Monday, October 20, 2014

It's like a Tesla, but with a cheaper price tag

In some ways, the 2013 Chevy Volt is better than an electric car, because it is not an electric car. The Volt belongs in a new class of car called plug-in hybrids. For a simple explanation, a plug-in hybrid runs on pure electric power for a given distance, for the Volt it is about 30-40 miles, depending on driving styles etc etc, then switches over to a gasoline-electric powertrain similar to that of regular hybrids, like the Toyota Prius. When the gas engine kicks on in the Volt, it can extend the vehicles' range about another 300 miles.

     Obviously, this means that the vehicles actual fuel economy will vary depending on how you drive. Buyers who have a commute that is shorter than 30 miles can have the ability to drive to and from work using no gas, and then pluging your vehicle into the charger when you get home. The charging process can take upto 10 hours however, depending on several things.

     For 2013, Volt engineers introduced a new wrinkle into the equation, a hold mode. Let's say you are about to take a drive that involves lots of highway driving followed by stop-and-go city traffic. In Normal mode, most of the electric power would be wasted on the highway. Selecting Hold allows the driver to engage all-electric power when most appropriate.

     The 2013 Chevrolet Volt is a mid-size four door hatchback with seating for 4. Standard features include 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlights, LED running lamps, heated mirrors, keyless ignition/entry, remote ignition, automatic climate control, cruise control, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth, OnStar emergency communications, MyLink (which includes Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, voice-controlled audio functions and enhanced smartphone integration) and a six-speaker sound system with a touchscreen interface, a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB interface.
The Comfort package adds heated front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
     Other packages include things like leather upholestry, and a removeable rear center armrest. Stand-alone options include things such as a 7-speaker bose sound system, to which navigation can be added.

The 2013 Chevy Volt is a front-wheel drive vehicle that is mostly powered by an electric motor that puts out 149 horsepower and 273 lb.-ft of torque. The electric motor is fed by a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack until the battery charge is around 70 percent depleted, and at that point, the 1.4 liter 4 cylinder engine grumbles to life to power the electric motor. In certain situations, the gas engine can also come online to boost the performance of the car. Driving modes are Normal, Hold, Sport, and Mountain that are designed to maximize the performance of the powertrain and efficency in different situations.

     To recharge the battery pack completely, it requires plugging the car into a 120- or 240- volt outlet, though regenerative braking and the engine generator helps to some rather small extent. During testing, the Volt was found to have about 37 miles of all-electric range. Once the battery was depleted, fuel economy was a solid 37 miles per gallon.

     During performance testing, the Volt took about 9.2 seconds to reach 60 mph overall, using either all electric, or the gasoline generator. That is a rather good time for any vehicle in the hybrid segement. Braking was also rather good, and the brakes still felt strong after a couple of hard stops. Handling, however isn't the best area of this car, thanks to the low-rolling resistance Goodyears equipped on this tester.

     The list of standard safety features on the 2013 Chevrolet Volt include: ABS, Stability control, front-seat side impact airbags, front knee airbags, and full length side curtain airbags. Also standard is Onstar, which includes automatic crash notification, on-demand roadside assistance, remote door unlocking, stolen vehicle assist, and turn by turn navigation.

     In government crash testing, the Volt scored an overall average of 5 stars ( the highest possible,) with 5 stars for both frontal and side-impact categories.

     Inside the 2013 Chevrolet Volt, the 4 passenger feel has a somewhat modern feel to it, thanks in large part to the touch sensitive controls inspired by the well-known brand of personal electronics. While the design does create a somewhat cutting-edge mood, in testing the small and similar looking buttons can be difficult to identify at a quick glance. If you are wearing gloves, they also don't work well at all.

     The gauge cluster is a nice futuristic touch, as it is really a display screen that shows you speed, battery and or gas level, the various trip functions, and a graphic that encourages you to drive more efficently. It can be overwhelming at first, and the screen also has a habit of washing out in direct sun, but most people that laid eyes on it found it to be incredibly useful, and some even said helpful.

     From a looks point of view, the cabin looks great and has a rather refined feel to it thanks to higher quality materials. The lack of a power adjustable drivers seat and a somewhat small second row are on the disappointing side of things, especially considering the price range the car is in. The Volt's hatchback design makes for a super easy loading and unloading of the hatch/trunk area, which is a large plus. However, at 10.6 cubic feet of space with the seats up, it puts it at a huge disadvantage when compared to cars like the Toyota Prius.

     Driving the 2013 Volt is rather rewarding. It accelerates quickly from a standstill on a wave of torque typical of electric power, and it behaves like a potent hybrid when the battery juice runs out. The Volt's appeal goes further than the powertrain though. From the excellent ride quality, to the response and feel of the steering, the Volt drives more like say, a Malibu, than it does like a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight.

   There are some minor oddities and annoyances to note, however. The change over from battery charge to generator can be hard to notice, but once you do it might take you a while to get used to the engine revving regardless of your speed. The brake pedal can also be a little on the touchy side and hard to modualte, but the brakes do work rather well. A small annoyance would be the low-hanging front air dam, which scrapes on almost every single speed bump or driveway.

     As is the usual case with hybrid buyers, bottom line minded people might want to spend a little bit of time crunching the numbers. Though the cost of charging the Volt is a bargain compared to the price of gas, the high sticker price of the car can be hard to justify, even with th $7,500 federal tax credit. Good news on that front though, for 2014, Chevrolet lowered the price of the Volt by about $5,000.

     For this reason, buyers might also want to take a look at some cheaper alternatives, like the all electric Ford Focus Electric, or Nissan Leaf. They are cheaper, and might better satisfy your possible green desires. Also not to forget, the Ford C-Max Energi and Toyota Prius Plug-In might also be vehicles to look into. Yet, at the current moment, the Volt offers up to 50 miles of pure electric driving, and is the nicest driving green car, which should more than make up for some of the price issue.

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