Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review: Chevy Volt

It's time for our annual jaunt down to St. Louis to visit my in-laws. It's not a super long trip, but it puts a ton of miles on our cars to do it the three to four times a year we go. When GM offered to let me try out the Chevy Volt, I immediately thought of the trip as the perfect time, after all I wasn't driving carpool with five kids in the car at that point.

Then I thought about what the Volt was and briefly panicked about driving with four people to spend four days out of town in such a small car (after all, my car seats eight!). After thinking about it, I agreed, and I'm sorta glad I did. I had this fun little treat sitting in my driveway all ready to take me down to St. Louis and back - on less than 12 gallons of gas, total. My pocket book is a huge fan of the car for that reason alone, but we'll get there.

It's a really cute car, no? It was amazing to me how many people gave the car a once over (or simply stared) while we were driving it, and even the couple at Costco who were standing there having a conversation about it while I pushed my cart full of goodies towards it - and yes, the trunk did fit the me, the wee ones, and our Costco shopping trip.

So you know the Volt is an electric vehicle, right? It has a special long charge cord that is stored in the trunk that plugs in just outside the driver's side door. It clicks into place and stays there until you squeeze the handle to remove it when you're ready to go (the manual suggests leaving it plugged in when you aren't driving to help regulate the battery). I was a little taken aback the first time I unplugged it because both the handle and the plug were distinctively warm. It seemed to be less warm when I unplugged it after it had been fully charged for awhile, and it was never burning hot, just definitively warm.

The charge is good for about 37 miles according to the book on the car, although each time we drove it, we got significantly more. There is a cool screen on the "edutainment" center (their name, not mine - but I like it!) that shows how things have been going for your drive. When you look at this one, you can see that I got almost 43 miles on my charge and drove 4.4 miles using 0.13 gallons of gas (that's over 36 miles per gallon, though we frequently got much higher mileage when driving on the gas engine). The lifetime mpg is somewhat confusing, as it includes the electric miles where you use no gas so mentally (to me at least), it's inflated.

Another pretty cool screen is the standard dashboard, which isn't so standard on a Volt. Admittedly, it took me a bit of time to get used to it, but I eventually did. There is no traditional gas gauge. When there is a charge in the car, there is a ticker with a battery icon showing how many more miles you have before it switches to the gas engine. And I am happy to report that switching from the electric to the gas engine is smooth, with no scary bumps or jerks as I feared might happen the first time. Once you have the gas engine running, the miles remaining for gas pops up on the screen with a gas pump next to it so that you know which power source you're using.

That screen also has an "environmentally friendly" meter, as I'll call it. This seems to be the popular thing in new cars now to encourage people to drive in a way that maximizes fuel efficiency and reduce wear on cars. The Volt has a little green ball that you try to keep in the middle. If you accelerate too fast, it will raise up, lose its three leaves and start to turn yellow. If you decelerate too quickly, the same thing happens except that the ball lowers in the bar. I am proud to report that I drove the vast majority of my time in the middle of the bar with all three leaves firmly attached to my spinning earth ball.

One of the coolest features (and I apologize for the horrible picture - my "good" camera was in the shop when I had the Volt, so I was back to my point and shoot that really needs to be retired) is the backup camera. Now, I know backup cameras are sort of old hat. Just about every car made now has them, except mine of course. The one for the Volt is positioned in the "edutainment" center, too - just a different display option on the screen, of which there were many. This backup camera? First of all, it's in color, which not all of them are. Second, it was really large, which was helpful. Third - and coolest, the camera has a red grid that shows your driving path. If you turn the wheel, the red grid moves, too. It was so cool. And it's possible that I played with this a lot just for fun, and that I showed it off to every friend who came anywhere near the Volt during the week I had it. When something - or someone - gets into that red grid, it beeps and has a little hazard icon appear. It also works well at night as it must be lit from behind. I really, really want one for my car now. I got a little spoiled.

The car itself is not made for families, however. The five children I carpool daily during the school year would not fit in the car, even without me. This car very clearly only seats four people. It is a very narrow car, with little room between the seats.

And when I say four people, I really mean two people and two small children. This shot shows how much room the wee ones had between the ends of the back seats and the front seat. Had they been any older or bigger, this would not have been a comfortable ride for them around town, let alone to St. Louis and back.

This is a great car. I really enjoyed driving it. That said, I couldn't have this be my car at this point in my life. I would have loved to have had it before I had children, especially when I was single. It would also be great once the wee ones are out of the house, but this is not a car for more than two people unfortunately. And given the price tag - the car I drove was $43,700 - I have a feeling I wouldn't have had the money to buy it back when I was single, even counting for the greatly decreased fuel cost. A single charge that gets me personally about 43 miles costs approximately $1.07. Translating that to the current $3.90 per gallon we have by me, the equivalent miles per gallon are almost 157 for the same fuel cost. I could live with that. Happily. Someday, someday.

