Travel Tips

Is There Finally an Affordable, Functional Electric Car on the Market?

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA San Diego, CA

chevy_volt_electric_carElectric cars used to be a punchline, but in 2013, the market shifted. It’s not just Teslas taking over the luxury sector, but the Chevrolet Volt’s electric-gas combination  is providing interesting competition to the Toyota Prius and hybrid markets. Product tester Phil Baker invested in the Chevy Volt and doesn’t appear to be looking back. Here’s how the electric car has started to compete.

When the Chevy Volt first came out in 2011, I imagined it might be a vehicle I could consider owning, assuming it lived up to expectations. That was a big “if,” considering GM was in deep financial trouble and had a checkered past supporting its other initiatives (Saab, Saturn, etc.).

But this first-of-its-kind, range-extended, plug-in electric vehicle seemed to make a lot of practical sense, and I thought it might be important to GM if the company was to make a comeback. In the intervening three years they have, fully supported the Volt and are now bringing this technology to a new Cadillac.

I found the design approach to be very clever. Unlike electric-only cars, you never suffer from range anxiety and are always able to travel using the gasoline generator when the batteries become depleted. Plus, unlike hybrid cars such as the original Toyota Prius, you can operate in an all-electric mode. That means it’s possible never to need gas, if you use it for local commuting.

So, when it came time to replace my BMW X3 SUV in October, I did a lot of online research, looking for a car that was technologically advanced, moderately priced, and something fun to drive. I also admired the Tesla, a car well beyond my price range, but one that allows owners to make a statement about never needing to buy gas again. Even if I could afford a Tesla, I would have been discouraged from doing so after a friend came to visit from Los Angeles and the charger he had thought would be available down here was not. He had to limp from one short-term charger to another all the way home. The Volt seemed like a good compromise.

Upon first researching the Volt, I found that it had the highest satisfaction level of any American car. More than 90 percent of all Volt owners say they would buy one again. (In this month’s Consumer Reports, that honor now goes to the Tesla at 99 percent, with the Volt second at 91 percent.)

mm_gal_item_c2_10.img_resize.img_stage._3Unlike electric-only cars, you never suffer from range anxiety with the Chevy Volt and are always able to travel using the gasoline generator when the batteries become depleted.

With a recent $5,000 reduction, plus a $7,500 federal tax credit and $1,500 state credit, its effective cost seemed a bargain at about $31,000 (for a fully loaded model). In fact, it came with more equipment than I had on my BMW, including keyless entry, and lane departure and collision-avoidance cameras. Most of all, though, I loved the idea of reducing my dependency on foreign oil. I also liked the idea of buying an American car, the first time in over 30 years.

After 60 days, I’m more enamored of the Volt than ever. The car handles well, its fit and finish are excellent, service and support are very good, and I’ve discovered a lot more features.

While rated at 35 miles per charge, I’m getting from 39 to 42 miles. With my driving pattern, I’ve gotten 165 mpg over the first 1,700 miles. I’m using the car to go to the airport almost weekly, to offices downtown, or to meetings all over San Diego County and a few in Orange County. Most of my trips have been less than 50 miles round trip; several have been up to 120 miles. In more than two months of use, I’ve bought about 12 gallons of gas. My gas mileage has averaged about 40 mpg.

mm_gal_item_c2_13.img_resize.img_stage._1 One of the first things I did after buying the car was to install a 240V charger in my garage. The Bosch-made charger cost $450 and adding a 240-volt line cost $150. Charging now takes about 3.5 hours instead of 11 with the supplied portable 110-volt charger. The car even sends me a text message or email when the charging is complete. To conserve electricity, I was able to enter information into the car’s display about the timing of the tiered electric rates I pay SDG&E. I can then choose whether the car is charged immediately upon plugging in, based on the time I want to leave, or at the time the rates drop.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that one of my hesitations was buying an American car after driving imports for so many years — Saabs, BMWs, Acuras and a Lexus. But I’ve come to realize that this car is as well finished both inside and out as any car I’ve owned. The large hi-res display in the center stack provides access to many features, using both the touch display and capacitive buttons.

The GPS with traffic is excellent and the integration of XM Sirius, with AM and FM options, lets me select 30 preset stations completely intermixed directly from the steering wheel. I also can display weather, local businesses, local gas station prices, and automatic weather alerts.

My iPhone 5S paired easily with the car’s Bluetooth, uploaded my address book, and played any music or Internet radio that was running on my phone without needing to change any of the car’s settings.

mm_gal_item_c2_11.img_resize.img_stage._3The driver’s speed display is all-digital with no circular dials. That works fine and provides plenty of room for other indicators, including miles left in the battery and gasoline tank, GPS turn instructions, driver feedback, and even a message if, for example, I forget to close the charger door.

The Volt comes with three years of OnStar and three months of XM/Sirius, and they are all well-integrated. I’ve called OnStar many times specifying where I want to go, using an address or name of the business, and the GPS provides directions to the new destination a few seconds later. An OnStar app for the iPhone allows me to start, stop, and check on my charging state remotely, as well as control other functions, such as locking and unlocking the car.

One of the questions I’m asked is how much money I save and how much higher my electric bill is now. So far, I’ve received only one month’s electric bill and my electricity has actually dropped a whopping 30 percent. SDG&E offers a lower rate to electric-vehicle owners, which I believe accounts for much of the drop, but I need to see a few more months of billing before a final conclusion. I’ve estimated a monthly savings of about $100 to $200 on gasoline usage.

One of other questions I get is how well Volt rides and handles. I’ve found it to handle very well, even compared to other cars I’ve owned that excelled in handling, such as Saabs and BMWs. Plus, the Volt is incredibly quiet. It’s also a very safe car. With its eight airbags and cage construction, it’s one of the top-rated cars in the government’s crash testing. As the battery becomes depleted and the car shifts from battery to gas mode, there is no indication it has occurred, other then a change in the display.

So, what are the negatives?mm_gal_item_c2_3.img_resize.img_stage._3

The sound system is adequate, but not as good as a premium sound system, perhaps a result of using especially efficient Bose speakers to reduce power consumption. I’ve encountered a couple of minor software glitches: On two occasions, the display showed I used gas for 0.1 miles while the battery was full, and another displayed the backup camera image for a short time when I was driving with the display set to navigation. All self-corrected. Lastly, the Volt doesn’t have a hard drive to store multiple CDs and doesn’t have power seats.

So, after 60 days, I’m certainly pleased with the Volt. It’s a very comfortable car to drive, provides all of the gadgetry I could want, saves some money, and also provides another benefit: It qualifies me to use the carpool lanes without a second person in the car.

For more electric car options, check out:

By Phil Baker for Baker is the author of From Concept to Consumer: How to Turn Your Ideas Into Money, published by Financial Times Press.