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Chevy Volt Revisited: A Solid 40-Mile EV with a Range Extender

Article by: Paul Gipe

I have revisited my harsh criticism of the Chevy Volt. In the summer of 2011, I was asked to test drive the car for Automobile Magazine as part of a photo shoot among the wind farms in the Tehachapi Pass. My critique can be found at Electric Car Notes by Paul Gipe 05: Chevy Volt Test Drive based on that experience.

Chris Bagdikian, the late editorial page editor for the Bakersfield Californian, took me to task for my criticism. He loved his Volt and his essay is a good summary of why many take the Volt seriously.

Our 2013 Chevy Volt on a test trip up to 10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada.

We’ve now owned a 2013 Volt for three weeks. True, that’s not long, but we’ve put nearly 1,000 miles on it and I would have to say that Bagdikian was right. It’s one solid electric vehicle (EV) that also includes a range extending gasoline engine. It is not a plug-in hybrid after all.

The Volt is an EV

Most people drive the Chevy Volt as an EV. It has a real-world EV range of 38-40 miles before the engine kicks in. Unlike a typical battery electric vehicle (BEV), you can drive the Volt as an EV until the battery is exhausted, knowing that you can get to the next charge station on the gasoline engine. Obviously, you can’t do that in a BEV, or you end up pushing it.

Unless you’ve owned an EV, you don’t realize this dilemma.  For example, John Rowell learned this the hard way once when he wanted to charge at our house. (We’re on Plugshare.) Unfortunately, in Rowell’s case our charge station is up a slight hill. He ran out of juice literally in our drive way and he couldn’t quite push his Mitsubishi iMiev up our drive. Our neighbor had to tow him into place. With the Volt we can cruise up the drive way after running the battery to zero.

We are now a two EV family: Evie I (Leaf), Evie II (the Volt). We driven the Leaf for two full years and I’ve written extensively about the experience. See EV Trip Reports.

In practice, we drive our Leaf 50-60 miles before charging with 20-30 miles left on the range indicator. We drive the Volt to empty at 40 miles. The net result isn’t much different. We charge the Volt more often, but not that much more than the Leaf.

As noted, most miles on the Volt are EV miles. Our car has 36,000 miles on the odometer and the running tally was 92 miles per gallon during the three year period when it was on lease. This is similar to how other Volt owners have used the car. Stats on the Volt show that, on average, the car is driven as an EV two-thirds of the time, giving the fleet an average efficiency of nearly 110 miles per gallon. That’s impressive no matter how you look at it.

Volt is a Premium Drive

We are still forming our impressions, but our first take is that the Volt is a much more high-end car than Nissan’s Leaf, certainly the base model Leaf we drive. The Volt is the “fanciest” or most expensive car we’ve ever owned. We probably wouldn’t have bought the 2013 Volt new as its original sticker price was outside our comfort zone. It’s affordable to us because we could buy it used. (2017 Volts are substantially less than were the 2013 models.)

The Volt is solid and well made. It was assembled by UAW 22 in Hamtramck, Michigan. (Our Leaf and its battery pack were built in Tennessee in a non-union shop.) The Volt is quiet even on the gasoline engine. It rides smooth and solid. The doors close with a reassuring thump that you’d expect in a high-end car.

My new take: The Volt is a Tesla for the rest of us. Sure, on road trips you drive the Volt as a gasser, but most of the time you drive it around town as an EV. That’s how we use it.

We took a mini vacation in the Volt up the East Side of the Sierra Nevada—a trip that’s just not possible today in the Leaf. We put the Volt through its paces, driving it up to nearly 10,000 feet five different times. We drove it in all different modes: normal, mountain, and hold. It worked fine either way.

The EPA rating on the gasoline engine is 37 mpg. We measured our Volt at 39-41 mpg on the gasoline engine for the trip of 660 miles. Not as good as our previous Prius, but more than good enough when coupled with the EV.

Some Criticism Still Valid

Some of my early criticism of GM and its design choices remain. Bagdikian liked the sports-car feel of the car. He liked the “cockpit.” I don’t. GM’s Bob Lutz aimed the Volt toward the sports car crowd and I think that was a mistake. His design put me off. The cramped interior doesn’t sit well with an aging baby boomer looking for a car that makes entry and exit easy. And let’s face it; it was boomers that drove acceptance of the Prius and Nissan’s Leaf as well. Lutz missed the market that both can afford a Volt and who might want an EV with a range extending engine.

GM’s choice for a T-shaped traction battery is understandable for when the car was conceived—there weren’t a lot of options then. The T-shape dictates the cramped interior, and the need for a gas tank and gasoline engine dictate the overall size of the car and its heavier weight relative to Nissan’s Leaf.

Most EVs, such as the Leaf and Tesla’s Model S, went to the skateboard platform and that’s clearly a better choice for a spacious interior. GM’s has also moved to the skateboard platform for its forthcoming Bolt BEV. GM stayed with the T-shaped pack for second generation Volt and will probably stick with it through the product’s life cycle.

Worse, the Volt also has only a 3.3 kW on board charger. Again, understandable for its day and for how GM thought the car would be used. But it takes a full four hours with the 3 kW charger to fully charge the Volt. And there’s no fast charge capability at all.

GM has not addressed these limitations in its second generation Volt. They’ve increased the onboard charger to 3.6 kW but not to 6.6 kW that it really needs to be used most effectively as an EV. Nor have they added fast charging capability. GM expects that when you take the Volt on a road trip you will drive the car as a gasser.

When you’re a two EV family and it takes substantially longer to fully charge the Volt as opposed to a full BEV, such as the Leaf, the Volt ends up hogging a lot of the home charge port. That’s fine for us, we’re early adopters, but it may not be acceptable to other families.

No Degradation

One thing that GM did right was in its management of the battery. I was concerned that a three-year old Volt would have lost some capacity of the traction battery. Our two-year old Nissan Leaf has lost two kWh or 10% of its capacity, the equivalent of 8-10 miles of range, since we leased it.

The 2013 Volt had a usable capacity of 10.3 kWh and it still has. Of course GM allows drivers to only use a portion of that big 16.5 kWh battery hogging up the interior of the car. The large reserve GM set aside and GM’s active thermal management of the battery pack enables them to offer a full warranty on the drive train.

Would we want more of that 16.5 kWh battery pack to actually drive on? Sure. GM made a calculated decision. I can’t say they were wrong. Would I use a hack–if it was available–that allowed us to use more of the traction battery’s capacity to drive with? You bet. Bring it on.

We’re happy with the Volt. We’re glad we dumped our aging Prius. With both the Volt and the Leaf we can also better utilize our ClipperCreek charge station that’s already paid for. 

Electric Car Notes by Paul Gipe 05: Chevy Volt Test Drive

Chris Bagdikian’s Take on the Chevy Volt–I Love it

Electric Vehicle Charging Stations or EVSEs