Chevrolet Volt offers range in an electric car

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt has a generator powered by a small gas engine that recharges the car's lithium-ion battery, boosting range to about 350 miles. The four-door hatchback has a base price of $40,280.
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt has a generator powered by a small gas engine that recharges the car's lithium-ion battery, boosting range to about 350 miles. The four-door hatchback has a base price of $40,280. (General Motors)
Posted: June 12, 2011

Certainly, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt is a technical tour de force. But it is more than an exquisitely engineered electric car. It is a brand-new solution to the electric vehicle's oldest problem - the limited range afforded by the onboard battery (or batteries) that powers it.

While a complex engineering exercise, the Volt is, in principle, a very simple response to the range problem, a problem that will persist until we have a national charging-station infrastructure.

The Volt does this by extending the 25-to-50-mile range afforded by the battery with a generator powered by a small gas engine. When the charge level in the Volt's battery drops to a certain point, the engine comes on automatically and drives the generator that charges the battery.

The electric power supplied by the engine/generator raises the car's range to about 350 miles. And just like your engine-driven car, you can keep filling the tank and drive it from here to California.

The Volt can be fully charged in 10 to 12 hours when plugged into a standard 120-volt receptacle. If you employ a dedicated 240-volt charging station, the time drops to about four hours.

Using a kilowatt conversion formula, the government says the Volt gets the equivalent of 93 miles per gallon combined city/highway when using the charge obtained from plugging in. When the gas engine is running, the mileage drops to 37 combined.

General Motors Co. estimates that for three-fourths of the people who buy the Volt, the range afforded by a fully charged battery would be sufficient for their daily commute or errand running. They would then recharge the car in their garage - and never have to buy gas except for a trip.

Those folks would pay about $1.50 for the electricity to take that 40-mile run. That's a lot cheaper than any gas, diesel, or hybrid vehicle I can think of.

When you mix electrical power from the receptacle with the gas-generated variety, the mileage results can vary markedly. One colleague got a gas/electric total of 64 m.p.g. My week with the Volt, a worst-case scenario dominated by four long highway trips and an inability to charge the car regularly, still produced an average of almost 50 m.p.g.

The Volt, a four-door hatchback based on the compact Chevy Cruze platform, is not a cheap proposition. It has a base price of $40,280. But when you subtract the $7,500 tax deduction for buying an electric, you wind up in the low $30s. When you consider the average transaction price for a new car is now almost $30,000, that's not exorbitant, but it is still out of range for a lot of folks.

The cost derives from the vehicle's complexity, its premium standard-equipment list, and the fact that its 435-pound lithium-ion battery costs $10,000. (Happily, it has an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty.)

The first thing you notice about the Volt when you start driving it is how mainstream it is - except for the acoustics. The car is almost eerily silent when only the electric motor is running, and not much different when the super-quiet, 84-horsepower four-cylinder engine comes on. (The first time it came on was as I was heading down I-95, and I didn't even notice.)

Also, its 149-horsepower electric motor develops a lot of torque, which allows it to get from zero to 60 in well under nine seconds, making it about a second faster than a Toyota Prius hybrid.

The Volt also handles and steers nicely, and gets good stopping from its regenerative brakes.

A number of features are used to enhance mileage, ranging from special tires with low rolling resistance to the most aerodynamic body in Chevy history.

The Volt's styling is handsome and civil, and the interior is pretty cute, fresh business. I liked the appliance white center stack, with its obligatory plethora of geek gauges. And the door inserts illustrated with gears and other industrial images. In an oblique way, they reminded me of those socialistic Diego Rivera murals immortalizing the workingman.

The Volt will go on sale in the Philadelphia area in late July.


2011 Chevrolet Volt

Base price: $40,280.

As tested: $44,680

(including shipping).

Standard equipment: 149-horsepower electric motor, 84-horse engine that powers electric generator, automatic gearbox, and a generous list of amenities including a navigation system and five years of OnStar.

Options: Include leather seats, heated front seats, rear camera and parking-assist package, premium alloy wheels.

Fuel economy: Combined city/highway of 93 m.p.g. equivalent on plug-in charge and 37 when gas engine runs electrical generator.

Motor performance: Average.

Styling: Handsome.

Handling: Athletic enough.

Warranty: Three years / 36,000 miles bumper to bumper, eight years / 100,000 miles on battery.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.

Contact columnist Al Haas



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