By Kevin Miller
From an engineering perspective, Chevrolet’s Volt is a technological tour de force that both highlights GM’s commitment to technology, and their engineering muscle as a global organization. It is able to travel around 35 miles on full charge, and nearly 300 more using its onboard ICE “range extender” to make electricity. While our Editor-in-Chief separately spent five days in another Chevrolet Volt, I had two days in one in which I was able to experience some of the ups and downs of EV ownership.
When operating using its ICE generator, it returns about 37 MPG, which is less than a comparably sized Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, or Ford Focus. That being the case, the Volt’s efficiency is truly realized only when it can be recharged between uses.
With all of the talk of a nationwide recharging infrastructure for electric vehicles, such an infrastructure is truly in its infancy. Trying to locate public charging facilities near my suburban Seattle-area home, several internet searches turned up a University of Washington parking garage about 12 miles away. When I drove there (specifically attempting to use a public charging station), I needed to have a pre-configured membership/subscription to that brand of charging stations in order to connect.
The only other electric vehicle charging spots I could find were at the new City Hall in my town of Shoreline, WA. Less than two miles from my home, I didn’t technically need to recharge there, but a recent Grand Opening flyer had advertised Electric Vehicle charging spots for citizens conducting business at City Hall. I actually did need to stop at City Hall to sign up for an activity with the Parks department. When I arrived at City Hall, I found four spots labeled “Electric Vehicle” with household 120 V outlets, and two with household 240 V outlets. I was dismayed to find all six of those parking spots filled by non-electrical vehicles with “City Employee Parking Permit” stickers on them. After finishing my business at the Parks Department, I was directed to the Facilities department so that I could ask why the EV spots, which were advertised as available to city residents, were taken by city employees whose vehicles are not electric; the representative’s response was that “nobody has electric vehicles.” As a city resident who pays taxes for the “privilege” of having public EV parking/charging spots, I was remarkably underwhelmed by that response. I’ve followed up several times with my contact at City Hall, but at last check the city employees were still parking in those spots, as they’re the closest ones to the entrance of City Hall.
So while the public charging infrastructure is still under development, most buyers of plug-in vehicles have 240 V chargers installed at their homes. Those chargers can typically charge a Volt in four-to-six hours. Absent such chargers, the Volt can be charged with a 120 V cordset charger. That charger has two charge “speeds”, one that charges at about 8.3 A, the other that charges at about 11.8 A. The low speed takes about 14 hours to recharge; the high speed takes around 8-10 hours.
I had wondered why there were two charge settings; when I got the Volt the charger was set on the low setting; I adjusted it to the higher one and plugged it in to the single electrical outlet in my garage, which is shared with an upright freezer. About 90 minutes later, I heard the Volt’s horn honking intermittently in the garage; the 15 A circuit breaker protecting the electrical circuit in my garage had tripped when my freezer cycled on; I re-initiated charging at the lower setting after re-setting the charger to charge at the lower current setting.
Because I had the Volt for only two days and I wanted to drive it in electric mode as much as possible, I hauled the charge cord out of the trunk at every stop I made if there was an electrical outlet available. When preparing to leave, I then had to coil the charger up and put it back in the trunk. It would only fit in its underfloor storage cubby if very neatly coiled; by the end of my first day with the Volt I found myself haphazardly coiling up the cord and tossing the charger in the trunk.
During my two days with the Volt I managed to travel 197 miles, the majority of which was in a single 120 mile trip. That trip started with 11 miles of electric range; after 11.7 miles the generator switched on. I ended up traveling 112 miles on gas and used 3.0 gallons, for an average of 37.33 per gallon of premium fuel when operating from the gas range extender.
Let’s assume that a full charge will take us 37.33 miles, which is the same distance as one gallon of premium unleaded. With that fuel costing around $4.25/gallon at the time of writing, and a full charge costing just $1.62, there is a theoretical saving of $2.63 per 37 miles (or 7.1 cents/mile) traveled if operated on electricity.
Consider that the Volt starts at $40,280, and a similarly equipped Chevrolet Cruze LTZ starts at $22,295. Using www.truedelta.com, to compare price as equipped, a similarly-equipped Cruze costs about $26,110, and after the $7500 federal tax credit, the Volt costs $35,590, which is a difference of $9480. Accounting for the theoretical costs above, it would take 133,368 miles of driving, with those fixed energy costs, to offset the difference in cost between a Volt and a Cruze.
Looking at the equation differently, assume that a Volt driver’s monthly commute covers those same 37.33 miles every day. Each day, the cost of electricity would be $1.62. The Cruze, with a combined fuel economy rating of 28 MPG, would require (at $4.00/gallon regular fuel) $5.28 per day in fuel to operate. That’s a daily saving of $3.66, which equates to a fuel savings of about $110 per month. Based on fuel savings alone, the break-even point for the $9480 cost difference is about 86 months, or just over 7 years.
So while the Volt is in many regards a technological masterpiece, it remains, like other hybrid vehicles, more of a status symbol for the “green crowd” than a tool for saving money.
GM provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas (which was barely used) for this review.