Back in the 1980s when my age was in single digits, the family across the street had an electric CitiCar. These “cars” – and I use the term loosely – had no real safety devices, no air conditioning, and no power. Here’s everything you need to know from the Wikipedia post:
The top speed of any particular C-Car will vary somewhat depending on many factors, including: tire pressure, vehicle weight, alignment, brake drag, windows open/closed, transaxle oil viscosity, temperature, chemistry…
I understood that the CitiCar was probably the future, but I was terrified of that future. My go-cart was faster, and with its lower center of gravity, probably safer as well. At least with the go-cart, I could feel the wind in my hair without hearing people laughing at me.
This weekend, as I drove down the interstate at 70mph, powered completely by electricity, listening to music downloaded from the cloud over my iPhone, getting directions from GPS, it hit me: the future is way better than I’d expected.
Basic Electric-Hybrid Car Differences
The past hybrid cars you’re most familiar with, like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, don’t have electric plugs. They recharge their batteries whenever you hit the brakes. Rather than converting your speed into heat like conventional brakes, the Prius converts your speed into electricity and charges the battery with it. That’s cool, but it’s…boring. It’s saving the environment by just being more economical with the gas you’re already buying. You still have to stop and refill with dead dinosaur juice.
The Chevy Volt, on the other hand, has a genuine electric outlet under the driver’s side mirror. If you’re lucky enough to have an electric outlet in your garage, you can refill your batteries without visiting a gas station. Even a simple three-prong plug can recharge the Volt overnight, but for a faster charge, you’ll need to invest in a 240V outlet (like your washer/dryer uses) and a charging station. Pricing gets a little expensive for us city dwellers; my condo building informed me it’d cost around $4-$5,000 to get a 240V outlet in my parking spot. After that huge investment, I’d be able to charge the Volt in a few hours.
Like Prius and friends, the Volt can also charge when you’re hitting the brakes, and here’s a secret: it’ll also charge the batteries if you boss it around. If you change the driving mode to Mountain, the engine charges up the batteries thinking it’ll need that extra electric oomph in order to make it up hills. After just a few dozen miles in gas powered mountain mode, I had a 40% charge on the batteries – enabling me to do 15-18 miles on silent-but-not-so-deadly electricity.
After a full charge (which the mountain mode won’t d0), the Volt gets around 30-40 miles of range – and yes, it really does. I got mine during a heat wave of a weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised that the Volt just plain worked as advertised. The air conditioning cooled off the cabin blazing fast, and even in the climate’s Eco mode, it did a great job of keeping up on battery power.
I didn’t even believe the Volt was running purely on battery power because the climate control was so loud. The fan made way more noise than my Infiniti G’s fan – to the point where I thought the Volt’s engine was running. The only way I was really sure the Volt’s engine wasn’t running was to shut off the climate control altogether, shut off the radio, and roll down the windows. Sure enough, I was gliding around in my parking garage silently.
Here’s the best part, though: the Volt isn’t restricted to parking garage speeds on electricity. I headed off on my weekend road trip to Galesburg on electric power, hustling down the interstate at 70mph, and the engine wasn’t required – even for passing. As the battery gauge drained down, I listened carefully for the sounds of the engine kicking in. If I hadn’t been paying close attention, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. While the engine’s vibration is totally apparent at city speeds, it was barely noticeable on the highway.
As An Electric Car, The Volt Succeeds Just Fine
The powertrain works fine for most people. If you’ve got an electric outlet in your garage, and/or if you know a charging station near your office, you’d probably see the Volt as a way to simplify your life just a little. Each time you get out of the car, you could hook it up to the grid, juice up, and avoid trips to the gas station. The jury’s still out about whether electric cars do more harm than good to the environment, but taken strictly as a convenience, the Volt succeeds – but only if you’ve got the basic infrastructure in place.
Aside from not having the electric outlet in my garage, I think I’m probably the perfect target market for the Volt. Erika and I don’t have kids, and the majority of our trips are short ones around town. We do need to hit the road every now and then, though, and the Volt’s range-extending gas engine makes that possible. Within a few hours of driving around, Erika said, “I could totally see us owning this.”
Until she heard the price.
