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Count me a fan of the Chevrolet Volt—even with a few sizable warts

Consumer Reports News: November 03, 2011 09:08 AM

This week I finally got the chance to take what I suspect may be the car of the future home for a couple of nights, try charging it in my garage, and see just how far I could nurse it on electrons, rather than gasoline.

I live in a semi-rural area and have a mostly highway commute that stretches 40 miles each way. Three to five miles are usually on an interstate, and a little more than 10 miles are on 45 mph rural roads. All of it is hilly, and for almost all of it I had on the lights and stereo, the feeble heater running, and the windshield wipers, too.

With days getting notably shorter, I’ve recently found myself driving the last several miles in the dark. The roads are so dark that high beams often become the default, though oncoming cars sporadically come in the opposite direction. Imagine my surprise when I dip the headlights for an oncoming car, and the Volt gives a polite beep of its horn. What?! At first, I thought it was a defect. But GM spokesman Rob Peterson says it’s a feature: “The horn is ‘a pedestrian friendly alert,’” he says. “At low speeds the Volt is nearly silent to unsuspecting pedestrians. The chirping horn on the stalk is there to alert pedestrians…The flashing lights are an additional warning system to help the driver and pedestrian avoid one another.”

So while the beeping horn is intended to complement the flash-to-pass feature, it unfortunately means there’s no way to avoid communicating with all the neighbors every time you dip the high beams. Although Peterson says on the 2012 model the control is moved to a separate button on the end of the stalk, there is no way to disable the honking on older Volts.

Beyond that, the Volt has some other undeniable faults. Mainly, it’s too expensive to be practical for most buyers, even after a $7,500 federal tax credit. But it’s not so expensive as to prevent early adopters from paying for it. Needless to say, I won’t be buying one any time soon.

GM’s product plans show the price coming down dramatically over the next couple of generations—not unlike the trend with any new technology, though on a much longer product cycle. The back seat is really cramped and difficult to get into; I wouldn’t consider asking my elderly mother to sit back there. Adding two more inches to the wheelbase would go a long way toward making the Volt more useful. So would a squarer liftgate for a slightly higher roofline, though it might impact aerodynamics and efficiency. And the controls for the radio, climate, and navigation system are a jumble, especially in daylight.

In the end, I drove the Volt 200 miles during my rotation. I charged the car on the 240-volt charger at Consumer Reports’ Yonkers headquarters during the day and again on a 120-volt outlet in my garage at night. Even when I didn’t get home until 10 p.m., it was completely charged by the time I needed to leave in the morning. That points out how much time our cars really do spend sitting, when they could be doing something useful, like charging. All told, I consumed about 52 kWh of power over a total of 139 electric miles, which cost about $10 (at our ridiculously high Connecticut and New York electric rates). Before I dropped it off, I put 2 gallons of premium gas in it, which cost me about $8, to cover the remaining 61 miles. Normally, that would have taken me 10 gallons on average, at say $3.60 per gallon, or $36.

Perhaps the biggest revelation was just how smooth and quiet the Volt is when it’s running on electricity. Even when the engine is on, it’s well isolated and quiet. But when it started, I was suddenly acutely aware of the vibrations it sent through the steering column. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but I suddenly realized it was an unnecessary annoyance, something we all put up with from our cars. It felt a lot like the revelation when first driving a hybrid, sitting in traffic and noticing how all the idling cars around you felt so archaic. If you live in a city and spend a lot of time sitting in traffic, it seems almost morally offensive. The Volt takes that lesson to burning gas in general, but without sacrificing the ideal of freedom afforded by an internal combustion engine and the energy density of petroleum. From a geopolitical standpoint, dramatically cutting fossil fuel usage in the Volt feels like as big a breakthrough.

Not only that, but the smooth, quiet operation makes the car feel luxurious. As one of our testers noted, it costs about as much as a BMW 3-series. It has similar tradeoffs, but a different set of benefits. Now if only I could get the horn to quit honking!

Updated 11-3-11

Eric Evarts

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