Volt: Electric car with backup

January 14, 2011

By ANN M. JOB, For The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

(01-12) 08:47 PST (AP) —
The innovative Chevrolet Volt is getting lots of attention. But in my home garage, the car that can travel up to 50 miles on a full electric charge wouldn’t charge at all when I plugged it in.
It wouldn’t charge at a California airport, either, where special parking spaces have been set aside for years to charge electric vehicles.
And because an extension cord is a no-no with the Volt and the power cord that came with the car was too short, I was unable to charge the car from power outlets in my home.
Thank goodness the five-door, five-passenger Volt hatchback has an onboard, four-cylinder, gasoline engine that kicks in to power the battery pack and provides ample mileage.
As a result, I was never stranded by the Volt, though I only traveled for 33 miles on the initial electric power that came in the battery pack. The car was flat-bedded to my home, so it arrived fully charged.
Virtually all of the other 300 miles I put on the Volt came from power generated by the Volt’s gasoline engine.
While not exactly the kind of test drive I anticipated, the fact that I never worried about being stranded by an electric car illustrates the thinking that General Motors put into engineering the Volt: It’s an electric car with a backup plan.
The Volt, however, is expensive for a compact hatchback that runs most of its miles via a gasoline engine. Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $41,000.
Some of the cost can be offset by state incentives and rebates as well as a $7,500 federal tax credit that may lower a buyer’s tax bill.
There are no direct competitors to the Volt. Nissan’s 2011 Leaf, which has a starting retail price of $33,600, is all electric and doesn’t have an onboard gasoline engine. It also can go more than 100 miles on electric power when fully charged. The sporty, two-seat Tesla roadster whose starting price is more than $100,000 is estimated to have a range of more than 200 miles.
Conventional gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles — such as the Toyota Prius, which starts at just over $22,000 for a 2011 model — have an electric motor and gas engine and don’t plug in at all. But a hybrid’s gas engine is used to drive the car’s wheels directly, and hybrids operate on all-electric power only for short spurts, not 40 miles at high speeds.
In the Volt, the 1.4-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine functions as an onboard generator to produce power that the electric motor uses to drive the car’s wheels.
The goal, of course, is top fuel economy. But the Volt’s federal government fuel economy ratings of 93 miles per gallon in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway are surpassed by the Nissan Leaf’s 106/92 mpg rating.
Note that these are equivalent mileage ratings, meaning they are based on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formula that seeks to translate the full charge of the Volt’s 16-kilowatt lithium ion battery pack and the power supplied by the gas engine into a comparison with a conventional, gasoline-powered car.
In my test drive, I averaged a ho-hum 34 mpg, taking into account the first 33 electric miles and the rest gasoline miles.
No one noticed the Volt for its styling during the test drive. They were interested in the technology.
I liked its compact size, tidy, 36-foot turning circle and easy handling. Dynamically, it felt like a regular car, and the engine was peppy. But there’s a good amount of road noise, and I had to adjust to the artificial feel of the regenerative brakes. It also seemed odd that the radio had to be turned on for the energy displays to be visible in the middle of the dashboard.
Buying a Volt isn’t like buying a conventional car. I learned from my electric utility that I should have provided the Volt’s electrical power needs to a licensed electrician, who would have come and inspected my garage, at my cost, ahead of time.
The electrician would have told me that my circa mid-1970s garage needed a separate circuit for the Volt, just to plug it in to a regular, 120-volt outlet.
The reason: The circuit in the garage got too warm as the Volt drew on the electricity, and this turned off the car’s power converter as a safety precaution.
So, I couldn’t charge the Volt there. Even if it had worked, I would have needed 10 to 12 hours for a full charge at 120 volts. A 240-volt charger kit for the Volt, which could cost $2,000, could fully charge the Volt faster, in four hours.
The odd thing is, just a month before, I had tested a Nissan Leaf in this same garage, using the same 120-volt power outlet that the Volt rejected, and the Leaf charged just fine.
GM officials said they thought that the Volt’s power converter was perhaps more safety conscious and sensitive to heat developing in the circuit.
The Volt wouldn’t charge at the Sacramento airport because the electric car parking spots had two older versions of electric chargers that weren’t compatible with the Volt.
But the Volt charged easily, though slowly, at a Sacramento parking garage where seven parking spaces were set aside for electric vehicles and had dedicated 120-volt electric outlets designed for the loads of electric cars.
Unfortunately, I would have had to stay there a long time — from 10:20 a.m. to 9 p.m. — to get a full charge.


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