In the previous picture, you can also see part of my car charger. Odd, no? Well, yeah, sorta. There is no car charger in the usual spot. In the spot of every other car I've ever seen or driven, in fact. When I first got in and searched for the car charger, I couldn't find one at all. I eventually found one on top of the dashboard, inside a hidden container, but I don't want my devices and cords hanging down like that. The only other charger I found was actually in the console in the back seat, which wasn't the most convenient. We'll leave it at that. And no, there weren't as many cup holders as we're used to either - but then again, this isn't a family car. I did miss not having my adjustable cup holder that will hold my 40 ounce water bottle, but apparently I am lucky and this is an uncommon feature.

But what is in the place of the traditional power cord? It's actually the parking brake. Yep, the parking brake. I've never seen it anywhere but than down by my feet. I thought this was a very odd placement, along with the only place containing door locks. I kept reaching to the door to lock and unlock doors, but only the window controls were there. It took a little getting used to, but I survived.

I also found it a little odd that the window lock (which I use frequently, especially in car pool to keep kids from rolling down the windows when we - meaning "me" - don't want them down) also controls the child safety lock that allows the back seat passengers to open their own doors. I actually had to get help with that one, since Mister Man freaked out when he couldn't open his door. Fortunately, the wee ones are well-behaved enough that I trust them to not use the window lock, so we were fine after that.

My other pet peeve about the car was the controls in the edutainment center. They are all essentially touch driven (you can see some of them in the above picture). When driving, if I want to check something or change something - from making it warmer or cooler, turning up or down the fans, changing the radio - I have to look at the center and ensure I press the right button. There's no going by feel and pushing the button I know is there. On the flip side, when I'm scanning radio stations as an example, my hand would continually accidentally touch one of the buttons, changing the display and forcing me to start over again. I was not a fan of this feature, and I really hope that it is changed at some point. Ironically, with the super futuristic buttons on the edutainment center, the steering wheel buttons for cruise control, etc were ummm not. They were fairly cheap feeling, clicking back and forth and sticking out like old fashioned window power controls. The juxtaposition really surprised me. For both, I'd like the happy in between that features slightly raised buttons of various shapes that tell you what they are but that aren't overly sensitive.

My last comment is another really cool feature. I think. Instead of turning a key to turn on the car, you simply ensure you have the key fob with you, press your foot on the brake, and and push the power button. Both when you enter the car with the fob and when you turn the car on, there is a very cool futuristic noise that greets you, letting you know that you have the fob with you (phew!) and that the car is on, respectively, since in electric mode, the car is quiet. That said, because I didn't need to use the key fob for anything, I was constantly paranoid that I would lose the key or leave it locked in the car, and so forth. I'm not sure why using the key gives me such reassurance, but it did. I have a feeling that once I get into a routine of not plugging in a key, I'd be fine with this - and I'm sure this is the direction most cars are now going.

All in all, I really enjoyed the Volt. It's super cheap to operate, and it's got pretty good get up and go. It's good looking and functional. I had fun driving it and loved the looks I got. Were I in a different situation, I'd seriously look into buying one, especially as I see gas prices going up - again. Unfortunately, it is not made for people who have a family. It really is ideal for single people or those who are married with no children - or grown children. I'll keep waiting until they make a car like this that can help me drive my carpool around, dreaming instead of the fun I had in my Volt, pretending to be cool for a week!

In the interest of full disclosure, I was provided with the Chevy Volt to drive for a week for review purposes. That said, I have not received any compensation, and as always, all opinions expressed remain my own.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the review!
    Your style is plain and simple unlike that of magazines reviewers who are used to all the newest gadgets they get( and I feel, don't truly represent the concerns of the simple working class folks)

    -Would the back seat accommodate teenager sized passengers? Or 'petite' body styled people? Like for an outing with friends to a movie theater?

    -During that trip to ST. Louis, how many times have you stopped for gas?
    (I also live in Chicago and when I drive down there leaving with a full tank, I refill once and it's usually enough even for my trip back. On a Corolla loaded with 3 adult passengers) I'm just wondering in terms of practicality, how often do i need to refuel it if no e-outlet/ charging station is available. My work is 70 mi round-trip, with a shopping center-style parking lot accommodating 500 vehicles. Obviously with no charging station anywhere near.

    As you mentioned, the car's not for everyone, but I'd love to rent it out just t see for myself!


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