After many years of test-driving cars and writing review articles for various Canadian media outlets, I’ve finally bought a new car. It’s a 2018 Chevrolet Volt, a model that’s interested me since its introduction in 2011, and even before that, actually, as a concept shown at the Detroit Auto Show in 2007. Then it was a pet project of General Motors’ colourful vice-chairman Bob Lutz, making a strong and prescient case for an electric future for GM. I was seated in the audience; it made an impression.
Now I think it’s becoming apparent that cars are indeed going electric. Over time, we’ll see more electrified vehicles of all types, and while the internal combustion engine will continue, its role as the preferred means of motive power will diminish. I can actually see a day when gasoline and diesel engined vehicles will no longer be permitted on highways, although I agree that’s a long way off.
And I understand there are many other issues with electric vehicles (EVs, as they are known), like the “cleanliness” of the electricity, the need for a sufficient charging infrastructure, the ability (or inability) of the existing electrical grid to handle increased demand made by EVs, the high price, range anxiety (fear of being stuck at the side of the road with a depleted battery), time required to recharge, consumer resistance, etc., etc..
No, it’s not a done-deal by any means, but it’s certainly a corner being turned.
Which brings me back to the Volt. Unlike what some refer to as “pure” EVs like the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Bolt (combining a battery that you plug in to charge, and an electric motor to drive the wheels), the Volt is also fitted with gasoline engine that acts as a generator to sufficiently replenish the battery once its charge is depleted. Both the Volt’s gasoline engine and its electric motor are connected to the 18.4 kw/H lithium-ion battery (14.0 kw/H usable). You plug to charge the battery, giving range of up to 85 km on battery alone, but you get up to an additional 550 km with the engine and battery working together, more or less in a “hybrid” mode.
Another wrinkle is that the Volt’s wheels are driven by its electric motor pretty much all the time.
I know… clear as mud, and herein lies a problem with the Volt that GM has been remiss in solving. How to simply explain the technology! It sounds more complicated than it is. How about this? In practice, you can drive the car locally in pure EV mode; you can drive the car on the highway all day in “extended range” mode. That’s about the sum of it.
Indeed GM calls the Volt’s gasoline engine a “range extender” and the entire propulsion system is branded “Voltec.” The key thing, though, is that the engine doesn’t drive the wheels (barring exceptional circumstances). What it does is charge the battery that powers the motor that drives the wheels, thereby enabling the Volt to be designated as an EV.
Maybe a little engineering sleight of hand? Not really. It’s a clever approach because even when the battery is depleted to the point that it no longer can independently drive the car, the range extending gasoline engine still returns 5.6L/100km, which is very good fuel economy (the all-new 2018 Honda Clarity uses a similar system).
That EV designation, however, is hugely important for consumers, and here’s why: it makes the Volt eligible for the highest rebate offered as an incentive to buyers of electrified vehicles. In my province, Ontario, that rebate is a formidable $14,000.
Notwithstanding criticisms concerning the “purity” of the Volt’s EV credentials, that $14,000 is a big incentive to “go electric.” And it’s apparently convincing enough for my province’s government. Certainly, I wouldn’t have bought an EV without it.
As I say, the upshot is that a Volt driver is able to use the vehicle almost exclusively on battery power when driving locally, and can use range extension for longer trips. In my case, so far I’ve driven 2,300 km in two months of ownership, and filled the tank twice. The Volt requires regular grade fuel and the tank holds a paltry 33.7L, so you can see I’m not burning much gasoline.
Volt received a full makeover for the 2017 model, so it’s now referred to as the second generation. It arrives in two trim levels: LT at $38,995 and Premier at $43,095. Freight and taxes add another $2,000, but your government incentive will, as I say, take a big chunk out of the price if you live in the right province!
I should add that I’ve installed what is called a Level 2 charging station in my driveway. Level 1 is normal 110-volt household current, which charges the Volt’s battery in 14 hours; Level 2 is a 240v outlet that requires 4.5 hours to charge the battery. Ontario offers a 50% rebate on the cost of the charger and its installation, and in my case, the Flo charger was $995 plus tax and installation cost $400. While the Volt’s battery is rated at 18.4 kw/H, its usable capacity is 14.0 kw/H because it always keeps 25% charge in reserve. Consequently, charging from “empty” requires 14 kw/H, which, when billed at our average winter household rate of $0.126 per Kw/H including ancillary charges, costs $1.76.
So far, I’m very happy with the Chevrolet Volt, although the claimed 85km range in EV mode is generous. In the -20 degree temperatures we’re experiencing during the winter, 60km is more accurate. I assume it’s because the battery is less efficient in the cold plus you’re running the heater, heated seats, heated steering wheel, lights and radio. When running on battery, all that equipment takes its toll on your driving range.
The next article in this series will focus on the Volt’s everyday drivability, strengths and weaknesses, along with an update on fuel/electricity consumption.