn't feel like one of those plastic-y eco-cars, it's solid and confident, and very responsive through corners. The fact that it's got electric motors gives it lightning quick acceleration no matter how fast you're going, and kicking it into "sport mode" (instead of the default "eco mode") helps out too.

I guess to sum up, completely apart from all the techy stuff it's got goin' on, the Volt feels like a real car, and you're not making any compromises to have access to the fancy powertrain and freakishly good gas mileage.




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Eco-Tastic

The Volt may handle like a sports car, but whether or not you decide to drive it like one will have a significant impact on how efficient it is, and how much gas you save. The car helpfully lets you know how much of a gas hog you're being by way of a leafy green circle that appears in a prominent place on the dashboard, right next to the speedometer. Ideally, you want to keep that circle right smack in the middle of a scale that shows how hard you're accelerating and how hard you're braking. The closer that circle stays to the center, the more efficiently you're driving, and if you accelerate too hard, the circle gets less leafy and turns an angry yellow color and starts to weep carbon dioxide tears. Or maybe not tears, but if it could, it would.

It's also possible to brake too hard: the Volt can regenerate energy as it slows down, but if you brake hard enough that the regenerative system starts to panic and the conventional brakes take over, that's all energy wasted.

Since it's the Volt's giant battery that makes all of this pure electric driving and hybrid energy regeneration possible, we wanted to make sure that we could be confident in its longevity. GM covers it with an eight year, 100,000 mile warranty, which is great, but cars nowadays are expected to last longer than that. With this in mind, the Volt is very careful about how it handles its battery.

For example, the battery has a dedicated thermal control system that can heat or cool the battery to keep it happy no matter what the outside temperature is. Also, the battery keeps itself operating within a 65% window, which means that it never allows itself to fully charge or deplete to boost its lifespan. And for what it's worth, GM already has a plan for all the used Volt batteries it'll be ending up with in the next decade or so.




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Buttons, Buttons, and More Buttons

Generally, the driver interface is pretty intuitive. You've got an LCD that replaces all those analog gauges and dashes and lights other archaic things, and there are enough buttons on the steering wheel to keep you from getting bored while driving. There's a second LCD in the center of the dash, which is where the audio and nav system lives. Where the Volt comes up short, though, is in the center panel interface, which has a stupid amount of buttons.

The buttons themselves are really just backlit touch-sensitive spots. The fact that they're not proper buttons is about 75% cool and 50% annoying, but you get used to it. What we didn't like is the sheer number of buttons. I get what the idea is: the more buttons you have, the less time you need to spend scrolling through an interface to do what you want. But not only is this console overkill in that department, the interface itself is not designed as well as it could've been, which compounds the problem.

Like, turning the radio on and off, for example. Should be easy, right? After two and a half days and about 500 miles, we still could not figure out how to turn the XM off without turning the entire display off, so instead we had to just turn the volume all the way down.

Now, we didn't focus on this, and I'm sure we could have gotten it if we'd messed around with it more or read the manual, but I don't feel like such a basic thing should have required us to take that step, you know?

The integrated nav system was decent, but not great. It kind of has a several years ago feel compared to relatively cheap portable GPS units from TomTom or Garmin. The speaker system, from Bose, was excellent. It was powerful, especially on the low end, and at only two thirds of max volume was loud enough to give me a headache in about thirty seconds. Also, the fact that nothing rattled when I turned the bass up as high as I could stand is a testament to the quality of the fit and finish of the car.




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Stylin'

Speaking of fit and finish, the overall design of the Volt is quite striking, both inside and out. It can't hold a candle to the original concept, of course, but for a production car, it's sweet looking. With a sleek profile, distinctive styling (especially in the rear), and an eye-catching black roofline, we noticed more than a few people pointing at the car as we drove past, and it attracted a small crowd on several occasions when we stopped for lunch. Our only criticism was that it seemed over the top in a few places, like with the randomly busy designs on the door panels.




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In Charge with the Volt

It wasn't just the styling that attracted people to the Volt during our lunch breaks, though. While the Volt is not really intended to be recharged every time you stop anywhere, we made it our mission to see how realistic it was to plug the car for an hour here and there whenever we pulled over for food. Generally, people were quite accommodating, and the biggest issue was almost always finding an easily accessible outdoor outlet.

The other issue, which took us a day or two to figure out, was that the Volt sucks down a lot of electricity when it's charging, and if you try to charge two or more Volts on one circuit, you'll probably trip a breaker somewhere and turn the lights off in whatever restaurant has just done you a favor by letting you plug in your car. It's not like this is a huge problem or anything, since the likelihood of two Volts being plugged into one circuit outside of a press event is slim at this stage, but it's still something to be aware of. For the record, the Volt (while charging) sucks down about eight amps.

