Review: 2012 Chevrolet Volt

GM CEO Dan Akerson was told Congress this past January that the Chevrolet Volt is a “political punching bag.” He’s right, of course. The car has not come close to meeting GM’s previously-stated sales targets (which have since been unceremoniously dropped), and part of the blame does lie at the feet of the fact that GM accepted a taxpayer-funded bailout. But could there be other reasons the Volt isn’t selling well? We borrowed a 2012 model for a week to find out. 

I began my week with the Volt as a fan of the car. When I last borrowed one, I genuinely felt like I was driving the future of transportation. The Volt and its ability to travel roughly 40 miles on electricity alone makes the car seem as if it’s the perfect transitional vehicle between out hydrocarbon-powered current state and an electron-powered future, without the range anxiety and necessity of waiting for infrastructure to catch up to the car. How much did I lime the Volt before my most recent quality time? I was very actively considering buying one lase December until I got cold feet.

The first time I reviewed the Volt, I lived with the car for a week, but barely used its gasoline engine.  Though the engine kicked in nearly every day at after roughly 40 miles of driving, I was only exceeding that by a small margin each day in my earlier Volt loan.  This time, my plan was to stay gasoline-free as much as possible, then embark on a trip that no pure EV could do:  Philadelphia’s suburbs to Boston’s suburbs.  Since the car did not really change between 2011 and 2012, the focus of this review is on what it’s like to live with the Volt rather than its driving dynamics, design, interior quality, etc.  If you want to read more about that stuff, read my earlier review here.

The Volt As a Daily Commuter
My daily commute is just over 24 miles each way, or 48 miles round trip.  I’ll spare you the suspense: I never managed to travel all 48+ miles on a single charge, despite my best efforts.  For one of the first times in my life, I was actually not disappointed to encounter traffic, though, because the Volt does much better efficiency-wise when it’s going about 40 miles per hour instead of 70-75 miles per hour.  I typically did better economy-wise in the mornings than in the afternoons because traffic was a bit slower and I didn’t need to run the air conditioning.  The best I was able to pull off was 47.2 miles on electricity out of a 48.7 mile trip (the last 1.5 miles used gasoline).  I used just 0.07 gallons of gasoline that day (about 25 cents worth at $3.50 per gallon), but 1.5 miles on 0.07 gallons of gasoline is actually about 21 miles per gallon.  In the Volt’s defense, the last mile and a half of my trip home are generally uphill.

The Volt’s strength is as a commuter car – but probably for someone who has a shorter commute than I do.  But even paying for a dollar’s worth of gasoline to finish your commute isn’t a big deal (at my CTS’s typical 21 MPG clip, I’m paying about $8.11 per day to get to/from the office at $3.50 per gallon).  Charging the Volt adds to your monthly electric bill, but it’s a small amount, and certainly far less than $8 per day.

The Volt As a Road Trip Car
I was curious to try the Volt as a long-distance tourer, though – something that the car is obviously capable of, but pretty far from its area of strength – hence the Boston trip.  Plus, I figured that the Volt would use far less fuel than my Cadillac, save my Cadillac from the wear and tear from that trip, and still get me the same corporate mileage reimbursement of $0.555 per mile.  Score!

I topped off the gas tank with premium unleaded (allegedly it’s required because premium fuel goes stale slower and because the engine can be tuned for greater efficiency) and set off after lunch on Mother’s Day, with about 30 miles of EV range remaining.  Before I got to the first exit on the PA Turnpike, the engine started, and I spent the next three days driving the car in range-extended mode.

Gradually, my average fuel economy fell from a reported “250+ MPG,” all the way to a final score of 36.0 MPG.  Over an 831.6-mile journey, I used 23.08 gallons of gasoline and 10.3 kWh of electricity; 792.0 miles on gasoline and 39.6 miles on electricity.  Had the 39.6 miles of EV driving not been included in the total, my range-extending mileage would have been 34.31.  Not great – and a far cry from the likes of the Prius (pick a Prius; any model tops the Volt’s range-extended highway mileage by a sizable margin), but also nearly respectable considering that I was either going 75 miles per hour or in stop-and-go traffic.

