Monday, July 9, 2012

Driving the Volt

I had a chance to drive a Chevy Volt recently. Its an interesting car. Not pure electric, and not a 'range extender' but because of that tiny modification to the transmission, it is technically a hybrid. The petrol engine can, and does drive the wheels. Not often, but it does. For the most part though, it is electric, and because of that, it makes barely any noise from the outside. There's road noise on the inside of course but that's about it. It drives pretty much like any other car but being electric drive, you get full torque from standstill. With the transmission in 'sport' you get a good punch of acceleration but a commensurate (and very noticable) drop in remaining battery life. In 'mountain' mode you get more regenerative braking for coming down passes and hills, and in 'normal' mode its a blend of the other two.
Ride quality is good, but then the weight of the battery pack helps that out. Conversely, cornering suffers for the exact same reason - it steers like the Queen Mary on anything but the slightest change of direction.
Visibility is so-so, as is the driving position. The seats are neither luxurious nor cheap and are average for comfort. There's dozens of gadgets and distractions available through the touchscreen to encourage you not to concentrate on driving, and just about every function is user-customisable (although the manual strongly encourages you to just leave everything on 'default').
Charging takes about 16amps from a standard US 110v supply, about 8amps from a European 220/240v supply (if you're driving the Opel Ampera) and GM strongly recommend you plug it in any time you're not using it. A problem then if you place of work doesn't have charging posts. Those are the low-speed charging times. GM will sell you a high-speed charging station and install it at your house if wiring permits.
I think GM have tried too hard with the whole 'future' theme though. The inside is a gaudy mix of cheap plastic Buck Rogers TV set and poorly placed, badly functioning touch controls. The start and stop functions have some super cheesy sound effects associated with them and the central display is a mess of information that is hard to decipher when on the move. If the interior looked more like a normal car, the Volt would be so much more appealing. Plus, there's the American fetish with chrome - it's everywhere on this car, between the overly-shiny wheels and the chrome accents inside and out. The Ampera isn't quite so gaudy - they de-chromed it for the Euro market and it looks much better for it.
Would I buy one? No. Would I lease one? I don't think so. You still have to make too many concessions to own one. Can't tow with it. Marginal room in the trunk (and no divider between the trunk and the rear seats). It corners very badly. Isn't great in very hot or very cold climates (the electric heater and a/c are both pretty poor). There's a litany of problems like you'd expect with any v1.0 product and until electric cars are as flexible and no-fuss as current petrol-engined ones, I don't see a huge uptick in the number of buyers. GM have a lot of work to do for the v2.0 version to be more usable as an actual car rather than a novelty conversation piece.