Ask Me about Your Volt
From the May 14, 2012, issue of NR

(© 2012 General Motors)


Daniel Foster

It’s a boxy, snub-nosed little bastard, with roughly the rear visibility of a Mercury space capsule. But Chevrolet’s Volt is plenty slick, in its way.

The one I’ve just strapped to my back in New York City is Silver Ice Metallic with four leather-appointed bucket seats and a pair of seven-inch LCD displays on a dash arrayed with twoscore buttons and dials by which one can access the onboard DVD player, the satellite radio, the built-in nav, and the “Driver Information Center.” This last gives you a real-time graphic representation of the distribution of operating power among the Volt’s 288 lithium-ion battery cells, its electrohydraulic regenerative brakes, and the geologic pesto of processed Paleozoic carrion that folks in the flyover states call “gasoline.”

Those regenerative brakes, which are augmented with good old-fashioned “Oh, %&#!” anti-lock discs, are spongy and take some getting used to. The blind spots are more like blind blotches. And the driver’s seat accommodates a 6-foot two-inch buffet enthusiast like this reporter only at the expense of the circulation in the rear passenger’s lower extremities. But the Volt is tight and responsive through turns. Its 149-horsepower (that is, 111-kW) Voltec electric motor considerably overachieves, since it requires no transmission and therefore delivers its 273 foot-pounds of torque all at once. After barely a few miles at cruising speed I figure I could get used to this. It sure beats my usual ride — a dun-colored ’94 Cherokee with a failing transfer case — if for no other reason than that its right rear bumper isn’t held on by duct tape. Oh, and it is quiet. Ghost quiet. U-boat-full-of-mutes-in-cotton-booties-coasting-through-an-ocean-of-mineral-oil quiet.

At this point the question naturally arises: How did I, a lowly scrivener for a right-wing rag, possessed of neither the world-saving messianic impulse nor the liquidity to meet the Volt’s $41,000 MSRP, come to be in possession of this space-age automobile? The short answer is that I did what everybody in this country does when he needs to get something done: I called a lobbyist. This after I had despaired of renting or otherwise temporarily acquiring a Volt through the usual channels, having gone so far as to join a large New York car-sharing service that boasted of its “green fleet,” only to find out after a series of tedious phone calls that the sole Volt in said fleet had been decommissioned after GM’s January 2012 recall of all 8,000 of its production vehicles. (The recall concerned a small number of battery fires. For the record, my Volt never did combust.)

I had better luck with the D.C. rep for a national auto-dealers’ association, who in turn put me in touch with a PR flack from General Motors whose job it is to arrange multi-day test drives for people like me. Well, not people exactly like me, actually. Friendly fellows both (all lobbyists are), the dealer and GM rep were forthright enough to share their concerns with the name over my byline, and each gently interrogated me on the nature of the piece I proposed to write. I aimed for an even-handed review, I told them. Based on what I’d read, the Volt sounded like an impressive piece of technology and a fun drive. But I was no fan of the government subsidies, direct (a $7,500 tax credit to every buyer) or indirect (by one broad estimate, some $250,000 per vehicle in public money spent getting the Volt to market). And I was dubious that the Volt constituted a practical option for the American car buyer.

They bought it. And so I was delivered a low-mileage, immaculately clean Volt for a long weekend trip from New York to D.C., where I’d kill two birds by doing some work at NR’s Capitol Hill offices. And as I headed south by southwest, out of the city and onto I-95, I figured that my first guess was more or less accurate. The Volt is an impressive piece of technology and a lot of fun to drive — from the small pleasure of being in stop-and-go traffic and seeing your miles-to-empty creeping upward as the generators in the brakes trap marginal quanta of kinetic energy, to the considerably larger pleasure of being stopped next to a smoothie-drinking academic in an older, less-efficient Prius hybrid and giving him an ever so slight shake of your head from the towering heights of your environmental superiority, as if to ask, “How do you sleep at night?”

But in other ways the Volt was a bit of a disappointment. Start with the name. Rather than a hybrid, the Volt is marketed as an “extended-range electric car.” That’s because, unlike the Priuses of the world, which use electricity as an auxiliary in low-demand driving conditions and to ease the burden on the internal-combustion engine, which, in fact, does virtually all of the work of powering the drivetrain, the Volt has a 1.4-liter gas engine that acts as a generator for the large electric motor that actually turns the wheels. This engineering quirk might matter during the 42 miles, on average, of pure electric driving you get on a full plug-in charge (which can take anywhere from 4 to 10 hours, depending on whether you use the 120-volt adapter, which is included, or a 240-volt upgrade, which is available). But since I ended up using the 9.3-gallon gas tank for roughly 90 percent of my trip, it makes the Volt the first semantic distinction I’ve ever driven.