Electric Car Notes by Paul Gipe 05: Chevy Volt Test Drive

By Paul Gipe

Technically, the Volt is a plug-in hybrid, not a pure electric. GM prefers to call it an “extended-range electric” because the car, unlike a Prius hybrid, is always powered by the electric motor. When the batteries are discharged, the engine-generator charges the batteries, but does not power the wheels directly. In the Prius, above 15 mph or under load the engine kicks in and drives the wheels.

Frankly, I don’t care what GM’s marketing department calls it to distinguish the Volt from the Prius and Nissan’s Leaf, to me it’s a plug-in hybrid.

Disclosure: I worked for GM’s Delco-Remy division in Anderson, Indiana from 1968-to-1970 as a co-op engineering student and I attended GMI (General Motors Institute of Technology, now Kettering Institute–I do not have an engineering degree or a degree from GMI.) Today, there no GM plants left in Anderson. The plants I worked in were leveled, the equipment shipped to Mexico–and elsewhere. Even the foundations have been removed.

What I learned on the test drive is that the Volt is built upon Chevy Cruze’s chassis. Privately, I’d been critical of the Volt’s styling. I know now that I should have been criticizing the styling of the Cruze. (I’d never heard of the Cruze until the test drive-and I certainly didn’t know how to spell it until today. That shows you how out-of-touch I am with GM designs.)

I am also highly critical of the styling for the Prius. Despite what some may think, the Prius was redesigned after its introduction to appear “distinctive” and not practical. The original version was practical and functional. Our Prius and all those after 2004 have poor sight lines. This is a safety concern. Styling should always take a back seat to safety. Japanese marketing (styling) types are no better than their American counterparts and they should also be held accountable for their poor choices.

Back to the Volt. I was too busy driving and talking to the interviewer to make many observations–I did have to pay attention to the road after all.

The Volt is quiet, the ride solid. I couldn’t tell if the engine was charging or not, it was that quiet.

Our 2008 Prius has 40,000 miles on it, was purchased used, and we can clearly tell when the engine takes over.

I took the Volt across a berm off Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road for the photo shoot and it didn’t scrape or bottom out, though the interviewer warned me that it might.

The snout of our Prius does scrape crossing the surface drainage ditches in our neighborhood so I was conscious this might happen with the Volt and I possibly took the Volt over the berm more gently than otherwise. It wasn’t my car–and I didn’t want to fork over the $40 k it takes to buy it.

The Volt’s central display was clear, seemed smaller than our Prius, but newer versions of the Prius have done away with the display I believe.

The dash display was busy, but the speed was clearly legible in the bright Tehachapi sun and the numbers looked sharp. The digital speed display on our Prius is not as sharp or clear as that on the Volt.

I couldn’t tell if the controls on the central console were easy to use or not. I couldn’t drive, talk to the reporter, and read the little descriptions. But the buttons were oh so small that they looked like something on a boom box or Blackberry. I am the kind of driver that reads the 500-page owner’s manual so I am sure I could figure it out eventually.

As opposed to the Prius, the Volt’s driving position felt cramped and more “sport” like. The Prius, if anything, is roomy. I haven’t owned a sports car since I gave my 65 MGB to my brother–obviously a few years ago.

The Volt’s rear deck was smaller than that in the Prius, but they were able to get a lot of camera gear in there for the photo shoot.

The plug receptacle and the charging plug looked solid and “idiot proof” and the access door is on the opposite quarter panel from the gas tank lid.

As Ben Zuckerman noted with his Leaf, the trend is away from spare tires–of any size. There was some kind of device under the rear deck that may be used for inflating a flat tire, but again, I hadn’t read the manual so I am just guessing.

Adjusting the outside mirrors was standard. But when I went to adjust the interior mirror I hit my hand on the “roof console” I think it’s called. I couldn’t actually adjust the interior mirror in my habitual manner at all and had to use an “underhanded” approach or grab the side of the mirror. Both these moves left me cursing GM styling engineers under my breath.

The low rolling resistance tires were made in Canada, not China, so they got some points from me there.

The Volt uses rear disk brakes; again that puts the car in the more “sporty” category. We’ll have to wait and see what the plug-in Prius will use. The current Prius hybrid uses rear drum brakes, a cheaper strategy for sure.

The Volt I drove was built in 12/10 in Detroit, but we couldn’t find in which plant.

While on the photo shoot and parking in “bustling” downtown Tehachapi we must have seen a good half dozen Prius.

My comment after parking the Volt was GM really missed the boat with hybrids a decade ago and it will take years for them to win over California customers even if they have a winning design in the Volt. And whether GM has a winning design is still to be seen.