Volt Gloat
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Test Driving the Chevy Volt

December 29, 2011

Mark D Larsen

My in-laws are somewhat wary of electric vehicles, mainly because of the prolific political propaganda that they are part of a conspiratorial agenda by left-wing liberals. I have never understood that bias, since I would assume that right-wing conservatives would much prefer that we drive on American-made electrons instead of foreign oil, especially since a large percentage of that “drug” comes from the volatile Middle East. For good or evil, however, that erroneous perception persists, with the unfortunate result that my in-laws frown on my commitment that my next car must have a plug on it.

Juice Bar?
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Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised when, over the holidays, Tamara’s father wanted to come with us to Fairfield, CA, to test drive the i (MiEV). He was thus also with us when we spontaneously decided to also stop by the Nissan dealer up the street from Mitsubishi to take what would be my fourth test drive in the Leaf.

He wasn’t that taken with the i, probably more because the dealership had yet to clean and prep the vehicle than because of its performance and features. He was, however, genuinely impressed with the Leaf, and had to concede that it was a great car, so very “normal,” much better than he had imagined. He declined to test drive either vehicle, however, because he just can’t wrap his head around the idea of buying an EV. Like so many consumers, he suffers from “range anxiety,” the speculative fear that the battery will run out of charge and leave him stranded in the middle of the road somewhere. Even still, his interest was piqued, and two days later he wanted to stop by the nearby Chevy dealer in Roseville to test drive a Volt, since it boasts a “backup” gasoline generator to relieve that anxiety.

The sales rep who assisted us was very helpful and knowledgeable. He owned a Volt himself, and couldn’t say enough about how much he loved the car. The dealership had three Volts available: a black one out front, a silver one in the showroom, and a white one that was charging at their Voltec EVSE, show on the right. I was curious about how they had set up that EVSE, since it appeared to merely be hung on a cinderblock wall, and then plugged into a 240V receptacle rather than hard-wired. Either the electrical code in Roseville is very different than in my community, or the city inspector has yet to check out that rather “unconventional” installation.

I have always “shrugged” about the Volt’s exterior styling. It seems so very typical of American cars, so much like any other vehicle from Chevrolet, that I doubt it turns many heads on the street. I liked the way the Volt’s particular highlights were more noticeable on the white model, however, and I was much more impressed to finally see the vehicle’s interior styling, with its bucket seats in the front (below, left) and rear (below, right).

Take a Seat
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Squeeze In
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I must say that the room in the rear was surprisingly tight. One has to practically perform gymnastics to step in and out of the back, there was little leg room, and even less headroom. I am by no means tall, yet my head was nearly touching the top of the hatchback window, which actually extends a bit over the rear seats. I can’t imagine how anyone over 6 feet tall would feel very comfortable back there, especially with the sun beating down through the glass. I did appreciate the nice touch of equipping the battery hump down the middle with a storage bin and cup holders. However, unlike in most rear seats, that obtrusive tunnel doesn’t allow rear passengers to extend their legs to the side to alleviate somewhat their crunched position behind the front seats.

Cockpit Envy
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Those front seats, in contrast, were more than adequate, very comfortable, just what one would expect from a contoured shape designed to hold you securely in place while cornering hard. The leather option in the black and silver models was truly gorgeous. I also really liked the look of its sporty dashboard layout, steering wheel, and central console. Sitting in the driver’s seat conveys the impression of an airplane cockpit, a performance vehicle, the promise of a truly fun ride. On the other hand, simplicity is not the hallmark of the Volt’s controls, with several tiny buttons on the console, all of which have such minuscule lettering and symbols that, given my need for reading glasses, I would have to squint and stare at them for several seconds before I could decipher what I was pushing. That could prove as dangerous as using a cell phone while on the road, but I assume that, with time and experience, an owner would memorize the buttons’ functions and control them blindly by mere touch-and-feel.

The onscreen display was informative, even entertaining, in that it almost had a Nintendo, computer-game look to it. For example, while driving, it displays a bare-bones chassis, seats and body panels removed, with nebulous green electrons flowing from the battery pack to the motor when accelerating, and vice-versa when decelerating to illustrate regenerative braking. Such graphics are eye-catching, although it did occur to me that, after a while one might tire of the animation and simply want to know the current stats at a glance: distance traveled, remaining battery range, MPGe, etc. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to check out all its functions to compare with those in the Leaf, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it is possible to fumble around with the controls on the steering wheel or those tiny console buttons to bring up an alternative display with actual numbers.

