Test Drive--2012 Chevrolet Volt and Cruze Eco
While Car Lust is not charged with keeping up with current events, when I got an opportunity to plug in to a Chevy Volt test drive it sparked my curiosity. While I'm resistant to GM in general, I was amped up at the chance to get my hands on the much-touted Volt and see for myself if it truly lives up to its hype.
Did I have a positive or negative reaction? The answer will shock you.
This year, they had two Volts on display out in the "petting zoo" area with the rest of the Chevys. There was a product rep beside each one, thoroughly prepped on the car's features and eager to interact with visitors. People were encouraged to open it up, climb in, fiddle with the seats and controls, and ask questions. The Volts seemed to be drawing a bit more of a crowd than the other cars around them.
There was a little "TEST DRIVE ME" placard on the windshield on the driver's side. I asked the product rep about it, and he directed me to the back of the hall, where GM's "interactive driving experience" booth was located.
GM was giving visitors a chance to get up close and personal with everything they build, including the Camaro and Volt, and take them for a short drive in the company of a GM product representative. The catch was that in order to drive a Volt or a Camaro, you had to do penance drive something else first. I opted for a Cruze, which uses the same platform and body shell as the Volt, on the theory that it was the conventional vehicle that was the most direct analog to the new electric wondercar. At a couple of points, someone asked me if I was interested in the Volt because I was in the market, and I responded with something along the lines of "I paid my taxes, and I want to see where the money went." They just smiled; apparently, they were hearing that one a lot.
Since the drive would take place on the streets near the convention center, GM required you to present a valid driver's license in order to participate. You also had to pass a breathalyzer test, which seems silly at first. There were "adult beverages" on sale at three or four places in the hall, so I suppose the legal department or the liability carrier were justified in playing it safe.
After the check-in, I was directed to a waiting area in the hallway on the right in the photo. There were two lines, one for people who were waiting to drive a "qualifying vehicle," and one for those who had earned the right to try the Camaro and Volt. Nearly everyone in the second line was interested in a Camaro, so my post-qualification wait for the Volt was relatively short.
As for the "qualifying vehicles," there seemed to be a lot of interest in the Silverado pickup and some of the SUVs and crossovers, while the Malibu, Sonic, and some of the Buicks were often ignored. The product reps sounded almost, well, maybe not desperate, exactly, but perhaps a little despairing at times, trying to find someone to pair up with one of the wallflowers: "Does anybody want to drive the LaCrosse? Anybody?"
Before too long, I got my chance at the Cruze. To be specific, it was a Cruze Eco, the high-mileage version, with an automatic, probably the absolute closest thing in the world to a Volt without the batteries. The drive was a short two mile course: a bit of main road, then some side street, then down another side street to a cul-de-sac and back.
The young gentleman in the Cruze with me--I don't recall his name, so I'll refer to him as "Jeremy"--was, hands down, the best product rep I've ever encountered at an auto show. He was friendly, engaging, and had a natural ability to get his talking points out without seeming pushy. Jeremy had the Cruze's specs and features all but memorized--he had a reference binder on his lap and could look up anything he didn't know off the top of his head--and he knew quite a lot about the Volt, and the Cruze's competitors as well. Most of all, he made a genuine effort to sell me the Cruze--again, without being intrusive or pushy about it. Whatever We the People were paying Jeremy (via the bailout) to work the Auto Show that day, we were getting our money's worth and then some!
The Cruze Eco itself was a pleasant surprise. It has a 1.4L turbocharged I-4 capable of 138 HP and 148 pounds of torque--on 87-octane gas, no less, according to Jeremy. An engine of those specifications powering a 3,000 pound car through a slushbox doesn't sound very promising, but when I made the turn onto Aerospace Parkway and dropped the hammer, the Eco proved surprisingly zippy, with no turbo lag that I could pick up on. The buff books put the 0-60 time at about 9 seconds, and that sounds right. It's no match for my GTI, but it's more than adequate for freeway merges and other affairs of daily driving.
