A Volt from the Blue

A trial run with the Chevy Volt leaves this HOV-oriented consumer considering its benefits against the competition.

A funny thing happened as I entered my first week of waiting for my new electric car. One of my partners, who drives a Chevy Volt, was preparing to leave town for an extended vacation and asked if I’d like to drive his car when he was away. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity, if for no other reason than to get acquainted with this intriguing new product, even if it doesn’t qualify for the magical California white clean-air decal (see my previous post.)

GM’s advertising for the Volt includes a couple of interesting tag lines. The first is, “It’s more car than electric.” The second says, “It plugs in anywhere and goes everywhere.” That second line is pretty subtle, but it captures the convenience designed into this otherwise unconventional vehicle. Now that I’ve had it in my hands for three days, I’m struck at how monumentally understated that line really is.

Unlike the fully electric Nissan Leaf, the Volt’s battery-powered electric drive system is engineered to deliver a typical American’s daily round-trip commute (less than 40 miles) on a single charge. The premise is simple: You charge up overnight, drive to work and back, and repeat. Go beyond that, and the power source changes. The Leaf has a range of between 65 and 90 miles (or so) on a full charge, depending on one’s driving habits, then it’s simply dead in the water. Because the Volt is designed with a lesser range, it also takes less time to charge.

On Saturday morning, we left for our local farmers’ market on a full charge, and got home with about a third of the capacity left. We knew we had another event that evening, so we plugged the car in and went about our regular Saturday chores and relaxation. When it came time to leave for our soiree, the Volt was fully charged and ready to go again. The excursion to the market was about 22 miles round trip (virtually the same as my commute), and the charging time between trips about seven and a half hours. Slick.

(For convenience, I had left the transformer/extension cord at home in the garage, but after we parked at our friends’ house, I thought to myself, “I’ll bet if I asked them, they’d let me juice up my car while we’re sitting here.” Most homes have an exterior power socket—it would have been simple. And I’m sure they wouldn’t even have noticed the blip on their energy bill. Lesson learned—I’m not going to leave the cord at home any more and miss the opportunity to freeload “fuel” off friends and family.)

This simplicity may be one of the absolute coolest things about the Volt. Remember the “plugs in anywhere and goes everywhere” line? I’m certain now it refers to the ability to charge from a regular 110 household socket without any more special equipment than the cord that comes with the car. “Anywhere” in this case might be the aforementioned friend’s house, the office, a job site, or even the random parking structure. I admit I found myself scanning the walls of a structure we parked in Friday evening to see if there were any unsecured outlets.

Friday evening, you see, we had started a journey with very little charge left. I wanted to see how simple the transition was from traveling on pure battery to using the electric power as it was continuously produced by the gasoline-powered generator. What a trip. I had been watching the gauges, hoping to catch the changeover, and I didn’t even notice until it had occurred; the little symbol on the instrument panel allows the battery icon to swap places with the gas pump icon. That’s it—it is perfectly seamless. This is the “goes everywhere” part of the marketing line. There’s no such thing as range anxiety with the Volt. You use electric power only for most routine commutes and stuff like the farmers’ market and church on Sunday, and only rarely rely on the gas generator, which exists to re-charge the battery in motion and continue to use the electric motor for propulsion.

Avoiding the switch-over to use of the gas generator takes a bit of planning, but even in my extremely brief experience with the car, it becomes something of a sport. Our goal becomes to never run out of a charge—how cool would that be? And even if we do, it’s only on a rare occasion, and the blended “mileage” of the car over this kind of use is spectacular. The vehicle I’m driving has about 5,000 miles on it and has a lifetime average mpg of over 130.

So why doesn’t this ride qualify for a white decal that would allow me access to the car pool lane? I suppose it’s because it does use evil gasoline on extended journeys (which would be necessary for me if I were to drive it to L.A. and back), but if the rest of my commuting behavior was in line with what I described above, it would still be a pretty decent environmental bargain.

This week I will see what’s it’s like to drive the Volt outside the car-pool lane. My local commute won’t really increase by that much time. L.A. trips, though, will still be in the Prius while the blessed access to HOV heaven lingers. Could I be persuaded to choose a Volt instead of the Leaf, and play Russian roulette with my car pool needs? Hmmm. …

Nissan, are you listening?