My father-in-law got to test drive the vehicle first. Unlike the Leaf, the Volt has a traditional mechanical shifter, although it is positioned farther forward than on most vehicles, actually snuggled up inside the console when in ‘P’ark, as shown in the photo up above. I am sure this felt very familiar to him, not too different than driving their Lexus RX 400. He likely appreciated that, if he were to buy a Volt, the learning curve to operate it would be minimal. I shoehorned myself into the right rear seat to record his turn behind the wheel, and you can watch that video below on the left. I think that you can tell by his comments while driving that he was truly impressed with the Volt. In fact, after the test drive he asked the sales rep all kinds of questions, and expressed that he was indeed interested in buying one, but wanted to bring my mother-in-law to the dealership the next day to also test drive the car.

Wheelin’ and Dealin’
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King of the Road
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After he had driven the inner circle around the auto mall, we switched places and I repeated the same route. He did not want to film me behind the wheel, however, as I think he preferred to concentrate on the car’s features rather than keep his eye on my camera’s viewfinder.

The Volt handled very well, it seemed to feel “peppier” than the Leaf, and its steering was not as “soft.” I tried shifting into its three drive modes, “Normal,” “Sport,” and “Mountain,” but given the limited circuit around the auto mall, I couldn’t adequately put their differences to the test. I did notice, both when in the back and behind the wheel, that it was not as quiet as the Leaf, despite driving at no more than a typical neighborhood speed. There seemed to be a definite, low moan emanating from the rear wheel wells, evidently amplifying the sound of the tires on the pavement. Maybe that was merely the result of the demo’s particular tires, or perhaps the type of asphalt in the auto mall, but my best guess is that the sound was exaggerated because there was not a cargo cover over the hatchback area to help muffle the noise. I would have to take another test drive with its cover in place, and also drive a Leaf with its cover removed, to determine if I am guessing correctly.

When we got back to their house that evening, my father-in-law brought up the possibility of buying a Volt and asked my mother-in-law to go with him to test drive the vehicle the next day. She was dead set against it, because she considers it an “Obamobile,” even though GM actually produced the first prototypes while Bush was still in office. Consequently, when the sales rep called the next day to follow up, he had to tell him that they weren’t interested. I have to admit that I felt bad. As Tamara herself remarked to me afterwards, that was the first time she had ever heard her father say that he really loved a car. Alas... maybe over the next couple of years pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity, and Neil Cavuto will actually take extended test drives in these vehicles and change the tune they sing to conservatives. Otherwise, I fear that right-wingers will remain stubbornly addicted to the Middle East’s “drug.”

My own assessment is that the Volt is, indeed, a great vehicle. It boasts a “fun factor” that I really like. I would venture to say it is more of a sporty vehicle, along the lines of our BMW Z3. The Leaf, in contrast, is more of a practical vehicle, along the lines of our Subaru Outback. To be quite honest, if GM had also produced an alternative pure EV model of the Volt, I would likely opt for it instead of a Leaf. But I do not want a plug-in hybrid. It makes little sense to me to haul a gasoline generator around in the car all day, every day, for 98% of our driving, adding weight, complication, maintenance, and cost to the vehicle, while at the same time reducing its useable EV range and interior space, simply to alleviate the overblown myth of “range anxiety.” On those rare occasions when the average driver needs to take a long distance trip beyond an EV’s typical 100-mile range, it would make more sense to me to either rent an ICE vehicle, or use a range-extender, like this one invented by Leaf owner “Ingineer”. Still, for a single-car household, I will readily concede that the Volt would be an understandable choice.

For our two-car household, I figure that, when I finally take delivery of my Leaf, our Subaru will serve as our occasional range-extender. Besides, the Volt can’t tow a trailer for hauling, camping, or boating. Someday, in the not-too-distant future, there will be four-wheel drive plug-in hybrids capable of also fulfilling that duty, in which case I’ll likely retire the Subaru —and have the best of both worlds.