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November 08, 2011

My Week Driving the Chevy Volt: Part 1

Chevy Volt

My week-long test-drive of the Chevy Volt began last Friday when I drove to the Cambridge, MA premiere of the film Revenge of the Electric Car where Rep. Mike Capuano, journalist Jim Motavalli, MIT's Jarrod Goentzel, and I did a post-film Q-and-A with the audience.  A Nissan Leaf driver (who purchased his car in California last spring because he didn't want to wait for it to go on sale several months later in Massachusetts) and I then had the chance to show off the Leaf and the Volt to dozens of movie-goers in the parking lot. People were excited to see what was under the hood of these real-life vehicles that Massachusetts customers will finally be able to drive off dealer lots in a few months (waiting lists have recently opened).

PhotoSierra Club's Gina Coplon-Newfield and Rep. Mike Capuano in front of a Volt.

Though many people refer to the Volt as a plug-in hybrid, GM describes it as an extended range electric vehicle. This means that the lithium-ion battery allows you to drive gas-free for about 35 miles (though I've noticed that the cold weather has made that a little lower for me). There is also an onboard gas generator that produces electricity, enabling you to drive 375 additional miles on a full tank of gas. GM says, "A little like the Prius, the engine helps spin the wheels after the battery is depleted. GM engineers chose to do this because it improved efficiency by 10 to 15 percent."

Driving the Volt around town has led to interesting conversations with neighbors, friends, family members, and total strangers eager to hear about this 2011 North American Car of the Year winner. Even my typically cynical husband has enjoyed showing off the vehicle and answering questions about its five-star safety rating, its smooth ride (compared to our jerkier traditional vehicle), and its ability to play through its stereo system any of the thousands of songs from our iPhones. One of our daughters likes the fact that Radio Disney will tell her the name of the "artist" playing (yes, I meant to put "artist"in quotes).

"It feels like a normal car aside from the fact that it's entirely quiet and has lots of fancy gadgetry," said my husband Daniel, a school administrator. "The technical hurdles feel largely covered, so it doesn't take long to realize when you’re driving this car that electric is the future for vehicles."

Intrigued by the what I didn't know about the "fancy gadgetry," I did some digging and learned that you can download an app for your smart phone that allows you to program when you want to charge your Volt (late night/early morning “off-peak” charging is more efficient for the grid and may be less expensive for you), to lock your car if you realize you forgot to do so when you left it, and to check your state of charge.

The Volt trains its owners on how to drive more efficiently in order to save on battery charge, emissions, and money. It has a little green ball on the dashboard that turns yellow if you drive too fast or break too quickly. For added efficiency, it also recommends that you drive in "L" mode when in stop-and-go traffic (the only kind of traffic in Cambridge, MA). I appreciate this instruction, and I wonder why all cars don't provide this kind of consumer-friendly feedback.

One drawback we've noticed for our family is the size of the trunk. It does seem big enough for many people, but it is likely too small for the suitcases and stroller we'd need to pack for family weekends away.

While Nissan has sold about 8,000 all-electric Leafs so far this year, GM has sold about 5,000 Volts. The company just announced, however, that it will increase production and make dealership demo cars available for purchase, which may well help GM reach its goal of selling 10,000 Volts by the end of 2011. Next year, GM plans to sell 45,000 Volts in the U.S.

Of the many driver and reporter reviews out there about the Volt and other electric vehicles, I was glad to come across this article and video that shows one man's interesting explanation about how much money he is saving in fueling his Volt and using his solar panels.

GM reported in July of this year that of the more than 2 million miles driven by Volt customers thus far, 66 percent of those miles were all-electric, oil-free miles.  That is a lot of gasoline not purchased and pollution not emitted. Of course we know that there are emissions associated with the electricity used to charge any electric vehicle, but those emissions are significantly lower than those from traditional vehicles.

Some people have asked about the average fuel economy of the Volt when it's in gas-mode. The answer is a combined highway/city 32 miles per gallon according to Consumer Reports or 37 miles per gallon according to the EPA (higher than most gas-powered vehicles on the road today but certainly lower than many hybrids and some newer traditional gas car models). GM says that any gasoline purchased must be premium.

Our goal this week is to drive in electric mode only. This will not be difficult, given that my husband and I typically drive our one car between zero and ten miles on any given day. Some weekends we drive out to the Berkshires or New York to visit family, so it is comforting to know that if we owned this Volt, we could drive there without "range anxiety."

What I find most exciting and a bit daunting about driving an electric vehicle is that it is forcing me to consider a) the devastating oils spills, oil extraction, and tailpipe emissions to which we are not contributing; b) the reduced power of the oil industry over our politicians and policies that a country filled with EV drivers could lead to in the future; c) the surely sobering comparison of my family’s EV emissions versus our ICE emissions; and d) how we could reduce those emissions in a number of ways (a real switch to an EV, better electricity programs, solar power on the roof, even less driving than we already do, etc).

Tune in for Part 2 coming soon when I will make some of these important calculations.

(Top image via GM.)

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield, Sierra Club’s Senior Campaign Representative for Electric Vehicles

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