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After a week of driving the new 2012 version of the Chevrolet Volt in the Boston area, I’ve reached three conclusions. It’s an amazing car that’s fun to drive. But it’s not an ideal vehicle for city dwellers, and there are simple changes that would allow it to make a much more compelling case for electric vehicles.

The Volt is a type of plug-in hybrid vehicle that can go about 35 miles on a battery charge, followed by hundreds of miles powered by a tank of gasoline. Unlike other plug-in hybrids, it’s designed primarily to be an electric vehicle, and this is where it shines. It’s engineered for speeds up to 100 miles per hour on battery power (I didn’t try that), with impressive acceleration and nimble handling that makes negotiating city traffic a breeze. But once the battery is depleted, it slips into hybrid mode, in which it gets a mediocre 35 miles to the gallon, about the same as the comparably sized gas-powered Cruze, and the ride is accompanied by the near-constant grumble of the engine.

The car is being marketed primarily as a fuel-efficient, green vehicle. GM representatives regularly remark how much driving it is like driving an ordinary gas-powered car. No doubt market surveys say this is a good approach. But the fact is that electric cars, by virtue of the instantaneous power the electric motors deliver, can be more thrilling to drive than conventional cars. At the same time, their quietness makes driving them relaxing. The power and quietness alone could be worth the extra price of the vehicle (it’s about $33,000 after a federal tax rebate, compared to $17,000 for the Cruze). This is a performance car, and could easily be a luxury car with a few improvements to the interior.

In the Volt, some of the power is stifled by the default energy-efficient driving mode, which dials back the rate of acceleration. Another setting, sport mode, is better—the pickup is noticeably better. But drivers need to select this every time they get into the car, or it defaults to efficiency mode. Yes, plug-in cars can be very efficient and reduce gasoline consumption. But to make much of an impact, people have to buy them first. These cars are great to drive, and that should be emphasized. One way could be allowing drivers greater freedom to tune the responsiveness of the acceleration, rather than just selecting between sport and normal modes, and to leave it set the way they like it. 

GM has taken efforts to make the electric car less intimidating to drivers. Including the gas engine is a big part of that—it’s meant to address the fear of running out of charge. But the company could do more. 

When the car was delivered to the offices of Technology Review, the battery was depleted and the car was operating in hybrid mode. The first priority was getting the thing plugged in and the battery charged. Here’s what could have happened when I climbed in the car and pressed the start button. The center touch screen display could have offered to use the navigation system to direct me to the nearest charging station and automatically reserve a spot. Once there, the charger could have recognized the car, automatically unlocked itself, and allowed me to plug in.

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Credit: Stephen Cass

Tagged: Energy, Volt, plug-in hybrid, hybrid

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