Volt's Wild Ride: A Long Drive In Chevy's Electric Vehicle

I had the rare pleasure of driving a brand new Chevy Volt up the Eastern seaboard yesterday, a four hour trip from DC to New York in the driving rain of a dying nor’easter. Organized by beleaguered carmaker GM, the drive was an attempt to reach out to tech geeks and bloggers to drive what amounts to the most high-tech car I’ve ever driven. According to a GM spokesperson, the car’s programming alone is more complex than the code in a F16 fighter jet.

How was the ride? Well, first let’s talk a little about the car.

The Chevy Volt is an all-electric vehicle with an M. Night Shyamalan twist. The car contains a huge, T-shaped battery that recharges in 10-12 hours, depending on the voltage, and a small 1.4L 80hp internal combustion engine – sorry, generator – that powers the car and charges the battery when you deplete the original charge. The wheels are powered by a high-torque electric motor that is alternatively power either from the battery or the generator. If you drive, say, 30 miles a day there is a very good chance your engine will never kick on, thereby saving you a tankful of gas. If you need to go far you can use the gas generator to push you another 300 miles or so. In this way it is an EV without the problems in range.

The car is a strange amalgam of low-end and high. It comes with a Bose audio system standard as well as five years of OnStar – you connect to the car over OnStar using an iPhone app – and a central LCD screen for Nav and infotainment. There’s also a separate driver’s screen that displays current driving stats including your range and a little floating “ball” that shows how efficiently you’re driving. The ball rises and turns yellow when you’re gunning the engine and floats serenely in space when you’re driving like Mother Theresa. This actually encourages a more zen-like form of driving. In fact, I found myself being more careful and driving more slowly when the ball thing was on the dashboard. When I turned it off I gunned the car like a mofo.

The experience, in short, is six parts exhilarating and four parts disheartening. On the one hand, I was driving a unique, compelling vehicle by an American company manufactured in and around Detroit. On the other hand I wanted it to be better, to have more range, and to run in silent, electric mode for just a little longer than it did.

The ride itself was quite smooth and uneventful. Once I turned off the little efficiency ball my attitude to the car changed and I drove it just like I would any other compact sedan. In electric mode, however, you feel you’re riding something fairly special, like a really fast super golf-cart or one of those chairs the fat humans rode in Wall-E.

Then the generator kicks in and the magic is gone. The Volt is a compromise. On one hand it is amazingly complex and powerful and on the other it’s just another car – albeit one that is considerably more efficient than any other car I drove. During my drive I hit 40 mpg in city and highway driving and had I tweaked the settings I’m sure I could have gotten more. The car also runs in Sport and Mountain mode. Sport offers a bit more pick-up and transmission assisted braking while Mountain is for, well, mountains.

Was this trip best use of the Volt’s capabilities? Absolutely not. The car works best when it exists in a 30-40 mile bubble – say when you’re commuting back and forth to work. For many 40 miles is far too short a distance (our own Kyle drives something like 100 miles a day). Long drives in this thing are not particularly the best use of its capabilities.

At $41,000 ($32,000 with the tax rebate) this is an expensive vehicle, even considering the many standard features. I don’t want to discourage the average driver from potentially buying it simply because it is such a good idea – an electric vehicle with the range of a gas vehicle – but it is a piece of interstitial technology. All of the compromises between gas and electric haven’t yet been worked out but it definitely has many of the problems of other electric cars licked.

I was quite happy to drive the Volt. It was a privilege, in short, to be behind the wheel of a car that will, without a doubt, carry us into a brighter future.

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