$41,000 Chevy Volt Draws Controversy for Engineering Claims
The Chevy Volt extended range electric sedan is critical to the new General Motors that has emerged from bankruptcy last year, and is about to try and sell its initial-public-offering to investors. But as it unveils the car to the media this week, some critics are blasting the automaker for over-stating the car's fuel efficiency and innovation.
GM has long called the Volt an 'extended age electric vehicle." That made it decidedly different from the Toyota Prius and Toyota's and Honda's other full-hybrids. The key difference, GM has said for three years, is that the gas-fed motor in the Volt never directly drives the wheels of the car. The motor in the Volt, GM has said, powers the battery after its charge runs down, eliminating the risk of the driver running out of power before reaching their destination or a recharging station.
But GM executives confirmed this week that the Volt can use the internal combustion motor under its hood to power the wheels. This fact was first reported by MotorTrend.com, which was allowed to test the car for three long drives. The magazine discovered "...when going above 70 mph in 'charge sustaining mode,' and the generator gets coupled to the drive-train, the gas engine participates in the motive force. GM says the engine never drives the wheels all by itself, but will participate in this particular situation in the name of efficiency, which is improved by 10 to 15 percent."
It may not seem like much, but this does fly in the face of what GM officials have been saying for the last three years as it has hyped the Volt as being an industry leading innovation. The fact that the gas-powered motor can directly power the wheels of the Volt makes it much closer to traditional hybrids already on the market.
This fact may not mean much to would-be buyers of the Volt, but it has automotive media in a lather. And despite the fact that Volt will be advertised during this month's World Series, consumers are going to turn to car magazines and websites for information and endorsement about the car before plunking down $41,000 (before government tax credits).
Edmunds.com's Inside Line section, which reports on the industry used an uncharacteristically harsh headline for the Volt this week: "GM Lied to the World." GM officials say their previous comments and statements about the Volt were not lies.
Controversy aside, how does the car ride and perform? It depends on whom you ask or read.
The Detroit Free Press got 46.2 miles on a battery charge driving around suburban Detroit. That exceeds the 40 mile range GM has talked about. At the end of the day, the Free Press driver had covered about 60 miles and probably used just a quart or two of gasoline. GM estimates Volt owners who get most of their power by plugging into the electric grid will pay around $1.50 a day to use the car. That is based on average daily driving statistics.
Popular Mechanics got 37.7 miles per gallon in city driving using both the electric charge and gasoline. That's quite a bit below the 51 mpg city rating for the Toyota Prius. Car and Driver reported it used up the battery charge after just 26 miles commuting around 80 mph. On a separate driven the magazine says it got into the upper 30s when it modulated its speed around 60 mph.
GM has said that, between the battery and the generator, the Volt has a cruising range of about 350 miles.
Last year, GM said in a high profile press conference that the Volt would get 230 miles per gallon. The trigonometry to reach that figure is pretty ambitious. It would involve driving several days recharging the battery, and only dipping ever so slightly into the gasoline that would power the motor.
What is the bottom line on the Chevy Volt? It is neither a straight hybrid like the Prius, nor a straight electric vehicle like the new Nissan Leaf. The problem with the Leaf, and any straight electric vehicle, is range anxiety; the anxiety people feel about driving an EV and worrying that they will run out of juice and be stranded. The issue with the Prius and other full hybrids is that while fuel economy can run high, it is mostly powered by an internal combustion engine.
Where does the Volt fit in? One thing GM has long said is absolutely true. This car is ideal for a driver whose daily driving needs are under 50 miles. If that is 90% of your daily driving, as it is for a majority of Americans, then you can drive very cheaply by recharging the car at home, especially overnight when rates are lowest.
But how much will you save? And what is the payback? The Volt ill retail for $41,000, but the true price is $33,500 after $7,500 tax credit is factored in. GM will push leases as low as $350 per month with $2,500 due at signing. Many auto reviewers have compared the Volt to a Hyundai Sonata in terms of size and interior appointments. At $33,500 the Volt is $9,000 more than the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which gets 37 mpg city/39 mph highway. One would have to figure that you'd save at least that $9,000 over the ownership life of the Volt to make it worthwhile.
However, there is an undeniable cool factor for early buyers of the Volt. It is an innovation, and the first of its kind on the market--a car that will go 25-45 miles on an electric charge depending how the driver handles the car with no fear of range anxiety.
In California, a key market here GM hoped to make a splash with celebrity green-car enthusiasts like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, the state denied the Volt its $5,000 state tax credit, as well as open access to the HOV lanes. That would have brought the car's price down below $30,000 to Californians. The Nissan Leaf EV qualified for both benefits.