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 6̋ʹ2″ 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.
See, I had initially planned to go electric for the entire endeavor. That was, as it were, a non-starter. As Americans, we’re spoiled in our ability to crisscross the country at will, thanks not only to the arteries and veins and capillaries of the interstate highway system but also to the ubiquity of filling stations. By contrast, planning a 300-mile trip in an electric car is a logistic feat, and like Rommel pushing east across Libya into British-held Egypt, you have to take care not to outrun your supply lines. This means finding a series of commercial charging stations roughly 30 miles apart for as many as ten charges. Before I ever hit the road I realized that not only would this operation be onerous and time-consuming, it would be nigh impossible, owing to desert stretches of the New Jersey and Delaware turnpikes unenlightened about the requirements of green locomotion. The alternative — using the onboard 120-volt plug and siphoning power from whatever regular-old-three-prong outlets I could find — would have required even greater chunks of time, along with a sleeping bag, an extension cord, and a cultivated taste for rest-stop food.
Fine then. The hydrocarbon ride on 95 was smooth enough, and the nearly 40 mpg I got on the highway was nothing to sneeze at. Save the electric cruising for the city, right? Indeed, Google lists addresses for a dozen-odd charging stations inside the District. A brief recounting of the four I visited:
First there was one alleged, in an enthusiastic press release, to reside in a parking garage on the campus of my alma mater, George Washington University. I arrived to find the garage freshly razed.
Then there was the one whose listed address placed it somewhere near the dumpster of a wine shop along a stretch of Massachusetts Avenue near the Capitol. I crisscrossed that block so many times I’m fairly sure I now have a DHS dossier.
Then there was the garage at Union Station, whose multiple levels of steep grades and capricious speed bumps the Volt’s skid plate heartily braved (old joke — Q: What can a rental car drive over? A: Anything). After a circumnavigation turned up nothing, I found an attendant and asked him if I had the right place. He scratched his head and made two phone calls, and another attendant appeared who led me to a darkened lower level where cones were moved, gates were manually opened, and I was directed to a lonely charge point near the elevator. Out of order, I jest you not.
At last, on the corner of 14th and U Streets, in the heart of gentrifying Northwest, where all of hep D.C. goes on Saturday nights when Democrats are in the White House, I found a fully functional charge point, between a bus stop and a surveillance camera, on a curb outside a D.C. municipal building whose architecture and denizens had seen better days. I eased the car up and noticed that the pair of traffic signs bracketing the space denoted that 24 hours a day, seven days a week, this space was for people like me — people juicing their status symbols — and that all others were subject to tow. But I barely had a moment to bask once more in my specialness before I realized that this particular transformer accepted only “contactless” credit cards — the kind read by tapping them lightly against a sensor, the kind replacing the cumbersome and barbaric swipe technology that still prevails in the Third World. Crestfallen, I looked down at the retrograde array of plastic in my wallet and one by one feebly massaged my cards across the sensor, hoping it would be able to detect some faint heartbeat of Progress in these artifacts of 2005.
At that moment I stood with the full faith and credit of a duly credentialed representative of National Review magazine and was completely helpless. I could have been holding 30 million in dollar-denominated bearer bonds, a brick of highly enriched uranium, or a Honus Wagner rookie card and I would not have been able to pay or barter my way to a lousy kilowatt-hour.
Eventually I located an 800 number for the company that operates the machines, and a lovely South Asian woman took my credit-card information and unlocked the station remotely. I plugged in, met a friend for dinner, and returned about three hours later to a $6 bill and 22 miles’ worth of premium electrons (commercial chargers cost more; home charging is purported to cost about $1.50 a day).
But, in a world where free markets have made us, to our collective benefit, gluttons of convenience, there is something egregious about having to plan an entire evening around securing your means of conveyance. It recalls all the annoyances that have come in the form of inferior “green” substitutes for products that worked just fine — it’s the compact fluorescent light bulb, the low-flow toilet bowl of the Great American Commute.
This green disgruntlement crystallized for me during the ride home, at a Maryland gas station where I had stopped to use the facilities and stood rubbing my wet hands under the lukewarm sigh of the electric dryer. Above the machine I noticed the following sign:
We encourage the use of our high efficiency electric hand dryers as alternatives to disposable paper towels. By doing so, we reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on landfill capacity.
Thank you for your participation in sustainability.
And all of a sudden I wanted to buy a ’65 Impala with monster-truck wheels that runs on CFCs and American exceptionalism.
It’s moments like this that make you forget that the Volt is a neato car. You remember that it is also a talking point, a floundering mascot of a political worldview according to which markets can be bribed and cajoled into making premature and uneconomic decisions, innovation can be centrally planned, and the future runs on the good intentions of the present’s policymaking class. Maybe that’s why GM had to suspend Volt production in March, and temporarily lay off 1,300 workers, to “align . . . production with demand.” Or why the president of the United States stooped to telling the United Auto Workers that he’ll buy a Volt the day he leaves office.
No president ever had to endorse the Model T. Indeed, Mr. Ford’s motorcar revolutionized the lives of the middle class in a way nothing else would until the invention of the microprocessor, despite Woodrow Wilson’s calling automobiles “the picture of arrogance and wealth,” the “careless” use of which was “spread[ing] socialistic feeling in this country.”
Surprisingly, few people asked me about my Volt. Nobody in Manhattan — New Yorkers are liberal, but they wouldn’t deign to have you think they care — and only two or three in Washington. Easily the most poignant conversation came while I sat inside the parked car, jotting notes on the block of Third Street Northeast at the rear of Congress’s ominously named “Office of Compliance.” Two old-timers, pants up and over the hip, baseball caps bearing the registry numbers of World War II–era destroyers, stopped next to the car and eyeballed me, in the way only members of the Greatest Generation, who haven’t a damned thing to prove to you, can eyeball you. I rolled down the window and we started to chat. They asked me about the mileage, about the performance, about the cost. When I told them the sticker, the gentleman on the left produced a handkerchief, methodically wiped his nose, and in a get-off-my-lawn deadpan said to me, “It’s nice to meet a genuine rich person.”
“No, no. I’m just test-driving it,” I said. “It’s not my money.”
As I drove away, it occurred to me that it would have been impolite to add, “It’s yours.”