Road Worrier

Chevy Volt pricey but solid

Staff WriterNovember 2, 2010 

Once you figure out the Chevy Volt's bewildering array of knobs, buttons and pulsing dashboard animations, the rest is easy.

"Drives like a normal car," Frank Elliott said Monday after he took a charcoal-gray Volt for a spin in downtown Raleigh.

That's reassuring. General Motors has been hyping its mostly electric car for three years, but until now there have been no answers and few clues to big questions about how the Volt works and whether Americans will want to drive it.

The four-seat compact, with a base price of $41,000, will go on sale in a few major cities, including Washington, in December. GM stopped in Raleigh on Monday as part of a 12-city promotional tour. The Road Worrier and other local drivers lined up for a chance to try it out.

Unlike the all-electric Nissan Leaf - also hitting the market this fall - the Volt has a 1.4-liter gas engine alongside its battery-powered electric motor. It looks a bit like Toyota's Prius, but it's a new breed in gas-and-electric cars.

GM says you can recharge a depleted Volt battery from a standard 120-volt outlet in eight hours, or a 240-volt outlet in three hours. Depending on local utility rates, a full charge costs about $1.50.

A charged 400-pound battery takes you the first 25 to 50 miles of your trip, depending on how many passengers you're carrying and whether you're running the air conditioner. After that, the gas engine turns on to power a generator that sends electricity to the motor - so the car itself keeps running on electric power.

Other hybrids use torque from the gas engine to help turn the wheels directly. But GM says this happens only under certain high-speed cruising conditions on the highway in the Volt. Even though the Volt has a gas engine and a nine-gallon tank, GM prefers to call it an electric or an "extended-range electric" car - instead of a hybrid.

Nice car, solid feel

Whatever they call it, the Volt is a nice car with a solid feel. The hardest part is learning how to get moving.

"All you've got to do is put your foot on the brake and push the 'Power' button," said Trent Warnke, a GM engineer who rode in the back seat. "No, it's there on your right. Yep, that's it. Now the car's running."

Then he ran through some of the gauges and options on a pair of busy 7-inch video screens. The Volt's electric motor is so quiet that GM added a muted-toot noisemaker to alert pedestrians as you sneak up on them in parking lots.

But we didn't have all day.

"That's really about it," Warnke said. "There's a bunch of cool stuff, but it would take us an hour to go through everything that's here."

The car handled just fine on a short, constrained loop through a few downtown blocks, in a trip that lasted about six minutes.

The Volt has earned good reviews so far from automobile writers who have taken it out for daylong test-drives.

'Feels like a real car'

"People might wonder if it's super-light-weight, but it feels like a real car," Joe Weisenfelder, senior editor at cars.com, said in a telephone interview. "I have a good feeling about this car, as someone who has been testing cars for a number of years."

The Environmental Protection Agency is scratching its head now about how to rate the Volt on fuel economy. GM is accepting orders, but it can't start delivering cars until it receives that miles-per-gallon EPA sticker.

"When you're using electricity, you're running with pretty much infinity miles per gallon," Warnke said. "If you drive less than that 50 miles between charges, you're probably not going to burn any gas. But if you never plugged it in and you drove around on gas all the time, you would get in the high-30s miles per gallon."

Elliott, a writer and video producer who works for thecity of Winston-Salem, made the trip to Raleigh just for the chance to drive the Volt.

Best of both worlds

"For me it would be wonderful, because my daily commute is 24 miles round-trip," Elliott said. "I could drive all-battery, all day, plug it in at night, and not have to use gas most of the time.

"But if suddenly I have to drive from Winston-Salem to Raleigh for the day, I could do it," he said, with a gas tank good for about 300 miles. "That's what appeals to me most about the Volt - it's the best of both worlds."

There are some risks and downsides for consumers to consider, Weisenfelder said, including how reliable the Volt will be and its potential resale value.

The Volt's sticker price will discourage many buyers, even with a $7,500 federal clean-car tax credit that cuts it down to $33,500.

"I can't afford that," Elliott said. "But I can afford the lease. The lease is a sweet price."

GM and Nissan are making use of the federal tax credit to offer attractive lease rates for the Volt and the Leaf, Weisenfelder said. The Volt will lease for about $2,500 down and $350 a month over three years.

Make contact: 919-829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com. On the Web at twitter.com/Road_Worrier/ and blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown/. Please include address and daytime phone.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service