Test Drive’s Healey on Chevy Volt Tiff: Price is Only Real Flaw — USA Today

Oh, puhleeeze.

Knock off the carping, sniping and snarking about the Chevy Volt. The attacks from Volt rivals and from writers seem so silly, so irrelevant.

They are about on par with criticizing a diesel railroad locomotive because its diesel engines turn a generator that runs the electric motors that turn the wheels that drive the train. Who cares? Works fine.

Volt is a remarkable piece of engineering that uses very little gasoline and, because it has an on-board gas engine to crank a generator and keep going when the batteries are low, could be a person’s only car, able to run more than 300 miles before you fill the gas tank or plug in the battery pack. It is more suitable to the way Americans use cars than will be the battery-only cars about to hit the market.

Volt’s only logical rival, the Nissan Leaf, is strictly battery, good for about 100 miles on a charge — more under ideal conditions, less when you’re crawling in traffic in cold weather running the heater and getting no serious action from the regenerative braking system. Whatever Leaf’s range, when the batteries are dead, so are you. Plug in or hitchhike.

You can read Test Drive’s evaluation of Leaf here. Other than the limited range, and oddball appearance, Leaf seemed quite satisfying.

But even if your driving patterns mean that you could use Leaf as your primary car, you’d almost certainly need a second vehicle: long trips, emergencies or unexpected demands while the Leaf was plugged in and recharging.

Nissan, out the side of its corporate mouth, calls Volt a “nicotine patch” approach to battery cars.

We’ll give you the full-fledged Test Drive analysis of Volt once we get more wheel time. But we already have significant experience flogging the small, four-seat, Chevy-Cruze-based Volt. We started with a report in Test Drive a year and a half ago on a cobbled-together test “mule” at General Motors’ Warren Technical Center, and have tried evolutions between then and now.

We also spent a day recently in a very-nearly-correct pre-production model.

Only gripe we can think of: The price is too high — $41,000, minus however much of the $7,500 federal tax-credit you get, as well as any local credits for buying a fuel-sipper. That’s roughly $8,000 more than Leaf — and in either case, the net price is still a lot for a small car.

Volt’s price is likely to come down, perhaps quickly. “We’re developing for when there’s no $7,500 credit,” says Tony Posawatz, GM’s “Mr. Volt,” the guy who’s bossed the car from blue sky to showroom-ready. It’s clear the car won’t sell to mainstream buyers unless it’s much cheaper.

A day with two of us hammering that pre-production Volt around Northern Virginia, plus our other drives in, and reporting on, earlier versions of the car, lead to these conclusions:

Battery range should be as advertised, 40 to 50 miles, before the gas engine kicks in to run a generator to keep juice flowing when the battery pack’s low. We got 34.7 miles out of the pre-production car, delivered to us with about 85% charge. And our drive was foot-to-the-floor as often as possible, to see how fast we could deplete the battery.

Chevy didn’t “lie” about the car’s mile-per-gallon-equivalent (mpge) rating when it publicized 230 mpge . That was based on a government formula that, when applied to Leaf, generated 367 mpge. Don’t hear anybody hollering that Nissan “lied,” do you? Because of the wild results, automakers and the feds quit using that formula months ago. There’s no calculation yet that gives a realistic mpge, but new standards under consideration by the feds would give Volt an mpge rating of about 60. Using the same math, Leaf probably would be in the 90s.

There’s nothing tricky or sleazy or surreptitious about how Volt works. A T-shaped battery pack under the floor — modeled after the one used in General Motors’ EV1 that somehow stands as GM’s electric-car failure instead of the research success it is — runs an electric motor. The charge is enough to handle the daily driving of nearly all Americans, studies show.

Once the juice is low, a 1.4-liter gas engine starts and runs fast enough to turn a generator that keeps the electric motor supplied. Climbing mountains with the pedal to the floor on a low battery? The gas engine runs fast enough to notice. Squirting about the ‘burbs for groceries, kids and such, you probably won’t notice the gas engine coming on or running.

As is typical with electric motors, you get almost-instant scoot. Feels punchy in traffic.

Styling is modern. Looks like most any other current small car with flair (such as Cruze). Leaf, by contrast, is odd-looking at best, ugly at worst.

Limited to four seats because of the underfloor battery tunnel, but those four are quite comfy.

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