Test Drive: 2012 Chevrolet Volt

Courtesy of http://www.thetorquereport.com/2010/07/gm_announces_pricing_for_chevy.html

Why do I always do this to myself?

I’m running late, and the sweat is starting to get profuse. I lift up my arm and do a smell-check and wince at the results.

I’ve overcommitted myself again; this time offering to drop off my friend off at UBC before heading to this meet-point at the the Boundary Bay airport. Giving myself an hour to drive from east Vancouver, to UBC, then to the airport – its exact location still not clear to me. Gulp.

I know I’m going to be at least 15 minutes late, so call James to let him know. James says “no problem” and offers to stall people until I get there. I pick up the pace.

I’m perusing through my phone trying to figure out exactly what exit to get off and when I look up I realize I am almost at the border! I turn off at the next exit and call James back letting him know what has happened. He’s less thrilled this time, and gives a stalled “ok” showing his displeasure. I find the exit to get off, and encounter a slow moving farm vehicle, a train, and a wrong turn before finally finding the end destination. I can hear a “There he is!” from my window as I race into the parking lot.

Everyone is gathered around the Chevrolet Volt as some of its features are run through. One of the major things being showcased is that the electric motor is the major driver here for the car. Unlike the current Toyota Prius (which can alternate between electric motor and engine use), or the Honda Insight (which uses the electric motor to assist a smaller engine), the Volt is strictly driven off of the motor through the front wheels. The engine inside only being used as a generator – kicking in to supply energy to the motor when needed. This is Chevrolet’s solution to the problem of limited mileage of electric vehicles, using a readily available supply of fuel (i.e. gasoline) to help the electric motor when needed (which only gets you about 50kms before needing a charge, or the use of its engine).

Its an “OK” looking car – nothing that sends your pulse racing but it isn’t offensive either. I think the front end with the large Chevy bow-tie is a bit too “in your face”, giving the feeling of heft and weight on a car that should look stream-lined and efficient. I prefer the view from the rear, which makes the car look a bit more futuristic.

Somewhat futuristic rear quarter view (Courtesy of http://www.thecarconnection.com/photos/chevrolet_volt_2012#100369335)

Getting into the vehicle, I am surrounded with what I feel is an overly designed dash that still looks cheap. Green “grass” graphic overlays on hard plastics with two raised panels on the dash attempt to break up some of the monotony of the interior – at the expense of class. Like a young designer was given a very limited budget to impress everyone with.

Overly designed interior with its “style panels”. Touch-sensitive buttons look like they have been ripped of a cheap calculator too (courtesy of http://rumors.automobilemag.com/2011-chevrolet-volt-owners-charging-nightly-1000-miles-between-fill-ups-39057.html/2011-chevrolet-volt-interior-3/)

The graphic interior panels give easily when pushed. Turns out this is the “premium trim package” with “premium door trim”, and adds $1700 to the price of the car. I would skip this option as it makes this car feel cheap. Really cheap. Not only that, but the near-neon panels could be distracting while driving.

The interior on this is worse than the latest from Hyundai on its sub-compact vehicles costing less than $20,000, so why is it on a vehicle costing nearly $40,000 (after government grants)?

The liftback gate is a good idea and provides plenty of cargo room, although this is nothing ground breaking. The Prius already had this on the last generation car.

Hold the starter button down, and the expectation of an engine firing into life has been replaced with….nothing. It is eerie.

The TFT-screen behind the steering lights up and despite the rest of the dash looking cheap, the LCD screens are bright and colourful. They are busy though, having to show the battery life, speed, acceleration/braking and a few other things that I couldn’t be bothered to look at while driving.

TFT screen behind the steering wheel which replaces the normal instrument binnacle. Meter on the left shows battery life, center shows speed, and bubble on the right fluctuates up and down to show acceleration/braking. (Courtesy of http://www.thecarconnection.com/photos/chevrolet_volt_2012#100369335)

The touch-sensitive buttons (no, its not a touch screen) on the center console look like they were lifted off a cheap calculator – providing neither the positive feedback of a real button, nor the space efficiency of a touchscreen LCD.

I move the shifter into reverse, then forwards to exit the parking lot. Working on battery power alone, the only sounds that I hear are the noise from the eco-tires (which is very hushed), and my stomach growling. Strange.

The car rides pretty nicely, the suspension soaking up most bumps encountered. The steering feels a bit artificial, but I’m not expecting driving “joie de vivre” on this car. Which is evidenced as I try to negotiate the car through a series of turns – the car feels hefty, and sluggish in the corners – its 435 lb battery making itself evident.

The major advance when this car was released was the idea of an “extended range” electric car – essentially, a 1.4L engine within the car acts as a generator for the battery. Run out of battery juice while driving, and the engine turns on which turns a generator, feeding charge back to the battery which can now be used for the electric motors. Regenerative brakes help to maximize the battery before it has to switch to using the engine.

Being that this car is driven by an electric motor, which produces all of its torque at 0 rpm, I would expect it to go. And it does – punching the accelerator from rest drives you back into the “custom bucket seats” (Hardly bucket seats I would say, nor are they custom since its the only option you can select). The acceleration is impressive – however there is a price to pay as I watch the battery lose a notch after a short burst of hard acceleration. There is a “sport” mode, which apparently temporarily increases the output on the electric motor but I have got the point already.

Something is irking me as I try another burst of speed – I’m not actually having any fun.

When you drive a car with an internal combustion engine, the soundtrack has a huge influence on how you feel about the car. It gives you that crescendo that tells you you are accelerating, and is what makes the car more life-like, more human. The engine sound is to your soul what smell is to your tastebuds – you may get the sensation without them, but its lost much of the intensity.

Without the engine note, this car (and all other electrics I would suspect) feels soul-less. Even the most basic Corolla CE with an automatic transmission and gold paint has more soul than this. And it is because of this reason, I could never become attached to this car. I would treat it as just a piece of machinery – no more love for this than my clothes iron.

This car is the anti-thesis of what I love about cars; instead of making you fall in love with cars this does the opposite. It takes something that could be fun (such as acceleration and handling), and makes you exchange them for fuel economy. This is not a criticism towards GM, but more of the concept of electric vehicles themselves.

What I can criticize about GM though, is that for $40k I would expect more of a car – I would expect the battery life to be longer, the interior to be nicer, and for the car to look better. If I drove primarily in the city, I would happily pay $10k less and get a Toyota Prius whos mileage may not be as good, but at least I get the sense that there is some quality for my money. If I lived in the suburbs and had to hit the highway, I would get a diesel which gets ~70 (US) MPG.

Until then, this is not an economically viable car, it is a technological showcase. There is potential, but I think until the next generation comes around, this Volt feels like a prototype. This is a car that Chevrolet should have come out with years ago; it feels late to the game yet charges a premium price for the technology. There are some good ideas in there – I like the on-board “generator” which ensures you never get stranded. But it is not enough to overcome its deficits – high cost being one of them.

There will be many competitors coming out soon if not out already – the Nissan Leaf, the electric Focus, and an electric Prius. Regardless of how they compare, it will be interesting to see how they push each other.

From my perspective, if an electric car costs more than a standard gasoline-engined car, it is not enough for it to just have better fuel efficiency. It must be interesting – either interesting to drive, interesting to look at, or have some interesting gadgets. With the exception of the Tesla Roadster (expensive) or the Honda CR-Z, I have not seen many examples of this.

GM pulled many resources into making this car – but it must do more. It must build on this, and continue to push the envelope the way Toyota has. Only then, can it be seen as a technological leader the way the CEO wants them to be viewed as.

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