The electric Chevrolet Volt produces realistic returns

It isn't perfect, but David Booth finds the Volt is a better alternative for everyday life than other EVs and hybrids.
On the open motorway, the Chevrolet Volt has similar fuel economy to hybrid cars, but it's in the city where it shines - as long as it doesn't run out of electricity.
On the open motorway, the Chevrolet Volt has similar fuel economy to hybrid cars, but it's in the city where it shines - as long as it doesn't run out of electricity.

A motoring section is hardly the most common venue for talking smack, but I really do have to call out my venerated brothers at Britain's revered Car magazine. The oft-quoted tome ran a "real life" road test of Chevrolet's enhanced-range electric car in its recent July issue and, as is often the case when dealing with cars from North America, they poo-poohed the high-tech EV. It was noisy and, worst of all, the magazine says the car averaged but 6.2L/100km, a figure it said was "probably half of what a Golf diesel would achieve".

So what's my consternation, you ask? Did they lie? Was the whole thing rigged like a Top Gear video shoot?

No, but that doesn't stop the entire review from being unforgivably misleading. Essentially, what the less-than-objective author, Mark Walton, did was to set up the Volt for failure. For one thing, he chose a non-stop, one-way journey as his road test criteria, the one situation that would show the Volt at its very worst. And while it's true that the Volt's calling card is that it is the EV that can drive anywhere, anytime, it's a little bit like making your only benchmark for a Ferrari 458 Italia a half-kilometre trundle in traffic to your local Spinneys; both will manage the sojourn, but neither will shine at its best.

Furthermore, Walton laments that it was difficult to find places to plug the Volt in during his evening rest stops and so did not always recharge the Volt's battery pack. The problem is that, while his first excuse seems reasonable, by the end of the 10-page diatribe, Walton sounds like a truculent four-year-old who won't eat his chicken nuggets until mummy cuts them up into pieces for him.

Interestingly, I have, quite literally, just finished my own long-distance evaluation of Chevy's new wundercar. I used the Volt exactly as I would any other car; a road trip from Toronto, Canada's financial hub, to Ottawa, its political centre - normally about a four-hour trip. I EV'ed it around the nation's capital, commuted from suburb to city centre and just generally used it as cars all around the world are used every day.

The first part of my trip saw me heading to the outskirts of Ottawa on Friday for a family obligation; taking care of my elderly parents. I insisted on maintaining an average speed of just 110kph all the way to the nation's capital, but I swear it was all in a quest for statistical accuracy.

The Volt managed the first 69km on battery power alone. No petrol was consumed during this period; no noxious fumes emitted. After the battery's charge had expired, the onboard 1.4L petrol engine kicked in and, again keeping the cruise control set at 110, the Volt averaged 5.7L/100km for the remaining 366.9 klicks. Total energy used was 10.3 kWh of electricity and 22.0L of regular petrol. The average fuel economy for the entire 435.8km trip - factoring both electric and petrol usage - was bang on 5.0L/100km.

After tending to familial duties, I returned home on Monday, this time deciding that a more common 125kph would be more representative of typical traffic flow. The extra load took its toll on the lithium ions; this time they were only able to provide 56.2km of emissions-free motoring before the Ecotec engine starting powering the onboard generator. Keeping my pace steady at 125, fuel trickled into the 1.4L engine at the rate of 7.2L/100km. In all, my return trip added up to 440.3km and again consumed 10.3 kWh and 27.7L of petrol for an overall fuel consumption of 6.3L/100 km.

Ah, yes, I can hear you saying out there that the only thing this test proves is that Walton was right. Or, does it?

Indeed, in my description of my weekend sojourn, you'll notice there was no mention of my Saturday or Sunday fuel economy. That's because I didn't use any petrol at all. Both days were spent doing local errands and ferrying my dear mother and father to their various appointments and assignations. Since I didn't drive more than 60km either day, the Volt consumed no fuel.

