Electric car quest: Chevy Volt test drive

(Part 5 of a series on choosing an electric vehicle)

The Chevrolet Volt (pictured above) is GM’s great hope for financial and reputational salvation.  A handful of Volts are on the road now, and more are trickling into selected dealerships including some in my local area.  I had the opportunity to take two test drives at different dealers.

I should warn you that I am NOT a car person.  I drive a ten-year-old minivan, and me writing about cars is about as expected as a fish talking a walk on the beach.  My needs, standards, and concerns may not match yours.  I’m an ordinary driver who expects my vehicle to transport me and my kids from A to B with a minimum of fuss; bells, whistles, and a cockpit with more buttons than a 747 are not required.  Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that I plan to buy an electric vehicle (EV), which is both sexier and costlier than regular cars.

First impression of the Volt: it’s a snazzy-looking car.  Not a Maserati, mind you, but no dorky-looking Prius either.  The dealer models I test drove both had a cool Volt logo painted on the side.  The car as purchased doesn’t come with this, but I think they should offer it.  At this point in the game, Volt owners will want to show off.

The Volt is a four-door that comfortably seats 4 people in bucket seats.  It’s not a big car, so head and leg space is modest, but I expect typical for a car its size.  I certainly felt I had enough room.  The rear of the car has a sporty hatchback that lifts to reveal a storage space about the size of two carry-on suitcases.  More impressively, you can neatly fold down the two rear seats and open up a pretty sizable cargo area for hauling larger items or loading up for a camping trip (without the kids, of course, if the seats are gone.)

“Ignition” (what do you call it when you turn on an EV?) is keyless.  You sit in the driver’s seat, hold the brake pedal, and push a button to turn it on.  As in all electrics, the silence is deafening: no engine noise.  In the deluxe Volt models I drove, a screen dominates the center console.  It displays information about battery usage, range, mileage, etc., and also contains a navigation system and comes with a camera that shows where you’re going when you back up (nice!).  The controls on the console are smooth and touch-activated, not buttons or knobs.  I didn’t study the setup closely, but it did not impress me as particularly stylish.  For a car with this much cutting-edge technology inside, the driver interface could be a bit more fashion-forward.

The Volt handled well, certainly better than my big ol’ minivan.  Acceleration was acceptable.  (Compared to a Tesla Roadster, it’s pathetic, but it was certainly no worse than what I’m used to with my present vehicle.)  On one of the test drives I took, the car’s battery had been “used up” and on the highway, I could hear the gas generator kick in when I hit the “gas”.  The sound is not loud, and I didn’t notice any change in performance.  The switch from main battery power to generator power was effortless.

All in all, I felt this was a car I would be happy with and enjoy driving.

Interestingly, my experience with the two dealers was quite different.  At the first dealer, the person I’d made an appointment with wasn’t available when I showed up, and the sales guy who went with me for the drive had never been in the Volt before.  He wasn’t exactly a font of information, and could answer few of my specific questions.  I made it clear I was interested in buying a Volt possibly in the next 12 months, but he made no attempt to persuade me or give me a price, options, or an idea of how long I’d have to wait.  I left wondering how GM could hope to sell any of these (expensive!) cars with staff like that.

At the second dealer they had it more together.  I had most of my questions answered.  I was told about the 8 year/100,000 miles warranty on the main battery.  Asking price on the demo car was close to $45,000, non-negotiable.  At present, I could put down about $1000 to reserve a car and expect to take delivery of my 2011 Volt in about 6 months.  The wait could be shorter if a car came in and someone higher on the list didn’t want it.

I pressed both reps about the lease option, and got no clear answers.  Sounds to me like they’d rather not lease at all, and if a customer demands it, they have to work out the details then.  So despite my overall preference for that option, I won’t pursue it unless I’m ready to buy, and I’m not making any bets on the optimistic lease terms GM advertised in press releases last summer.

This is the end of my EV posts for now.  I’m waiting to try a Nissan Leaf, but my local dealer doesn’t know when that might happen.  With the recent disasters in Japan, it may be a while.  Waiting to commit to an EV carries some risk: the $7500 federal tax credit could disappear in 2012.  If you’re thinking about buying one of these exciting new cars, keep that in mind.

Series of electric car quest posts:

Chevy Volt vs Nissan Leaf; the hot electric cars of Tesla Motors: Model S vs RoadsterEV BatteriesMSRP, incentives & leasesChevy Volt test drive

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2 Responses to Electric car quest: Chevy Volt test drive

  1. FattMerris says:

    I just bought a Leaf and love it. I average about 50 miles a day driving (30 miles RT to work, 15 miles RT delivering kids to swimming etc. and 5 for basic errands). I charge each night to about 80% and still have 30 miles remaining at the end of each day. I get about 110 miles per charge. I live in Dallas where the temp has been near 100 degrees everyday so I always have the AC cranked. The AC doesn’t affect the range nearly as much as I thought it would. The biggest enemy of your driving range is speed. Most of my driving is in the 35-55mph range on city streets. My commute to work includes about 5 miles on the highway at about 70mph. At 70mph, your range starts to drop much faster.
    Acceleration in the Leaf is great. It really gets up and goes. I pay $.11 per kWhr for electricity so I end up spending about $1 per day. Compare that to the $10 per day I spend on my gas car for the same driving.

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