It’s the economy stupid

2011, Chevrolet, Volt

As the popularity of hybrids and electric vehicles grow there are more and more competitions among the journalists to see who can get the most miles per gallon of gasoline. I've won a couple competitions hypermiling, and this next challenge was going to put some of those skills to the test.

The competition for the Chevy Volt had a twist. The competition was to see who could get from the airport to the hotel in Rochester, MI without using any gasoline. Forty-five miles without using a drop of gasoline.

The prize was huge - if we win we get a Chevy Volt at our house for a month. How cool would that be? Not to use gasoline for an entire month.

That's what the Chevy Volt is supposed to be about. The ability to use a domestic product, electricity, to and from work. The reason a person would buy this vehicle is because they want to get off the dependence of foreign oil, they want to decrease their monthly budget and they want to decrease our trade deficit.

They want to do it all while sitting in the comfort of a vehicle that drives and feels like a regular vehicle. They want to do it all without worrying about being stranded on the side of the road

I was in. I was up for the challenge. My task was to drive half way there, then let me colleague take over.

My guide gave me clues to help me read the new instrument cluster, "try to keep the earth in the middle, you can see it moving up or down if you go too fast or brake too hard. If you keep the earth in the middle you are driving as efficiently as possible."

This reminds me of the first time I drove a first generation Prius. Pacman was big at the time and Toyota had these little pacman eating gasoline. It was like a video game. The better you drove the more pacman you accumulated.

He showed me the energy efficiency information screen that I could access through Volt's center stack NAV screen. To be the best I can be I had to have 100% driving style. This would require me to stay around 55 miles per hour,coast to stops and to be feather light on the pedal.

Obtaining 100% climate was easy, all I had to do was turn off the air conditioning and keep the windows up. Aren't you glad you used dial soap? Don't you wish everyone did?

At the twenty mile mark I gave up the drivers seat with 33 miles left in the electric bank. I had started out with 37 miles on the electric meter. I was quite proud of myself. Not a spec of gasoline used. I had driven more miles than miles of energy used.

I sat in the back seat holding my breath at every light. It wasn't because the backseat was a problem. Quite the contrary. Plenty of room for a little four door hatchback sedan. Even the cargo space was big enough to hold luggage for two.

The Volt is based on the Chevy Cruze, including using the 1.4-liter engine that is in the Chevy Cruze, though the Volt takes premium gasoline. Just another reason to use the electric side of the equation.

No I was concerned that my colleague was coming off the line too hard, thus costing us energy. Was he braking too hard? This was a race by dammit, and I wanted to win. The traffic is getting more congested. I'm nervous.

There is a controversy swirling and it centers on whether the Volt's gasoline engine mechanically assists an electric motor. At first we were told the Volt was pure electric. Turns out there are a couple times that that is technically not true. For the purist, that is a problem. For people who already think General Motors has a credibility problem that is an issue.

I happen to think if an automobile can be more efficient by utilizing one or more technologies than do it. On a longer haul the engine would kick in to produce more electricity. On harder working times, over 70 mph and in high mountain areas, like Vail, CO, the engine will help even more.

I have no problem calling the Volt by another name, even a plug-in hybrid, though I don't think that title does the technology justice. What I am looking for is the technology that will get us off the dependence of foreign oil, reduce my monthly household expenses and reduce the trade deficit for the country, all without range anxiety.

Unfortunately Chevy also has to consider the nomenclature of the vehicle, and how it operates. Chevy was shooting for a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV) for the Volt. Certainly, if you combine the electric and the gasoline that should be a no brainer.

You see, if it were a pure electric vehicle the Environmental Protection Agency would have been so much kinder to Chevy instead of rating it a ULEV. Since it operated, even a little bit, on the engine it had to be tested with the gasoline engine and did not include the electric side. I don't know how they're going to do it, but Chevy says that will change in their 2012 Volts.

We could say that the Nissan Leaf was a competitor, but I don't think so. Even though for $2,500 down you can get a three-year, $350 a month lease, which matches the deal on the much-cheaper Nissan Leaf.

I see the plug-in Toyota Prius as a competitor. Because the Chevy Volt was priced at $41,000, much higher than should be I also see the Chevy Cruze, Ford Fusion hybrid, Hyundai Sonata hybrid and a couple of Lexus hybrids as competitors.

All of those cars will cost equal to or less than the Volt after its tax credits. The price of energy won't be that much different either. The fusion hybrid gets about forty miles to the gallon, which is under $30 for nine gallons of gasoline.

The Prius will only get thirteen miles per charge, but after that it will get 50 miles to the gallon. That's roughly 465 miles on a charge, including 9 gallons of gasoline. (The Prius has a bigger engine, I'm just nine gallons for apples to apples comparison). Cost - under $30.

The Volt will get forty miles per charge, but after that it will get around 35 miles to the gallon/charge. That's roughly 360 miles on a charge, including 9 gallons of gasoline. Cost - under $30.

Herein lies the difference. If you only use electricity to go back and forth everyday you will be paying about $1.50 for forty miles. You can't do that with any of the other vehicles.

This is not GM's first foray in to hybrids, or advanced technology. General Motors had a hybrid in the market before Toyota. They choose to put it in buses instead of cars.

General Motors had two-mode hybrid for their pickups, and should have put it in all 850,000 pickup they sold. If all 2005 Silverado and Sierra pickups had been 2-mode hybrid pickups the United States would have saved 80,000,000 gallons of gasoline every year.

The biggest question is not whether General Motors lied about the Volt being a hybrid, or a range extender. It's whether General Motors is working on a second generation and whether the system will be expanded into other brands and other types of vehicles, such as luxury vehicles, SUVs and pickups.

There is a time when you don't just own intellectual property, but you bring it to market. It's not whether you can make 60,000 halo vehicles a year. It's whether that technology gets better with each generation and you expand your market.

Chevy wouldn't say whether they were working on a second generation. There are advances that need to be made. No technology is perfect on the first run. Ask Microsoft. Ask Toyota. The first generation Prius' air conditioning stopped when the car came to a stop. It only takes stopping once when the temperature is 100 degrees outside to know the second generation is in the making.

We didn't win the competition, but our car came in at a very respectable 52.5 miles per charge. 52.5 miles for $1.50. That's worth a second generation Chevy. And Buick. And Cadillac. And GMC. In pickups, and luxury cars too. And in more places than California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington DC and Texas.

No matter what you call it.

By Lou Ann Hammond

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Images of the 2011, Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevy Volt
2011 Chevy Volt
try to keep the earth in the middle
try to keep the earth in the middle
charging up
charging up
Ecotec 1.4L I-4 and Voltec drive unit
Ecotec 1.4L I-4 and Voltec drive unit