Can’t Find a Place To Charge
I was disappointed that there was little-to-no public EV charging infrastructure around Waltham, Mass. where I spent two nights.  I checked various websites, and the best I could do was an Adobe employees-only Level 2 charger (I’m not an Adobe employee, so no dice) or various public chargers roughly sixteen miles from my hotel.  It wouldn’t’ make much sense for me to drive the car (on gasoline) 16 miles, charge the car – for three or four hours – then drive it back to my hotel in EV mode, which would immediately consume nearly half of my available kWh.  My last hope was that I’d find a random 110-volt outlet in the parking garage that I could borrow while I was at the hotel (after all, at $25 per day for parking in the suburbs, they should be charging my car for me!), but struck out with that one too.  My return trip was to be all-gasoline.

Actually, that is not completely accurate.  Even in range-extended mode, the Volt does not run the engine constantly.  It shuts off the engine when the car is stopped, and won’t engage it in low-speed parking lot-type scenarios.  Remember, except in very limited circumstances, the Volt is driven exclusively by its electric motors, including when the gasoline engine is running.  Call for more power, and the gasoline engine runs harder, but there’s not exactly a 1:1 relationship between acceleration force and the sounds coming from the boiler room.  For instance, if the Volt is trying to restore its battery reserves, the engine runs rather hard, even in low speed scenarios, which can be a bit unnerving.

Wherever I took the Volt, it attracted questions and comments.  No wonder, either, considering that it’s one of the slowest-selling cars in the GM stable (though it has outsold the Corvette so far this year, as Corvette sales slow to a trickle in anticipation of the C7 next year.)

Mountain Mode = Self-Charging
Roughly two thirds into my return trip, I remembered a comment that the press fleet operator’s representative said to me when he dropped off my first Volt for review.  At that time, he mentioned that the battery was not totally depleted because he drove to my house in Mountain mode (the other choices are Normal and Sport).  Sport gives sharper throttle response and makes the Volt feel almost sporty (from the seat of your pants, it feels much faster than the stopwatch shows).  Mountain is designed to leave a larger reserve in the battery so that the four cylinder engine is not left huffing and puffing up a mountain without any assistance from the EV drivetrain.

Under typical use, engaging the Mountain setting immediately chops the car’s EV range by about ten miles to allow this larger reserve.  Though this is probably not news to Volt owners, or even students of the Volt, what I didn’t know was that the car allows the internal combustion engine (ICE) to partially charge the battery when EV range has been otherwise exhausted.  Despite this, the car will fib to you about the battery’s state of charge (which still shows empty).

Funny enough, I noticed that the estimated charge completion times kept moving earlier and earlier, so I suspected that the battery was charging in Mountain mode.  After driving for quite a while (probably 70+ miles, but I’m not sure exactly how far) in Mountain mode, when I pulled into my garage, shut down the car, then re-started it to move it a bit, EV range suddenly showed 14 miles of “free” range.  (Actually, it wasn’t truly free, because the ICE had to run faster and longer to generate those 14 miles of EV range.  Still, it’s kind of nice to know that you can recharge the battery pack on the go if you want to in order to ensure a full charge the next morning if you only have 110-volt service in your garage.

This brings me to another point.  One night, I met friends for dinner and drinks after work.  I took the Volt, and made it to the office on EV mode (natch – 24 miles, remember?) and made it to the restaurant in EV mode.  About halfway home, the battery was depleted and the ICE kicked in.  Normal so far.  But the only problem was, I was out kind of late, and the Volt needs almost ten hours for a full charge at 120 volts (and about four hours at 240 volts).  Getting home at 11:00 and leaving the house at 6:45 the next morning meant that I left with less than a full charge.  Had I known the Mountain mode charging trick at that time, it would have been a perfect time to use the trick.  As it turned out, in my eight days with the Volt, I only had one pure home-office-home commute with a full charge due to the business travel to Boston.  That was the day I came within a mile and a half of making it all on battery power.

Though the car performed well, I’m glad that I had the perspective of a second week with a Volt, and under different conditions than in my first time with the car.  It may have saved me $30,000 (after tax credits, of course).  It really does have amazing technology under its hood, but from a practical standpoint, one must question the necessity of paying as much as you have to in order to get it.  There is not really a sound economic argument for this car, but if you want to be on the cutting edge of personal mobility, and avoid using gasoline, this may be the way to go.

Stay tuned tomorrow for an editorial discussion of what the Volt needs in order to be more competitive.

Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.  I provided a few kWh of electricity.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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