The actual charging process is a cinch. The Volt comes with a charger that lives in a compartment in the trunk. One end plugs into the car, and the other end (an extension cord, thoughtfully) plugs into the wall. In between is an all-weather module thingy with some lights on it that manages the charge. Or at least, it's supposedly all-weather, but we just kicked it placed it under the front of the car when it started to drizzle. When the car starts charging, a green light goes on on the dash, and GM has an app that'll keep track of the charging status for you on your phone and allow you to schedule charging to take advantage of lower electricity rates. Smart. Also, the car will freak out a little bit if it gets unplugged and the key isn't around, to make sure that nobody monkeys with it.

Charging from a 110 volt outlet, which is what you have almost everywhere in your house and what you're almost certainly likely to find if you charge on the road somewhere, you'll get about a mile of range for every 15 minutes you leave the Volt plugged in. That's an extra four miles per hour of charge, which isn't much, and a full charge takes 10 to 12 hours (or only 3 hours from a 220 volt outlet like your dryer runs off of). For our road trip, it turned out to be not really worth it (from a technical perspective) to try and find outlets everywhere that we stopped, except that it's a cool thing to be able to do, it was fun to talk to people about doing it, and free miles are still free miles.




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Is the Volt For You?

In a lot of ways, this really summarizes the whole experience of the Chevy Volt. If you're into the whole renewable energy, eco-friendly, high-techitude that the car represents, there are a lot of opportunities to squeeze "free" mileage out of it by driving efficiently and taking every chance you can to plug the car in. But if you don't care about that, that's cool too. Simply put, you just don't have to worry, since you can always just go and put gas in the car, just like any other car. There is no range anxiety.

Over our three days worth of driving, we got between 30 and 40 miles per charge, which (for most people) is about what you'll probably drive commuting or running errands or whatever. Our total range, however, including a full charge and nine gallons of gas, was nearly 400 miles. This works out a respectable 45 miles per gallon or so, and a solid five or six hours of driving at a stretch. And I hate to keep belaboring this point, but if your range gets low, you can just find a gas station and fill up.

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So here's the big question: should you buy a Volt? Short answer: yes. But you probably want a slightly longer answer than that. If you're in the market for a car like the Volt (a plug-in gas hybrid), your only realistically comparable option is the new plug-in version of the Toyota Prius. So let's compare them:

  • The plug-in Prius starts at just under $33,000 before incentives, while the 2012 Volt will be just over $39,000. However, the Prius only qualifies for $2,500 worth of government eco-happy incentives, while the Volt gets a full $7,500. That puts the Volt at about $31,500 and the Prius at about $30,500, so you can stop worrying about price.
  • The Volt has an all-electric range of about 35 miles. The Prius runs out of juice at 14 miles.
  • In battery mode, the Prius has a maximum speed of 62 mph. The Volt has a maximum battery-mode speed of 100 mph, to which I would personally attest, were it not illegal.
  • The Prius gets about 50 miles per gallon in hybrid mode, while the Volt gets between 35 and 40 miles per gallon. Victory Prius!
  • The Prius also wins on capacity: because of the size of the battery pack, the Volt only sits two people in the back seat.
  • The Volt weighs more. I mention this because having driven the Volt and a regular Prius, the Volt feels like a serious car, while the Prius just feels a little more, I dunno, eco-y. In my biased opinion, the Volt also handles better and is more fun to drive overall.
  • The Volt makes it from 0-60 in about 9 seconds; the Prius lags behind at just under 11.
  • C'mon, the Volt looks way more awesome.
  • And last but not least, the plug-in Prius will be available second quarter 2012. The Volt is available right now.

To summarize, the Volt and the plug-in Prius cost about the same, but with the Volt, you're getting what in our opinion is a substantially better car. It's got more battery life, it's faster, it's more powerful, it's better looking, and it's much more fun to drive.

But you know what? Forget the Prius. Part of the point of the Volt is that it's not just some kind of eco-car, its a car. It's a car that happens to have all kinds of awesome technology inside that can save you a lot of money and the environment a lot of grief, but it's got the feel and performance of any other compact car. If you want an eco-car, great, the Volt should be at the top of your list. But if you just want a car, the Volt should be on your list too, because you don't have to be an eco-geek to love the Volt.

We went into this test drive expecting the Volt to be a fairly decent attempt at a new generation of hybrid car. GM, though, was clearly not satisfied with "fairly decent." They've done a very good job with the Volt. A surprisingly good job, to be honest, for such an innovative new platform. And the thing is, the Volt didn't turn out as some weird experiment that you need to be obsessed with green technology to appreciate. If you can afford to give it a try, you can have yourself an eco-friendly, comfortable, and fun car that almost never needs gas but can still take you everywhere you want to go.

Welcome to the future.

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Via Chevy Volt

All photos taken by Evan Ackerman for DVICE. Thanks to GM, who provided us with a Volt for three fantastic days in New England, and to Olympus, who lent us one of their slick little PEN cameras to mess around with for this review.

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