At the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica last Friday the two most popular drive opportunities, not surprisingly, were for the two most publicized enviro-mobiles right now, the Nissan LEAF and the Chevy Volt.
Nissan had a cone course set up in the parking lot for the LEAF and a stable full of the all-electric models to test drive. Owing to recent experience with the LEAF, I opted to check out the Volt. GM, on the other hand, had only one test vehicle and a waiting list that was stuck at 43 out of 90 when I arrived. Luckily, I snuck into the back seat on someone else's drive. It was 4pm; the driver had been waiting since 11.
This was my first time with a production-ready Volt. After a few years at car shows of seeing a prototype shell from behind a velvet rope, I couldn't help but get a little geeked out to get an up-close look, and actually ride in one, if only for two miles.
First off, it looks good. Sure, it inevitably got dumbed down from concept to production. I felt the Volt concept car would blend in nicely driving up to Encounter, the signature space-themed restaurant at LAX airport. The more sober production version is still distinctive and distinctly Chevy, as identified by the front fascia that borrows cues from the Malibu and Cruze.
The fear was, with most of the technology under the hood, that the Volt might have the fit and finish of a Chevy Lumina. Thankfully not so: Instead of a $41,000 vehicle that looks and drives like a $14,000 car powered by a really expensive machine, the Volt looks and drives like a $33,500 car with a really expensive battery. And that's okay, because that's how much the Volt would cost after the full federal tax credit.
While not as distinctive-looking as the Prius, GM has a car that folks in Santa Monica would drive to keep up with the Joneses. (This is, after all, the embodiment of the absolute latest vehicle technology and the only "series plug-in hybrid" you can buy right now.)
Bob Lutz was prone to confessionals at car shows on how bad GM interiors had been. The Volt represents the new GM, and its interior manages to be space age and upmarket at the same time.
The Volt model on display had pearl hue accents that made the distinctive center stack console feel like a giant iPod. The shifter fits snugly into the center stack. The test-drive model we were in had a black center stack and over-the-top green trim accents throughout. The front seat side door panels sport a futuristic design-I wonder if you can opt out of that? I noticed the quality of the leather seat stitching.
Fleet drivers will like the large (for an EV) cargo space under the hatch.
The driver console has all-digital instrumentation and, befitting EVs these days, it provides constant feedback. There is a display with a floating green ball; the videogame-like goal for efficient driving is to keep the ball in the middle like a construction leveler.
The driver pulled out of the lot and raced up to the first traffic light. Nice, smooth, quiet acceleration. This is why we like electric power. The rest of the drive was uneventful-it's hard to tell much in a two-mile city course. At any rate, the guy driving the car gushed about how he really loved the Volt and disliked the LEAF. I disagree wholeheartedly with his LEAF assessment. (The guy rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning anyway - he made sure to tell both GM reps and me, twice, that he was a photographer and James Cameron knew him by name.)
We started with a battery range of four miles, so I was hoping to experience the switch to gas-only driving. The GM rep said the car switches seamlessly, though we didn't deplete to gas mode.
I asked about the reports of the Volt's gas tank size (reportedly 9.3 gallons) and its range on gas alone (300 miles). The GM rep said, "The EPA has asked us not to talk about fuel economy." That's funny because manufacturers always talk about fuel economy expectations if they like the numbers. At any rate, with those numbers, the fuel economy on gas alone calculates out to around 32.5 miles per gallon. Those are okay numbers, what's the problem? The Volt's all-electric range of 40 miles should fit into most
We returned to the lot with two miles left on the electric charge. In this short test, the Volt performed as a mass-market sedan should. There were no outward flaws in design or drive that might be a tip off of a blockbuster-sized movie flop, which the Volt very well could have been, as much as is riding on it. On the contrary-the Volt is an impressive machine.
Though the Volt is more expensive than the LEAF, the Volt's electric and gas-power range-extending capabilities should open up a lot more possibilities for fleet. No longer just a commuter vehicle, sales reps will be comfortable in a Volt for long highway stretches, and they can impress their clients with their forward-thinking green credentials. We can hope-though we're not counting on-fleet allocation some time soon.