2012 Chevrolet Volt
Call it car-guy sentimentality, but I’ve always felt automotive affairs follow the same stages as any relationship.
There’s the initial introduction — all mood lighting and limited grabbing, usually at an automotive show.
Then there’s the awkward first date when you get to know each other a little better — probably during the automotive launch and subsequent short test drive.
But, all the while, you are wondering the usual questions about compatibility and a possible long-term relationship.
What’s it really like?
Can I live with it?
Will my mother like it?
I was about to find that out as I arrived at GM Canada to pick up the 2012 Chevrolet Volt.
The Volt is an electric car. It houses a 400-pound-plus 16-kWh lithium-ion battery that provides 40 to 80 kilometres of electric-powered range.
The battery recharges in four hours through a 240-volt source or in about 10 hours through a regular 120-volt wall outlet.
GM decided on the size of the battery and its capabilities based on surveys that determined that up to 80 per cent of commuters would fit within that range.
“Great,” you’re thinking, “what happens when I go beyond that range and run out of power?”
Well, you don’t — and that is the genius of the Volt’s extended-range engineering.
You see, the car also harnesses an 85-horsepower. 1.4-litre gasoline engine that couples with a secondary electric motor to regenerate enough electricity to power the vehicle for another 500 kilometres, or for as long as the gas in the tank holds out.
In theory, you could drive this car like any other normal vehicle, filling up with gas, and never plug it in again but that would be just plain stupid.
I was eager to find out just how much I could minimize my weekly fuel bill by plugging in overnight. Would the premise live up to the promise?
First, George from GM gave me the walk-around and it struck me again how good-looking the car is, smooth and sleek with slippery aerodynamics rivalled only by GM’s first EV1.
The rear end is aggressively styled with an almost Camaro-like aura of machismo and black panels contrast the body colour in a handsome two-tone treatment that garnered compliments all week, based on esthetics alone.
The Volt has an elegant modernity that reflects its unique abilities without resorting to the over-the-top techno-styling eccentricities of some adolescent science experiment.
Inside, you’ll find tech-nerd heaven with a variety of display screens and a unique console that sets the Volt apart.
The T-shaped battery, running down the centre of the car like a drive tunnel, forces a four-bucket seat layout.
Second-row space is limited.
Like many compacts, the Volt serves best as a couple’s car with occasional rear seat use only.
Looking back through the hatchback gives a split-window rear view a la Honda CR-X or Pontiac Aztek (the last time I will mention that vehicle in comparison).
The rear cargo area is reasonably roomy (300 litres) with cubbies and fuse access on the sides and a floor panel that folds up to reveal the 120-volt removable charger, a compressor and access to the batteries.
Familiarization over, I left GM Canada, the electric motor whirring as quietly as a golf cart, the battery fully charged with a 65-kilometre range reading.
I topped up the tank with 66 cents worth of gas for an accurate fuel-economy test.
The drive home from GM Canada is almost exactly 100 kilometres and I watched the EV range tick down until the gasoline engine kicked in at 67.8 kilometres.
If you pay attention when that gas engine starts, you can detect a thrumming vibration but the transition usually seems seamless.
The Volt is astonishingly quiet, the only sound coming from air drag and the low-rolling resistance tires hitting the pavement.
There are specific circumstances at highway speed when that gas engine will directly assist the powertrain but you won’t notice — and those technical details are better explored online than in this short review.
With the engine running the generator over the last 22 kilometres, my total fuel usage for the 100-kilometre drive home was 1.6 litres.
Pretty good, but you can see why the car was designed for those predictable commuters.
The more you drive on gasoline-generated electricity, the higher your fuel consumption average will creep.
This car wasn’t really meant for me because, as a news photographer, I drive from assignment to assignment, beyond simple two-way commuting.
But, somehow, on the second day, I did even better, plugging in at work whenever possible to replenish the battery, managing a 110-kilometres day of pure EV driving and using no gas at all.
On Day 3, I drove it like I’d stolen it.
I had almost depleted the battery the day before and did not charge it overnight, trying for a worst fuel-economy scenario.
I was trying hard, power mode set on sport, air conditioner pumping away, flooring the pedal gleefully at every opportunity.
This car may have been designed for tech-savvy early-adopters but even performance buffs would raise an eyebrow at the Volt’s wheel-spinning acceleration.
There’s plenty of snap off the line, poised smooth and sure handling, and enough mid-range oomph and passing power to please.
I could probably have applied myself further with an added load of luggage or with all the seats filled with fatsos, but the worst mileage I managed that day averaged out to 6.8L/100km.
Even when you’re pushing the limits, the inherent hybrid traits of regenerative braking and idle-stop ignition mitigate fuel usage.
During the rest of the week, I returned to sanity and with prudent plugging in and frugal driving, my grand totals, not counting my single day of idiocy, worked out to 654 kilometres, using only 14.3 litres of fuel, for an overall fuel efficiency average of 2.18L/100km.
A few last quick facts.
The battery warranty is for eight years/160,000 kilometres.
Sample electricity costs per full charge average $0.84 in Quebec, $1.14 in B.C. and $1.34 in Ontario but utility prices will vary.
The Volt lists for $41,545.
Provincial incentives reduce the price by $8,230 in Ontario, $7,769 in Quebec, while B.C. is still thinking about it.
And, speaking of incentives, in many jurisdictions, the Volt is a free pass into the H.O.V. lanes.
That fact alone might make the Volt worth its weight in gold to urban commuters.
Now, whenever new technology debuts you will hear naysayers who love to whittle everything down to whether or not “it pays for itself.”
But, based on that philosophy, I guess I should never have owned a sports car, taken a vacation or had children.
Yes, the charging infrastructure is still in its infancy but the Volt is an able performer, a scientific milestone on the road to sustainability and a product that has to be weighed in the balance against personal attitudes and convictions.
It does offer environmentally conscious consumers a viable electrically powered alternative, it reduces emissions and gasoline usage and it is definitely a more ecological commuting choice.
And, I think your mother would like it too.
It could be the start of a beautiful relationship.