As for the rest of the driving experience, the brakes were good, the handling was OK, the ergonomics of the driving position and the outward visibility were decent. I really didn't have a chance to push it through the curvy parts, but with its narrow low-rolling-resistance tires and no-feel power steering, this car was never going to be your first choice for corner-carving anyway. It's a transportation appliance, optimized to get you from here to there using as little dinosaur juice as possible. Judged by that standard, it's a raging success, with official city/highway mileage ratings of 28/42 with a six-speed manual and 26/39 with the autobox.
"Ellen," the product rep who accompanied me in the Volt, was a lot less talkative than Jeremy, and didn't make much of an effort to sell me the car or even explain much about it to me. My first impression upon getting in was just how cool the Jim-dandy electronic displays were.
The Volt was running in "range extension" mode; apparently, it had been driven enough already that day that the battery had run down. The generator was quiet; the only time I heard it was when we were accelerating up a short steep hill, and it speeded up to match the increased power demand.
For the most part, driving a Volt is just like driving a Cruze Eco with an automatic. The Volt has better pickup because, as my fellow contributor Chuck noted in his review of the Nissan Leaf, electric motors produce maximum torque at all times. Put your foot down, and every one of the Volt's 273 foot-pounds report for duty right the Hell now! (When I tested this out, Ellen broke radio silence to remind me that speeding tickets were my own responsibility.) The Volt also stops in a shorter distance than the Cruze, thanks to the regenerative braking system. Other than that, it's the same car in terms of how it drives.
On the one hand, this is an impressive accomplishment. GM has managed to build a car with a completely new powertrain technology that uses less fuel (for the most part) but gives almost nothing away in terms of functionality. (The Cruze seats three across in back; the Volt can only seat two because the battery pack intrudes into the passenger compartment, and the cargo area is a bit smaller as well.) The problem with electrics up to now has been limited range and long recharge time, but the Volt, with its onboard generator, can go as long as there's gas in the tank and refuel at the same gas stations as its conventional competitors.
On the other hand, the Volt is a forty-one thousand dollar car. The Cruze Eco, as tested by your humble narrator, comes in at around twenty-one thousand. According to the ever-helpful Jeremy, the Eco's EPA-estimated annual fuel cost is $1,700, while the Volt's is $1,000. Assuming steady gas prices, it would take you over 28 years to make up the price differential in gas savings. If the price of gas goes up significantly, that period will be reduced, but not by much.
Actually, the economic comparison is even worse than that. Most anyone who buys either of these cars is going to finance most of the purchase price. The Volt buyer is borrowing 20,000 more dollars than the Cruze buyer, and paying interest on that amount. The Volt buyer does get the $7,500 EV tax credit, but a Volt buyer won't see that cash until he or she files income taxes the following April and gets a refund. Until then, the Volt buyer is making an interest-free loan of $7,500 to the government, using funds borrowed from the auto loan department at your friendly hometown bank.
"But," I hear the electric car fans protest, "most people don't drive enough per day to exceed the Volt's electric-only range, so shouldn't the Volt's fuel cost be even less?" That would be correct, and if you're one of those people who can be certain that you will not drive your Volt more than 40 miles on most days, the economics of Volt ownership will be more favorable for you. If, however, you regularly drive a fair distance during the workday--you're a service rep or travelling salesman, for instance--the Volt might not be the best car for you. In range-extension mode, the EPA rates it at 35 MPG city and 45 highway, which is pretty darned good, but not close to good enough to offset the price differential.
There's also the risk of reliability or long-term durability issues--this is a General Motors product, after all, and GM has a less than stellar record when it comes to innovation. The Volt has a lot of new leading-edge technology; the Cruze Eco is dead conventional.
I'm not saying you shouldn't buy a Volt, but you should know up front that the economic case for the Volt isn't very strong. If you want one because you want to reduce your carbon footprint, or do your part to reduce the nation's dependency on foreign oil, or because you think the technology is cool, well, it's your ride, your money, and your decision. If you just want to save money on gas, there are cheaper ways to do that.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The formal portraits of both cars are from Chevrolet's website. Other photos by your humble narrator.
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