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Test Drive--2012 Chevrolet Volt and Cruze Eco

VoltWhile 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.

At last year's Cleveland Auto Show, GM showed a single Volt, which was in a different part of the hall from the main Chevy display, locked up, unaccompanied by product representatives, brochures, or informational displays of any kind. It seemed an awfully low-voltage promotional effort for a car that was supposed to be the Next Big Thing.

This year, they had Static display of electric car.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 Are you experienced?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?"

The "International Exposition Center" is right next to Cleveland Hopkins Airport; you can see the radar tower on the skyline above the Cruze.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!

Cruze EcoThe 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.

Looks like something from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.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.

In your comments and responses, please confine your discussion to the car itself. This is not a thread about the bailout, industrial policy, or the coming election. Remember Rule 6 of the Car Lust Code of Conduct:

6. No politics or religion.

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Good review of the Volt. One slight correction: it isn't true that "electric motors produce maximum torque at all times". One can argue that they have a much nicer torque curve than an internal combustion engine, given that they produce substantial (often maximum) torque at 0 rpm. However their torque, like that of any motor, is dependent on rpm. See for example:
http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/electrical-motors-torques-d_651.html
for a good discussion of the subject.

I'm surprised it only gets 35/45, and actually wonder why there's a difference. The engine is only supposed to be powering a generator, correct? Shouldn't it just be operating at a single rpm?

I dunno, I've always thought that this is what a hybrid *should* look like: a small engine powering a generator and the car working off the battery, unlike the sorts of hybrid assists that are out there now. I'd always imagined something like a very small diesel and efficient motor chugging away under there constantly charging the batteries and using very little fuel.

I just don't see getting this car. There are a few hybrids available for about half the price, plus they are surely more reliable.

I'm sorry... I just can't justify its price.

"The Volt also stops in a shorter distance than the Cruze, thanks to the regenerative braking system."

Assuming the Volt stops shorter, that isn't the reason. Considering the extra weight of the Volt, it would have to be superior tires provided the friction brakes of the Cruze are sufficiently sized to lock the wheels. I suppose it is a Daewoo...

The average Volt buyer makes $170,000 a year. Aren't you glad you're subsidizing their toy car purchases?

I drive 650 miles per week, 95% of that highway, with 2 200 mile trips as part of it - and I stay at an apartment during the workweek so I can't charge it when commuting to work. The Volt simply doesn't fit my mission profile - I would be literally dragging a thousand pounds of extra dead weight for all but 25-40 miles of that per week.

The Cruze Eco? Meets my needs to a tee - that's why I bought one. I regularly exceed 45 mpg, running ~65 mph. The Volt simply isn't better enough than the Cruze to justify. And it doesn't have a stick shift.

There's a rather small subset of the population who would benefit from a Volt - those who own homes where they can charge it, and have a relatively short commute, but still want the ability to drive long distances occasionally. If it were priced less, I'm sure more would be interested as well.

I'd love to buy a Volt. I just need to drive from home to the park-n-ride for my bus and back five days a week. Already have 220 in the garage. Occasional longer trips would be an option...nice to not have 'range anxiety' that is associated with other electric cars. But right now I can afford a Cruze, let alone a volt. (but then I'd have to give up my Northstar V8 powered Bonneville.)

Jeff is exactly correct - his needs are NOT a match for the Volt, Leaf, or Tesla Motors models.

Tesla seems to be a darling among many folk, but their offerings are far less practical, and more expensive than a Volt.

There was a reason GM used to introduce new technology starting with Cadillac rather then Chevrolet.

I actually have a work commute that would be within the electric capabilities of the Volt. The only problem is that seeing as I only drive 140 miles a week going to and from work means that I only spend about 20 bucks a week on gas for commuting. If electricity were free, and it is nothing like free where I live, I could save $1,040 a year on gasoline. All I'd have to do is get a less capable car that doesn't have great seats, handling, and seatbelts for five that costs twice as much as the one that I drive now. Mind you other taxpayers would have to pick up half the difference, but it would still never make economic sense and the fun I have driving to work would be gone. You can't save money spending over ten thousand extra dollars on a bleeding edge tech Chevrolet to save a thousand a year. Besides, I believe a least $300 of annual the difference would be consumed by my electric bill, and I mean AT LEAST.

I'm just impressed it didn't burst into flame while you were driving it. If I wanted to drive a potential fireball, I'd buy a Fiat 850. Better handling, comparable mileage, a convertible, and much prettier. Random fires a bonus.

For all the people who like myself that have to park their vehicles on the street the Volt is less than useless. And if if I had a garage to put it in I tend not to keep a car for 28 years as the article stated you need to do to save the 20K in gas the Volt costs extra.
I thought I read recently that due to poor sales GM has suspended production of the Volt.

There's no one here (or anywhere) that actually NEEDS a Volt. As has already been demonstrated, there are many cheaper alternatives out there that would serve people's "needs" just as well.

BUT... what those cars CAN'T do (and let's face it, it's the main reason most people buy these types of cars), is make the political statement that the Volt can. Don't want to get on a political rant here, but that's what these cars do best. Why do you think the Prius has become the absolute darling of the Hollywood crowd?

And yes, the Volts of the world may achieve stellar gas mileage, but they still use electricity - and that electricity has to come from SOMEWHERE... (i.e. coal and other fossil fuels) but hey, that doesn't matter to your average Volt buyer. What matters most is that he CARES.

OK rant over :-)

I don't think that's much of a rant, Yankee. Probably fairly well conceded that the Prius doesn't really sell because it makes any financial sense, it primarily sells because of the green street cred sense it gives its owners. Little surprise that Honda modeled its new hybrid after the Prius.

I'm not sure the Volt will generate (HA! I FINALLY MADE A PUN ON THE VOLT!) that sort of aura since it's A) GM, and B) Not distinctive enough.

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