Our Week With The ChevyVolt Likes and Dislikes

Through a friend we scored a week-long test drive with a 2012 Chevy Volt.  No mileage restrictions.  No real restrictions at all in fact -- other than have fun!  It was a tremendous opportunity to live with a car for a week.  Not just to experience how it drives but how it fits into your life.  We had a blast driving it.  And for everyone who followed our tweets and Facebook posts about the experience, this is the final report!

Here's the facts about us, the Test Drivers.  We're a family of four (two adults, two 9 yr old girls) looking to buy a more fuel efficient car.  We drive between 50 and 60 miles a day during the week, less on the weekends.  Most of our driving is on city streets, lugging kids from school and to their activities, so we want either an EV or a Hybrid.

We put over 1000 miles on the Volt in one week. We drove it around Los Angeles, testing its practicality in our daily 50 mile trek schlepping kids to/from school across town and to/from after school activities. And we took it on a lengthy road trip from Los Angeles to Northern California. We really got to know this car's strengths and weaknesses.  We'll breaking it down to likes and some suggestions for improvements.

  • It is really fun to drive on the battery power. It has fantastic zip. Handles like a dream. 
  • The car's start-up and shutdown process is ridiculously cool. You feel like you are about to blast off in a spaceship. Any time someone would stop to talk to us about the car, I made them sit in the driver's seat and power it up. It feels like you are about to embark on your own personal Space Mountain ride! 
  • The car is a total magnet for 20 and 30-something guys. They are attracted to it like moths to light. If you're a cougar you might need to get this car. 
  • OK, lots of people are curious about the car and almost any place we stopped someone would want to ask us questions about it.  We have never, in our lives, driven a car people notice in a good way.  Driving an "It Car" is really cool.  I now understand why people buy Ferrari's and Bentley's.  And the Volt's price-point makes having an "It Car"attainable.
  • It is quiet. Like driving in a cloud. Even when you're running on the gas engine. 
  • The gas engine is key. Without it the car would be impractical. It's about a 7 gallon tank and it gets over 40MPG's (GM says it gets 43MPG's and we found that to be pretty accurate).  It's the difference between building a concept car and a car an everyday person can use.  Its engine design is so smartly flexible.  For example, you could just drive the Volt as a fuel-efficient gas vehicle and completely ignore the EV engine.  It's like two cars in one!
  • The switch from battery to engine is seamless. If the car's computer hadn't told us it had happened, we wouldn't know. 

  • The data systems in the car are fantastic. The real-time stat-tracking of energy use is helpful and fascinating.  It calculates how you are using fuel (whether battery or gas) in real-time and over the lifetime of the car.  We loved the data.  It makes you so conscious of how you're driving that it's almost impossible not to drive a regular gas-engine in the same style, hoping for better mileage.

  • The green "healthy driving" bubble (as my daughters called it) made driving the car kinda fun. When you're driving in a way that's most efficient for the car, the little green ball grows leaves and spins happily. 

  • It's fantastic that the car can plug into any 120v outlet. The cord could be just a few feet longer. We managed to make it work with only a few instances of creative parking.  (For example, I found the  outlet below in the parking garage of my office building!)

  • The back or trunk space is pretty large. We crammed that baby full! (see our earlier post!)
  • Loaded down with four people and all their luggage, traveling 75 mph on the freeway, the car averaged 41.5 mpg according to the inboard data. We thought that was fantastic. The car drives with pep on the freeway although the fastest I ever went was about 87. I read somewhere online that the car can do 100...maybe down a hill! 
  • The car has excellent turning radius and spunk, it feels like a sports car. 
  • Good visibility out the front windshield. Liked that it was wide and high. 
  • The overhead lights in the back worked great for the kids to read without disturbing the driver. 
  • The interior is really comfortable to ride in for a long time. The ceilings are high, the bucket seats comfortable, and the legroom good (note: we are all 5'6 or under). None of us felt like we were sitting on top of each other. 
  • There are bucket seats in the back, not bench.  This is a four-seater.  The kids LOVED having their own bucket seats.  
  • The kids thought the way the space was designed in the back - the pocket on the back of the seats, the door storage, and the cupholders was spot-on.  They like to travel with stuff -- all the Harry Potter books, drawing paper, pens, a bottle of water, some snacks, maybe a Barbie or an American Girl doll -- and they felt like the back of the Volt was built for them! 
  • It's made in America.  

