We have driven the future — and it’s quiet, very quiet. As part of the Chevy Volt Unplugged Tour traveling around the U.S., we got behind the wheel of a production all-electric car, which will be in showrooms in seven American markets before the end of the year. You’ll see the Chevy Volt in Washington, D.C., Michigan, California, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It will be available in all 50 states within 12 to 18 months.
Before we even got behind the wheel, our first encounter with the car almost turned physical. We were standing in front of the vehicle taking photos and it started moving our way, driven by another press person. Unlike gas-powered cars, there is literally no sound so as we concentrated on our shots, the car came our way. We quickly moved out of the way as the driver was going about 3 mph, and we weren’t on his enemies list. Still, the most radical aspect of the Volt—besides the Green Story—is the fact it’s unbelievably quiet.
Getting into the car, you soon discover there’s no ignition key. A sensor in the door-opener remote preps the car electronically for start-up. You just press the power button next to the nav screen and the car fires up. Forget engine rumbles or gurgling carburetors. You hear a cool “whoosh” sound effect, which lets you know the motor is on. We have to admit this is very disconcerting, but we got over it in about 10 seconds. We did marvel at the relative silence driving around the traffic-clogged streets of midtown Manhattan.
Forget any preconceived notions you may have about an electric car having the pep of a golf cart. We had no issues whatsoever moving quickly at green lights — a must in NYC with lunatic cab drivers honking their horns behind you. The car handled nicely — another plus in NYC, and we even stomped on the pedal to jump off the line quickly on Madison Avenue. Forget squealing tires, but there was plenty of pep. Unfortunately, the lines of media people prevented us from going on the FDR Drive—a nearby highway — so we could change lanes at speed. Another longer test drive will be required to make a final judgment, but for basic urban driving, the Volt performed just fine.
Are there issues with this car? You bet. Battery-only range is between 25 and 50 miles, depending on your use and the outside temperature. Using the heater or AC cuts the distance, as does a heavy foot. Fortunately the car also has a small gas engine that charges the battery adding another 200 miles. Unlike the gas-hybrid Prius, the Volt only uses the electric motor to drive the wheels. And how about pulling up to “filling station” for some battery juice? It takes approximately 10 hours to charge a depleted battery using standard 120V current; half that if you have a 240V source. A Chevy spokesperson envisioned owners simply plugging in their cars when they pull into the garage so it can power-up overnight. There are very few gas stations with electric charging stations, but Chevy people note building this infrastructure is ongoing, with some parking garages adding the feature.
As is befitting for a futuristic car, the dashboard has a nice rocket ship feel. There’s heavy use of attractive onscreen icons so you’re aware of the car’s key settings and measurements. A rotating green globe lets you know if you’re driving eco-efficiently. The car I drove had 3,018 miles on it with an average MPG of 42.1. The nav screen is very good, and below it are capacitive controls with audible feedback to access the sound system, climate controls, and so on. Given we’re in an iPad world, a touch screen with the ability to zoom should be on Chevy engineers’ drawing boards. Of course, it has Bluetooth, a 30GB hard drive, USB and aux inputs, XM satellite radio, a Bose audio system and OnStar (5 years free).
Sounds great, right? Wrong. The Chevy Volt loaded with optional leather seats and rear view camera is about $45K, the base model is $41,000. Chevy people are quick to say you get a $7,500 energy tax credit from the Feds, but that’s still $33,500 to $37,500 net, a lot of green for a green car. The Nissan Leaf all-electric car with a 62 to 138 mile range has an MSRP of $32,780. Deduct the $7,500 rebate and the price hits $25,280. The 51 to 48 MPG Prius V with every conceivable option is $36,378 — and that’s before dickering with the dealer. The Volt does not have official EPA mileage numbers at this time.
Given the high initial price, it will be many, many years before electric vehicles drive gas-powered cars off the road to any significant extent. Still it was exciting to be at a pleasant ground zero as electric vehicles
become a reality. Just be careful crossing the street; you’ll never hear that electric car heading your way…