A little perspective is necessary here, however. For one thing, the return voyage from Ottawa is the only time in all my experience in Volts that the battery pack provided less than the 64km range that General Motors originally promised. Electric motors are more efficient at lower speeds so I would expect any electric vehicle to suffer a similar drop.

In this one regard, at least, EVs and petrol-fuelled cars share a common trait; more speed equals faster consumption.

As for the fuel consumption once the battery's energy was depleted, the Volt's numbers prove - with a few exceptions - very competitive. My recent test of Kia's Optima Hybrid (along with the Hyundai Sonata, my favourite of the genre), for instance, averaged 6.8L/100km at 100kph. In a previous generation Toyota Prius, I averaged 6.3L/100 km at about the same 110kph. On the other hand, neither can compare with the positively frugal Volkswagen Passat TDi, its 2.0L turbodiesel literally dribbling fuel out at a miserly 5.0L/100km when cruising on the motorway.

Where the Volt does fall down, however, is fuel economy in the city. After that 64km of initial petrol-free electric motoring was over, I averaged about 9.0L/100km in urban traffic, worse than any diesel or comparably sized hybrid I have tested and not better than many conventional compacts.

Like all EVs, the Volt is aimed at the 75 per cent or so of people whose daily commute is less than 64km per day, which can be accomplished completely under electric power. But, even beyond that, an extended-range electric vehicle offers advantages. For instance, if your daily drive takes you 120km afield, your average consumption would be 4.5L/100km in the city (no fuel for the first 60km and then 9.0L/100km thereafter) and about 2.9L/100 km for the same distance on the motorway. Nissan Leaf owners will argue that their EVs could manage all 120km without any fuel, but then they're stranded for the next eight hours as their batteries recharge.

The other interesting tidbit is that every time I put the Volt through its long distance paces, the first 60 or so kilometres took 10.3kWh of battery juice and the next 60 about four litres of fuel. For the Volt at least, that one litre of fuel was equivalent to about 2.5kWh of lithium ion. Rough calculation though it may be, but it means that, if the Volt's range on a single electrical charge were to match the distance it can travel on the 35.2L of petrol it stores on board, it would need 88kWh worth of battery. Since the current 16kWh battery weighs in at 198kg, such a battery pack would weigh about 1,100kg - almost the same as a Fiat 500.

As confusing as it all may seem, it is possible to make (or, at least, I will make) the following generalities:

If you are never, ever going to leave the confines of the big city or you are a two-car family and can easily switch cars so that one never, ever has to leave the confines of the big city, then a pure electric vehicle is an excellent alternative to the conventional automobile. Assuming you will stay within the vehicle's range, you will never use any petrol, never directly emit any emissions and, depending on how pollution-free the local electricity generation is, you'll reduce emissions.

At the other proverbial extreme, if you're a wandering salesman who spends the better part of the day on the motorway, a diesel is the best choice. No matter how hard or fast they are driven, their fuel consumption is amazingly frugal. Their range, the other extreme from EVs, is often better than 1,000km and their performance - especially the German turbodiesels - is incredible.

As for the hybrids currently on the market, none can match either the Volt's or the Leaf's all-electric range. Oh, a few can manage a few scant kilometres on electrical power alone if you feather the pedal just so, but for all practical purposes, the petrol and electric motors are working in tandem all the time. While that means that their city fuel economy is better than the Volt's (when its batteries are run down), it also means that they cannot promise petrol-free motoring for any significant amount of time. That said, most are cheaper than the 2012 Volt and, if for some reason you need a high-mileage urban driver - taxi cab, delivery van, etc - a hybrid makes sense.

Despite a few weaknesses and a substantial price tag, the Volt offers some real world advantages. For most daily operation it offers all the advantages of a pure EV - electric motoring, no consumption of petrol and no tailpipe emissions. Unlike a pure EV, however, it is not range restricted in any way. It is by no means the perfect vehicle (it's fuel economy in "extended" mode is not exemplary), but it is the most elegant alternative yet to the conventional automobile.

And a whole bunch better than Car magazine says it is.

Published: August 13, 2011 04:00 AM


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