Executive wheels: Get a charge out of this car

When you drive around in a four-door compact car, few people seem to pay attention and only those considering a purchase of that car will ever ask about it.

Until the Chevy Volt. People walking by stopped to comment, people at traffic lights motioned for me to roll down the window so they could ask a question, and people in the parking lot at my son’s baseball game crowded around it.

I had to wonder why. It’s not as if they’d never seen a hybrid before – they are all over the place now. Yes, the Volt is a plug-in hybrid, but there is also a plug-in Toyota Prius. There are a few all-electrics out there, like the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla models. I suppose the answer to the reaction is that the Volt may be the most highly touted vehicle to come along in years.

I drove a pre-production plug-in Prius a little more than a year ago and found it wanting. In nearly all respects, the plug-in Prius that I drove was just like the regular Prius, which is fine, but the downside was that it would only seem to go for about 15 miles on full electric with a full charge, hardly enough for me to get back and forth from work. My research indicates that the production model for Toyota still suffers from that limited range.

The Chevy Volt does not. Various testers – the EPA and a variety of noted car magazines and websites – find the all-electric range of the Volt to be from a low of 22 miles to a high of 35 miles, with most testers experiencing more than 30 miles of all-electric use under a range of conditions. That would mirror my experience. Just so you know, the combined electric/gas is approximately 379 miles – and never fear, if the electric runs out the car will operate just fine on the gas engine.

For rating purposes, the EPA says it gets 94 MPGe in all-electric mode and 37 MPG in gasoline-only mode, with an annual fuel cost of a mere $1,000 (average based on 15,000 miles per year at $3.95 per gallon gasoline and $0.12 per kW-hr. of electricity).

The charging of the Volt was simple. The car features a rear-hatch with a nice-sized trunk/deck in the back for storage, and there is a floor panel that easily lifts up, revealing the spare tire, an air compressor that can be used to re-inflate the tires and the electric cord, on a spool, which I am guessing stretched to about 15 feet. On the car end of the cord is a huge plug that attaches to a receptacle that opens on the driver’s side of the car just in front of the front door, and the other end goes to the wall outlet, in my case the one in the garage. A big green light came on in the middle of the top of the dashboard, very visible from across the garage, to let me know the car was accepting the charge, and in the morning the light was off and the readout on the control panel said it was fully charged.

The Volt is quite handsome and very, very fun to drive. Everyone who I spoke with wondered whether it had any power – it does – but this is a common misconception with hybrids. The fact is, electric motors are very powerful, torque-producing powerplants, and these cars, including the Volt, feel like they have a 280 hp V6 in them. And aside from the plug-in feature, the operation of the car is no different than any other car from an operator’s perspective.

I really enjoyed the Volt. It’s roomy for four people, and in fact feels much less restrictive in the space category than a Prius. The bucket seats are very comfortable, and the car is at most times very quiet – I did notice some elevated road noise out on the highway, but not in the city. It drives beautifully, with plenty of power, and the handling is excellent. 

The truth is that I liked the car more than just about anything I have driven this year. I liked it more than the Prius I drove a few weeks ago – and I liked that car a lot. The Volt feels larger and more substantial, and yet it is a handy small size, easy to park and maneuver.

What I think I liked the most were the controls. There are a bunch of button on the dash that operate the radio/sound system controls, the climate controls, navigation system, but they aren’t mechanical; rather they are just light-touch buttons the same color and feel as the dash, and easy to use. The LED screen is also touch-ready.  The whole thing is very attractive – in fact, the Volt is one of the most intriguing car designs, inside and out, that I have ever seen.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I got a charge out of the Volt.

The only trouble is the cost.

The base price for the Volt, and there is only one trim, is $39,145. (By comparison, the plug-in Prius has a base of $34,298). That’s a lot of money for a car of this size, and it seems like too much extra to pay for the advanced technology no matter how good it is or how much I might save in gas over the life of the car. If it was the same car, but just gasoline in a typical 2.5-liter 4-banger configuration, I would expect it to run no more than $24,000.

On my test-drive model they added in a premium audio system for $1,995; leather seating and heated seats, for $1,395; a rear camera with park assist for $695; polished aluminum wheels for $595; a crystal red tintcoat for $495; and Bose speakers for $495. Add in $850 in destination charges, and the bottom line is a whopping $44,665.

That’s a lot to charge for being a pioneer. Toyota sold the Prius for under its costs in the early years to establish a market, and perhaps GM should do the same with the Volt.

But I gotta say – if this is the direction that GM is heading in quality, innovation and styling, I say Charge Forward.