Needs Improvement:

  • The battery life is too short. At between 30-35 miles per charge with anywhere from 6-12 hours needed to get a full charge on a 120v outlet, its not realistic that we would be driving on the battery all the time. We would still be consuming gas. 
  • The price-point is too high.  The model we drove was not the base model (which starts at $39,000) but also wasn't the fully-loaded version (which I believe tops out at $45,000).  The one we drove was somewhere in the middle and probably retails for around $41,000.  Granted there is a federal tax credit of $7500 still available and in CA a $1500 state rebate, but this it's still a big chunk of money to throw down for a car whose technology is going to change year by year.  You can lease the car for around $349 per month in California but the limited miles are a big problem for us as we drive well over 13,000 miles a year.
  • The center console has too many buttons. And they are ULTRA-sensitive. The NAV screen responds best to a precise, hard touch but if your knuckle grazes one of the buttons along the screen's borders all of a sudden a fan is blasting!  I can't tell you how many times I tried to switch channels on the XM and brushed against the fan button, turning the air conditioning or the defroster on full blast. 

  • The four passenger limit is a drag. Our kids loved the bucket seats in the back but not being able to squeeze one other person in the car with us was a challenge. 
  • A glaring omission to us is that charging stations are not included in the POIs (points of interest) in the NAV System. In fact, there's very little info in the Chevy Volt paperwork about the EV charging network and how to take advantage of it. We downloaded PlugShare and Chargepoint apps into a smartphone and did searches for charging stations along the way. California's Central Valley is almost completely void of public charging stations. There are, however, private persons who offer up outlets and/or home charging stations for share. We found regular outlets at stops along the way and plugged in when we stopped for meals. On an hour charge you get about 8 miles of battery driving.  (Personal suggestion, on the next gen of the NAV system just use GoogleMaps as your software/data provider.  It offers the best functionality and integration for directions and POI's).
  • We took the car on the ultimate test for any car: the Grapevine. For those who haven't driven up the 5 freeway from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, it's a giant hill climb.  It's rough on any car that isn't a performance car so we expected the Volt might gasp a little.  On our way north, from LA to Bakersfield, is a gentler incline. On that leg of the trip, the Volt did ok. It's gas engine felt sluggish at moments but we maintained a comfortable cruising speed of 70 - 75 mph. On the return, the incline from the Bakersfield side to the LA is a brute! It's too bad every car can't be tested on this beast. And, on this hill, the Volt was not happy. It was struggling to hit 60 mph. I did not have the car floored. I was pushing it but not intentionally trying to max it out.  It would've been great to test out the Grapevine on the battery instead of the gas engine.  As the battery engine has way more power than the gas.  
  • The profile of the car is too low. The front end scrapes bottom coming out of our perfectly average driveway. That low profile (apparently lower than a Corvette) is part of what gives the car a sexy look but we found that scraping noise wince-inducing.  
  • There should be a way to charge the battery from the gas engine.  Unfortunately, I learned after we returned the car that if the battery has 10 miles or less on its charge you can drive in Mountain Mode for 15 or 20 minutes and it will add 10 miles to your battery.  We did not get to try that feature out!  And I don't think it's in the manual.  
  • The car should come with a 220v adapter or information on how to use a 220v outlet.  My mom had a 220v outlet in her garage but we couldn't use it because the car's standard charging cord is for 110v.  And we really wanted to use it because the Volt will fully charge in 4 hours on a 220v outlet.   

After a week with the Volt, we were incredibly impressed by it's intelligent design. There's a lot of cool technology at work here.  Chevy was so smart to couple the EV with a fuel efficient gas engine.  For most people, there's just no way a pure EV can work.   It's an impressive vehicle.  This is a car GM and Chevy can be proud of.

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