As a $43k Car, The Volt Fails Today.
Since I don’t have an electric outlet in my condo spot, the Volt would cost me around $50k before tax credits. Those numbers just don’t work. Gas isn’t that expensive, and my convenience isn’t worth that much. I can’t justify spending that kind of money on what amounts to a Chevy Cruze wearing a Blade Runner disguise.
In the $40-$45k range, Americans won’t accept a car without navigation, power seats, and a first-rate user interface. The Volt’s interior is passable in the $20-$25k range, but at twice that cost, holy cow, this thing’s in trouble. The dashboard displays felt like an afterthought – certainly not designed by someone who understood information delivery at any speed, much less 70mph. I rant about Microsoft Metro’s low information density on a laptop, but this is exactly where Metro belongs: big, clean tiles with a minimum of information and easy navigation. Instead, the Volt’s dashboard has icons of all styles and sizes, their weights having nothing to do with their importance.
The center console was even worse – a smooth, flat surface with a scattering of buttons arranged in no sensical order whatsoever. I challenge anyone to use the Volt’s center console at 70mph without staring for a few seconds. It can’t be done. As Nader might say, this user interface is unsafe at any speed. Hook up your iPhone, and things go from bad to worse. When you hit the pause button, the Volt doesn’t pause the music – it just stops all audio from the phone. So much for my navigation directions coming out of the iPhone, and I missed that exit. And yes, I had to use my phone’s navigation because this $43k car didn’t come with GPS. My Infiniti is cheaper, bigger, faster, quieter, more luxurious, and comes with voice-activated GPS navigation. The gas mileage is almost exactly half as good – but since the Infiniti’s cheaper, I’m not sure the Volt is any kind of bargain.
In the Chevy Volt’s $32k starting price (after a hefty tax credit), competing sedans include the Audi A4 with its beautifully tailored interior, the well-styled Chrysler 300, the even-more-economical Ford Fusion Hybrid, the huge and luxurious Hyundai Genesis, the rock-solid Mercedes C-class, or even just the plain 42MPG Chevy Cruze Eco with the Lucky Smuggler Package. What’s the Lucky Smuggler Package, you ask? That’s an extra ten thousand dollars cash in the trunk – and the price ends up being the same as the Volt. Ten grand buys a hell of a lot of gasoline.
Early Adopters Pay a Premium – But For What?
As a long-time Apple user, I’m used to paying a stiff price premium for cool features. (Yes, these days Apple gear is actually cheaper than everybody else’s, but the stigma still sticks.) Again, I would seem like the Volt’s target customer, and I do find myself intrigued by the concept of an electric car that works just like a regular one.
If I had easy access to a 240V outlet in my garage, I think I’d be almost sold enough to get over the ridiculously bad center console and user interface. Almost. But a convenient electric charging infrastructure just isn’t here yet, even in a big city like Chicago. So when’s it going to make sense?
Bill Gates said that we overestimate the changes coming in the next two years, and we underestimate the changes that will take effect in the next ten. The Volt’s current situation lends itself really well to this two-vs-ten-year scenario. Two years from now, we won’t have a pervasive electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and you’ll still struggle to find a nearby free outlet. Even “free” is the wrong word – my nearest charging spot at Whole Foods costs $2 per hour, and after an hour, my range had only gone up by 5 miles. At those prices, gas is a bargain – even in my 20mpg Infiniti.
But ten years from now, I bet you’ll be able to push a button on the dashboard and find the nearest open parking spot with an electric outlet – and you won’t have to drive far. Even at my family reunion, the shelter had electric outlets; they were just frustratingly out-of-reach by a few feet. Ten years from now, if it’s easy to put an electric outlet closer to the nearest parking spot, there’ll already be one.
Ten years from now, electric cars are going to succeed big time, and I can’t wait to see it.
Note: the Chevy Volt was provided by Chevrolet as a Klout perk. I was not paid at all for this review, nor did Chevy or Klout ask me to write anything. In fact, it was about as painless as could be – Chevy called me up to ask when they could give me a Volt, dropped it off with a full tank of gas, and picked it up with a smile. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you should sign up for Klout so marketers can give you stuff that you’d enjoy.