You may have noticed I don't write much about car technology. There's a good reason for this omission: since I live on Manhattan island, owning a car – the garaging, insurance and upkeep costs rival those for raising a child – would be as useful as installing a fire escape on an outhouse. And that's why God invented Zipcar.
So I was surprised when GM asked me if I'd like to borrow their electric hybrid Chevy Volt. I warned them my car IQ was about as high as a dog's (okay, maybe mine's a bit higher – I know enough not to stick my head out the window and wag my tongue in a 60 MPH wind).
In any event, I've been driving a Chevy Volt for the past few days (with my head and tongue completely inside), which has made me the coolest kid on the block and other far flung locations to which I've driven it.
Tomorrow I'll bring you a photo slide show so you can see what the Volt looks like inside and out.
Thursday will be a Volt-related App of the Week. Like many new cars, the Volt offers OnStar but, unlike other new cars, Volt and other GM OnStar-equipped models can be remotely monitored via an iPhone or Android app.
Finally, Friday I'll cover the actual Volt driving, care and feeding experience.
The Volt 411
As I understand it, the Volt is a hybrid, but different from other hybrids.
A hybrid such as the Prius has an electric engine with electricity generated by its gas engine – you don't have to recharge its battery.
The Tesla and the Leaf, by comparison, are all electric cars – no gas engine at all.
Volt is a "plug-in hybrid," a combination of the Prius and the Leaf. Volt's 1.4 liter engine (whatever that means) can run entirely on gasoline similar to the Prius. But, like the Tesla and the Leaf, Volt also can run independently on its lithium-ion batteries.
In practice, this means your range is not restricted by a battery charge. For most of the time I've had the Volt, I've driven it exclusively on gas. (I live in a typical rabbit warren New York City apartment building, so there's no place to plug it in – not without some moron making off with the charging cable.)
Volt's battery offers a range of around 35-40 miles. That doesn't sound like a lot, but Toyota is readying a similar electric/gas plug-in hybrid Prius for 2012 that will get just 13 MPH on its battery.
It takes around 10 hours to fully charge Volt's battery using a standard 120-volt, three-prong connection. A special 240-volt charging station will cut that charging time in half. In either event, you have to unwind a 20-foot orange extension cable and connect it the charging jack on the front driver's side of the car and a standard three-prong home AC outlet.
This mix-and-match, electric-gas dichotomy makes it difficult to accurately state Volt's mileage. Running solely on its battery, Volt gets the equivalent of 93 MPG – and I have no idea how that's figured. Running solely on gas, Volt is rated at 37 MPG. Either way, Volt has been called the most energy-efficient car on the road.
In actual usage, Volt's great for running around town on errands and for a short commute to work, then overnight charging. If the Volt is limited to these local excursions, you might never need spend a cent on that foreign oil we keep getting into wars about (although a plurality of our "foreign" oil from any one country actually comes from Canada).
But with its gas engine, Volt also can be used on longer drives with no worries of running out of whatever powers it. With a fully-charged battery and a full gas tank, Volt has a range of around 380 miles.
Inside the Volt
Less technically, Volt is a four-door hatchback, whose pedantic looks belies its high-tech innards, with fold-down rear seats to create a large cargo area.
For people, Volt is a bit more, um, cozy. Volt mysteriously lacks power seats (there are toasty seat heaters, though). This isn't awful for the driver, but my wife, who likes to sleep on long drives, complained that the passenger seat didn't recline back far enough – and she's right.
And the rear seats are a bit tight for anyone with legs long enough to touch the ground while sitting down. When I squeezed into the seat behind the driver's, my knees were folded up to my sternum.
Volt also is built low to the ground – there's not much clearance underneath, so watch the speed bumps.
My test Volt included a Bose sound system and a USB jack to connect an iPod or iPhone, which allowed me complete control over my driving soundtrack via a 7-inch touch screen LCD screen on the center console. There's also the usual AM/FM radio along with XM satellite radio.
The center console LCD screen also displays the navigation maps and info (complete with the bossy "turn here" navigation lady), and the optional rear camera view complete with proximity warning beeps. Volt also has a temperature-controlled climate system, and Bluetooth connectivity.
There's another 7-inch LCD screen (not touch), a status screen, behind the steering column, with a big, colorful battery/fuel gauge, speedometer and odometer.
All-in-all, Volt provides all the creature comforts of insulated driving pleasure.
Now how much would you pay?
You'll have to pay for all Volt's technology and comfort, however. The base price is $40,280; my loaded test model is priced at $44,680. This is around $10,000 or more than comparable Prius models. (These prices don't include the many federal and state "Alternative Motor Vehicle" tax rebates or credits, which could add up to $7,500 or more.)
Which means Volt, even if comparably expensive, could end up costing less than a more fully-featured gas-only auto, which I guess is the point of the tax incentives. But Prius also is eligible for these discounts.
You won't make up the Prius-Volt price difference by driving electric only – unless the price of gas rises to 10 times its current price. According to GM, running Volt solely on its battery will cost around $600 a year. On gasoline only, Volt will cost you $1,300 a year. A savings of $700 a year means it'll take you around (let's see, $700 a year, into $10,000, carry the two…) 14.3 years to make up. That's not good.
So how does Volt drive? Sorry, you'll have to wait until I'm finished my test drives. But I can describe the Volt experience so far in two words: smooth and quiet (or is that three words?).
In the meantime, check back tomorrow for lots of photos.