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Chevrolet Volt

GM's plug-in hybrid goes gas-free for short trips, but is pricey

Last reviewed: April 2011

We can't think of any car that has been so long anticipated as the Chevrolet Volt. From the time it was introduced with fanfare as a concept vehicle in 2007, the Volt's electric-gas drivetrain has drawn wonder, skepticism, and praise from the public and media.

So we were eager to buy one of the first production cars, which are part of an initial rollout in five states and Washington, D.C. You might have to wait a while to get one, because the Volt will not be available nationwide until the end of the year.

The Volt is a four-seat, battery-powered hatchback that runs on electricity alone for short trips. Its electric range is claimed to be between 25 and 50 miles, which could be sufficient for many drivers to commute daily gas-free. After the lithium-ion battery is depleted, a gasoline engine kicks in and acts as a backup generator, powering the electric drive and extending the range to a total of about 300 miles.

It is built on the Chevrolet Cruze platform and comes nicely equipped. And with such elaborate engineering, you shouldn't expect it to come cheap; ours cost $43,700, including options (but with a $5,000 dealer markup, it set us back $48,700). Consumers will be eligible for a $7,500 electric-vehicle tax credit, which should lessen the sting. Some states offer additional incentives.

A full road test of our Volt is still in the works, but we've spent enough time with it to get some initial driving impressions:

Overall, the Volt is refined, yet it has some quirks, notably a weak electric heater. Otherwise, we enjoyed its quiet operation, brisk acceleration, and taut yet supple ride. But the big question is what can you expect in terms of fuel economy and range.

References to "miles per gallon" are not really meaningful without knowing a trip's length. That's because calculating a fuel-economy figure depends on the ratio of electric to gasoline use.

We've been getting the low end of the electric-only range, usually between 23 and 28 miles, undoubtedly due to this winter's deep freeze. The car's electric range is very susceptible to cold weather, primarily because the heater runs on electricity. We also found that an extended highway cruise shortens the electric range.

The Volt's appeal in terms of fuel economy depends largely on your driving pattern. The more often (and farther) you travel beyond the electric range, the closer your overall energy use drops toward 30 mpg. That's what we've been getting when the gasoline engine is running.

Counting just the energy used, not its cost, the Volt has been averaging close to 2 miles per kilowatt-hour, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is the equivalent of 65 mpg. But that's for the first 25 miles or so, when the car is running on battery power alone.

It is typical to see artificially high mpg numbers on the car's trip computer. For example, let's say you make five trips in a week. Four of them are 25 miles without needing the gas engine. On the last trip, 55 miles, the car uses 1 gallon of gas beyond the 25-mile electric range. The trip computer would calculate 155 miles on 1 gallon of gas, or 155 mpg. That might contribute to the feel-good factor, but the figure is misleading because it doesn't count the electricity used.

GM says that recharge times are about 4 hours with a 240-volt supply and 10 to 12 hours with 120 volts. Our Volt has been taking in almost 13 kWh in about 5 hours every time we charge. We suggest that Volt buyers purchase a 220-volt (or Level 2) charger.

At the national average rate of 11 cents per kWh, the Volt would cost about 5.7 cents per mile in electric mode and then 10 cents a mile beyond that (assuming gas is $3 per gallon). By contrast, a Toyota Prius costs 6.8 cents per mile, and a gas-powered Honda Fit subcompact costs about 10 cents a mile in gas. But its price is less than half of what the Volt costs.

In some regions, such as the Northeast, you might pay a lot more for electricity. In Southern California, where rates increase with higher electrical consumption, there are special plans for EV owners that lower rates to as little as 11 cents per kWh.

There are evident compromises in passenger comfort as a result of the Volt's battery layout. Because the battery takes up the center rear-seat area, the car can hold only four people. Also, the rear seats are tight and the sloping roofline can make it easy to bump your head while getting in. Our engineers complained that the air from the heater was tepid, leaving them uncomfortably cold. The electric seat heaters help, but not enough. When the temperature dips below 26 degrees, the engine will turn on even during the electric portion of a trip to produce more heat.

The dashboard has a center screen that houses the standard navigation system, and slick graphics display various energy-use information. The center console consists of small, touch-sensitive buttons on the dash that control the climate and the radio. We found them hard to tell apart.

So far, the Volt works as an electric car with a gas backup, but it's not really much of a money saver in many places. Cheaper electricity or more expensive gas could tip the scales in its favor. For now, it seems that owning a Volt is an expensive way to be green. Watch for our full road test of the Volt in a future issue.