— At a time when most of us stream YouTube videos and buy multimedia entertainment from the iTunes Store, the recollection of a time when we depended on a dial-up connection over an analog telephone land line to retrieve a few kilobytes of text may seem vaguely ridiculous.
But while our consumer entertainment and communications gadgets have advanced to nearly magical levels of capability, our nascent electric vehicle industry is still in its formative years, reminiscent of the dark ages of dial-up.
The Chevrolet Volt is an example of this. From the Volt’s driver’s seat we can glimpse the future, we can taste it, and we can even experience it to a degree. But just as when we despised the torturous wait to download a single picture online, the Volt and the current state of electric vehicle technology leaves us looking forward to the vehicular equivalent of broadband connectivity.
Want to charge the Volt using the included 120-volt charger? Be prepared to wait even longer than it used to take to send your boss a big PowerPoint file for final approval — way longer. It takes 10 hours.
Want to use the nifty-in-concept OnStar smartphone apps to check the car’s charging, or its battery status? Think about that creeping Windows progress bar and plan to wait long enough to download a big photo file over the dial-up connection.
And when the battery is fully charged and you’re ready to whir off to electric nirvana? Nirvana better not be far away, because if it’s cold and dark outside your ten hours on the charger will have bought you only about 26 miles of electric range.
GM now says the Volt’s range is between 25 and 50 miles rather than the 40 miles discussed previously. The difference is important because the 26 miles I experienced in the car I tested is a lot different from 40 miles when making a round-trip drive.
And the complication is that because it takes so long to achieve your 26 miles of range on the charger, it can be tough to keep the car at or near a full charge. Thankfully, GM charges only $500 (plus installation) for the 240-volt home charger, because if you fall behind with the built-in 120-volt charger it seems impossible to replenish the charge you’ve lost. (Suddenly, the 75-mile winter range of an electric-only model like the Nissan Leaf seems amazing.)
However, unlike the Leaf the Volt has a gas engine to fall back on. It generates power to spin the electric motor when the battery is depleted.
This is, of course, better than walking. But running on gas power isn’t the way for a driver to feel good about purchasing the Volt. Twenty-six miles down the road and the forty grand spent for the green goodness of electric drive is reduced to a gas-burning car that doesn’t do as well on the highway as the Chevrolet Cruz Eco — a conventionally-powered car built on the same platform as the Volt, but one that costs half as much.
Still, when it comes to everyday electric driving the Volt really delivers the goods. The numb electric-assisted power steering recalls the bad old days of American steering at parking lot speeds, inviting one-finger turning just like in Grandad’s old Cutlass, but it firms up at speed and provides a better feel once underway. The good thing about this problem is it’s a simple matter of a software tweak to eliminate that arcade game steering feel.
The Volt’s electric motor propels the car forward noiselessly and with impressive authority at low speeds. Electric motors make their maximum torque at low speeds, which can leave them wanting when 50-70 mph passing speed is needed to get clear of that big truck on the highway. Thankfully, the Volt musters adequate oomph at such speeds too, so the driver needn’t feel vulnerable when needing to squirt out of harm’s way.
I’ve found the ride in other versions of the Volt I’ve tested to be good, thanks to the road-hugging mass of a 435-lb. battery pack. However, the version of the car I tested for this review had a harsher ride than those others, and a quick check with GM confirmed that the 37 psi tire pressure was too high. (Maybe a previous tester was hypermiling with the higher pressure, but it isn’t good for the ride so I recommend sticking with 35 psi.)
The Volt is fundamentally sound in its operation, but there are areas for improvement.
The vehicle’s silent running in parking lots can sneak up on pedestrians, and blowing the horn would likely scare them to death, so Chevy has included the ability to make the horn quack like the AFLAC duck to warn of the Volt’s approach. It’s a neat idea, but having the horn control on the headlight dimmer means regularly quacking the horn accidentally when switch from high to low beams.
In fact, other controls in the Volt are designed so poorly they’d get a Microsoft engineer fired. In the middle of the dashboard — the “center stack” in industry parlance — is a smooth, high-gloss panel fitted with an array of capacitive switches, the kind that sense the touch of a finger. But they don’t sense the touch of a finger in a glove — this in a car that encourages you to forego heat to save the battery.
Additionally, the dozens of controls on the dashboard are hard to distinguish from one another. Want to find another radio station? Good luck with that. This abominable system recalls Ford’s infernal MyFordTouch system, with its interface that was so diabolical that Consumer Reports withheld its recommendation from the excellent Ford Edge because of the system’s shortcomings. At least MyFordTouch is optional on the Edge. The Volt only comes with these terrible controls, so it risks a similar rebuke despite its other qualities.
And then there’s the matter of the car’s lights. The single rear back-up light looks cool from the outside, but it casts a useless single cone of light rearward when backing at night.
A more serious issue is the dimness of the Volt’s headlights. Remember the toy headlights on Schwinns and Huffys growing up? They worked well in our imaginations, but cast little actual light, dashing our hopes of riding our bikes at night. Today, LED headlights for bikes create the appearance of motorcycles on the bike path at night, so bright are the lights. So while the Volt driver aims to conserve electricity as frugally as Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, a switch to LED lights will both save power and improve the light.
Tony Posawatz, Volt’s chief engineer, hinted that better lights may be coming to future versions of the Volt. Chevy is already testing the 2012 version, adding small upgrades and planning to certify the car as a California Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle, a label that requires a ten-year battery warranty. So having finished the race to deliver the first Volt, Chevy’s engineers can now go back and improve things that weren’t optimized in the rush to production.