Auto Review: The extended-range electric

By Bill Heald - ReminderNews
Feature Article - posted Thu., Jun. 16, 2011
- Contributed Photo

It seems like only yesterday (although it was a few weeks ago) that I told you about the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, which is a car that will be available in about a year. This vehicle uses both electric motors and a gas engine for propulsion in order to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. To further its battery-powered electric operation, it can be plugged into a 110V (or 220V) outlet to charge the batteries, in addition to the charging that takes place when the vehicle is coasting or braking.

The now-available Chevrolet Volt is GM’s much-anticipated version of this technology; only it takes the concept much further. In this case, the Lithium-Ion battery package is much larger and more powerful, and the front-drive powertrain is motivated purely by battery power without any substantive engine input. This means we have an electric vehicle that requires an electric source for charging, but those seeking range should fear not. Beneath the hood resides a 1.4-liter Inline Four that serves as a generator for the batteries, if needed, so the Volt is actually called an extended-range (easily over 350 miles) electric vehicle.

There’s a 9.3-gallon fuel tank to supply the engine, and an electric port just in front of the driver’s door to plug in the Volt’s charger. Plugging the car in isn’t strictly necessary, for the engine can keep the batteries working, but for maximum efficiency, you should access electric power whenever you can. On a full charge, I regularly got 35 to 40 miles on pure electric power before the engine would kick in. The charge itself required about 10 hours starting from a depleted battery (at regular household 110V, half that time on 220V), which took an average of 12.6 kW hours of power. That roughly translates to about $2 per day in utility costs here in Connecticut.

Power delivery is seamless (0-60 mph in around 9 seconds), and the Volt is quiet and responsive. Handling is secure and agile (it’s modeled on the Chevy Cruze) and it’s a pleasure to drive. The brakes are excellent, and the Volt was just granted a 5-Star crash rating.

The battery pack that runs down the spine of the interior relegates the Volt to just 2+2 seating, but the individual perches are quite accommodating. The driver’s information display is as futuristic as the drivetrain, with an LCD instrument cluster (with a gas gauge that stays grayed out until the engine starts to charge the batteries) and big, clear LCD touch screen in the center stack. The touch interface controls take some adjustment time but work well, and overall the Volt is both entertaining and easy to live with.

So the big question is what kind of gas mileage the car gets, and the answer is actually semi-complicated. The EPA numbers are 93 MPG when fully charged and driven 35 miles, or 37 MPG when the charge is used up and the on-board engine powers the motors. Charging the car completely every night, I averaged 72 MPG when driven about 50 miles a day. The sticker came to $43,390, but there is a $7,500 tax credit available that will lower this price considerably.

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