My First Month with the Chevy Volt

Ventura, California resident David Loe shares his experiences with his electric hybrid.

Published: 21-Feb-2011

Now that I'm the owner of an electric car, I have a new routine to follow each morning. Before driving off in my Chevy Volt, I must unplug the bright orange electric cable from the car and loop it over the 240-volt charger mounted on my garage wall. You see, the Volt feeds off the grid while we humans sleep — and one needs to remember to detach its umbilical cord before motoring off.

Of course you can charge an electric car whenever you want, but I've programmed my Volt to limit its craving for electrons to the overnight hours when there is little demand on the electric grid and Southern California Edison rates are at their lowest. Some nights the Volt is just a little thirsty. However, depending on my previous day's driving, it may be ready to have its battery completely recharged. Either way, it takes about four hours of charging before the beast is fully satisfied.

Oh, by the way, (I knew your were wondering) if one overlooks detaching the cord before driving what happens? Does that mean one makes a fool of themselves by dragging the cord behind mile after mile? No, those engineers in Detroit anticipated the occasional mental lapse. The Volt won't move until it is unplugged. I'm not going to tell you how I happen to know that.

Beyond the issue of feeding it daily, what's it like living with an electric car? It's amazing - and amazingly quiet. I'm still trying to figure out whether the car's Bose sound system is really that good or if it's just because I'm hearing it with so little background noise.

I had driven a Toyota Prius (actually two different models) for the past 10 years, so I was already used to the refreshing sensation of silence and lack of vibration when a car's engine turns itself off at stoplights. But not having any engine noise while driving at freeway speed? Wow! All I can say is keep an eye on the speedometer. It's mighty easy to exceed the speed limit with only the muted feedback of rubber on asphalt. Fortunately, the Volt is governed to go no faster than 100 mph. I'm not going to tell you how I happen to know that.

So how many miles can you drive on a fully charged Volt battery? That is always the first question people ask when they discover I'm driving an electric car. I'll share my personal experience in a moment, but the actual answer is, "it depends." There are three key variables: technique (heavy footed or light) terrain (hills or flatland) and the most important of all temperature (is it 20 degrees or 70 outside?).

In reading the blogs of Volt drivers around the county, one fact becomes abundantly clear; Ventura County is the perfect place to own an electric vehicle. Last month Volt owners in the Midwest and east reported getting 30 percent fewer miles per charge than those in Southern California. Keeping passengers warm when it's below freezing outside is a battery zapper. Surprisingly, it takes as much juice to warm an electric car's interior in cold climates as it does to propel it.

Air conditioning is a similar, if not as serious, an issue. So again, the moderate climate of Ventura County assures maximum driving range. So far, all I usually need is the fan blowing in outside air to be perfectly comfortable, and that's a minuscule drain on the battery.

Surveys show that the biggest stumbling block to getting Americans to embrace the idea of owning an electric car is their fear of getting stuck somewhere with a dead battery. It is because of this range anxiety that the Chevy Volt seems like the perfect car during America's transition to electric driving. Some day recharging stations will be everywhere fast food restaurants shopping malls your doctor's office basically anywhere you might spend thirty minutes to a couple of hours while your car is getting charged. But, as of today, it is nearly impossible to find a public charging station in Ventura County, although there is one at Camarillo Premium Outlets.

What makes the Chevy Volt unique is there is a Plan B when the battery is depleted. A gasoline-powered engine is built in to act as a generator to pump electricity into the battery when necessary. My experience in my first month of ownership is that 80 percent of my daily driving around Ventura County is strictly off the battery using the overnight charge and no gasoline. But the vehicle carries enough fuel to power the battery for more than 300 extra miles, which would come in handy for a serious road trip.

I'm averaging 35-40 miles of driving range on each battery charge. That will handle a round-trip from Ventura to Camarillo or Ojai to Ventura. When I need to go from one end of the county to the other, I'm on battery one-way and thankful for the generator on the way back.

Most commuters in our area could drive entirely on battery power. A longer commute would still be battery-only if you could recharge where you work. The Volt comes with a plug-in cable for any wall socket. At 110 volts, recharging is slower, but the battery would be mostly, if not entirely, recharged during an average workday.

How about oomph? I find the electric motor has no challenge powering the Volt up the Conejo Grade at 65 mph. The battery drains quickly going up a steep incline like that, but you get some of that back. On the way down the grade it regains battery power through regenerative braking when the vehicle is coasting. A process you can actually monitor from the dashboard.

Three weeks into my ownership of the Volt, but still with a mostly full gas tank, I visited a service station. The only thing I had missed about gas stations was that my windshield wasn't getting clean by itself. Besides using their squeegee, what I wanted to do was verify the crazy numbers my dashboard display was telling me. I had driven a little over 600 miles and the Volt was insisting I was getting close to 200 miles per gallon. The onboard computer was technically correct. I could only nudge a little more than three gallons into its tank.

Great for bragging rights, but of course that it is a wee-bit deceptive. One has to figure in the cost of the electricity used over most of those 600 miles to get a more reasonable gauge of just how much energy is being consumed. Those mathematical calculations bedeviled the EPA, which took a long time to figure out how to quantify the estimated mileage of electric cars.

The vehicle's window sticker displays EPA's final resolution; something it calls a "miles per gallon equivalent." The Volt's equivalent is 93 mpg when operating on battery power; a number still well worth bragging about.

And speaking of the sticker, the bottom line on mine, with a couple of extra features was $42,205. The federal government, in an attempt to jump-start America's electric car conversion, gives buyers a $7,500 tax credit. Even with that help, the Volt is expensive.

At least for now, GM is advertising a $350 per month lease. That's an amazing bargain, even in California — where with fees and taxes it really works out closer to $400. I found the credit check painstaking to the extreme, which led me to believe that either someone is not anxious to write a lot of these leases, or my personal credit rating is a total embarrassment.

After a month of living with the Chevy Volt, I would describe it as an engineering marvel. The car is a significant technological leap over any other vehicle out there.

Chevrolet has gotten drivers like me excited about driving an American-made car again.

And that extra daily step of dealing with electrical cables before pulling out of my garage, is it a nuisance? Quite the contrary, I find it a thrill. I can't believe I'm driving a car that doesn't rely on gasoline. Unplugging each morning, for me, represents freedom from reliance on foreign oil and its effect on our nation's trade deficit. And I love the fact that when I'm chugging along on battery power absolutely no emissions are coming out of my car's tail pipe.

I feel like I'm riding the wave of the future.

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