The New Arrival

On October 2, 2012 by WMac

On Saturday, September 15, my little family unit brought home a 2012 Chevrolet Volt, resplendent in White Diamond Tricoat with a Light Neutral Leather interior.  It stickered at $45,729, dealer invoice was $43,700, and we closed at $43,500.  We traded in our 2004 Nissan Murano SL AWD with just over 133k on the clock for $7k.  After tax, title, and fees, $37,941 was the total on the car.  Because it’s my first-ever GM ownership experience and the Volt is a rather complex bit of tech, we also rolled $2,675 into a Platinum Protection Plan good for 6 years or 125k miles.  We had a GM Card Earnings Rebate of $1,000 factored in as well, which brought the amount financed (at zero percent over 72 months) to $39,616.  The last bit of math to do here is the inclusion of the federal “Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Credit” tax adjustment, to the tune of $7,500.  When all is said and done, I’ll spend a total of $32,116 in liquid assets for the purchase of this car and the warranty—not much more than the average new-car purchase price in the United States.  But that’s just the money.  This is a post about the future.

THE STORY

It was a long journey that brought our family, and specifically me, to this point.  It started with seeing the Volt concept at an auto show back in 2008, then seeing it morph at subsequent shows to its present production form.  It continued with the Volt pulling down impressive awards: Automobile Magazine’s “Automobile of the Year” (2011) and Motor Trend’s “Car of the Year” (2011) among them.  The Volt got a whole chapter in Bob Lutz’s latest book as well.  In all cases, it was presented as a widely misunderstood winner of a car that carried an admittedly high sticker price but offered incredible fuel savings if employed in a certain way.  Whenever I glimpsed one in person, I was always struck with a sense of the intriguing possibilities it presented—especially its unique ability to make a 40-ish mile trip purely under electric power while still retaining the option to press onward ad infinitum (at 37mpg combined) as long as there was premium fuel in the 9.3-gallon tank.

The Volt Concept, circa 2008.

In mid-2012, for the first time in my military career, we moved into a house on base.  Suddenly I wasn’t paying for electricity (they haven’t figured out how to bill individual households on the base grid yet) and the only driving that we needed to do was from base to town and back, twice a day, four days a week, for the boys’ preschool.  The Murano had some quirks from many long, hard miles, we were perpetually worried that it would fail us at an inopportune time, and now it seemed silly to burn $65 in gas per week at a subpar rate of 18-20mpg when we could be making that trip for free in a new Volt.

The only nearby option was right in town at the local dealer, and had been there for quite some time.  It was packed with almost all of the options available on a Volt, and actually had been branded with a huge vinyl “VOLT” graphic when it arrived in our little burg.  The combination of the graphic, the near-$46k sticker, and the many common misunderstandings about the Volt must have scared buyers off.  The car languished around the dealer lot, getting a lot of looks but apparently not many serious inquiries, for a long while.  At some point, they took the graphic off.  I finally test-drove it on Saturday, August 25—just a quick loop around town.  It drove like a heavy-but-low-CG, ultra-quiet, aerodynamically optimized engineering marvel, essentially as I expected.  Most critically, however, the dog could fit in the back under the sloping rear glass hatch.  From a practical standpoint, I now knew the Volt could carry our whole family.

Post-test-drive, I went home and sat down in front of Google Maps.  It was 12 miles one-way from home to preschool.  There seemed little doubt that the Volt could easily make the round trip on electrons alone.  I went for another test-drive on Saturday, September 8, this time with the wife and kids.  While impressed with the car itself, my lovely significant other maintained a bit of skepticism.  After only a short test-drive, how could we be certain that the Volt (which would demand a significant monthly payment due to the high sticker price) would essentially zero out our gasoline expenditures by operating in electric-only mode for the vast majority of driving time?  After all, if it could not do that, then it was certainly not worth the premium we would pay over a more traditional vehicle.

The answer to that very question came in a call from the dealer that afternoon.  Take it home for three days, they said.  Use it for some weekend driving and some work-week driving.  Bring it back on Tuesday and tell us what you think.

We did just that—and the Volt knocked it out of the park for those three days.  Sunday morning, we (myself, wife, kids, and dog) took it up to Cloudcroft, NM, which involves a climb of 4,172 feet up a mountainside over 16.3 miles of road.  Set to “Mountain” Mode, the car burned almost exactly 1 gallon of gas on the way up while maintaining an 8-mile electric-only reserve.  On the way back down, with the “gear selector” in “L” mode, maximizing regenerative braking, the car actually recharged about 20% of its total battery capacity (showing 16 miles of electric range at the bottom of the mountain), and thus was able to carry us all the way home on electrons alone.  On Monday, the car easily handled preschool duty without burning a drop of gasoline and with plenty of electric range left over.  Even better, recharging on a typical 120V household outlet, it would completely top off its battery in the five hours between the morning and afternoon runs—meaning there would be essentially zero chance of using any gasoline during our usual routine, and no need for the expensive, optional 240V charger.   In those three days, the Volt sold itself.  After dropping it off back at the dealer on Tuesday, we brought it home for good about 96 hours later.

THE DRIVE

To suddenly dual-wield colloquialisms, I’ll be straight up with you right off the bat—the Volt is not “fun to drive” in the traditional sense.   That is, it doesn’t smoke tires with egregious acceleration, doesn’t peel your face off your skull in corners, doesn’t offer amazing sight lines or tactile feedback, and doesn’t make a glorious, primeval noise.  It is, however, fun to drive in a wholly different manner—it involves the driver by visually presenting numerous data points toward achieving one singular goal: maximizing electric range.  Every decision one makes at the helm of this car has a direct effect on that most critical metric of performance.

When driving the Porsche, I find myself rev-matching and late-braking when approaching corners, then mashing the gas on exit and winding the flat six up to redline.  I revel in the noise, the gearbox, the steering, the weight transfer—that’s what a 911 is for.  In the Volt, the focus is entirely different.  The driver’s primary raison d’etre becomes twofold.  First, think ahead of the car.  Second, remain smooth with all inputs.  Do so, and there is an immediate, quantifiable reward: greater electric range.  Cruise at 75 and the battery charge depletes wholesale instead of retail, so you back it off and cruise at 65 instead.  Brake late and/or accelerate quickly and again, the battery meter shows rapid discharge.  Again, you adjust your driving style.  Going uphill?  Toggle “Mountain Mode” ON ahead of time to retain battery energy and fire up the gas-burning 1.4L inline four.  Going back downhill, or approaching a traffic light?  Shift into “L” mode to store all that now-unneeded kinetic energy in the 16-kWh battery.  Keep the windows closed at speed for better aerodynamics, and leave the climate control in “Fan only” or “Eco” mode as opposed to “Comfort.”  There’s nearly always something the driver can do to effect electric mileage, and that makes the car fun to drive in its own, completely unique, way.  Lastly, if the driver isn’t interested in maximizing range, the instantaneous torque from the electric motor provides very competitive acceleration, should a right foot command it.

Even after the battery’s energy is depleted, the car remains a nice place to be.  The sound of the gasoline engine is distant and muted, and the transition from electric to gas power is seamless.  The leather seats are fantastic—I think I read an auto journalist somewhere saying he wished GM would put these seats in the Corvette (a car which has long been maligned for subpar seats).  The LCD screens are responsive and easy to navigate—the Volt’s infotainment system has just the right mixture of real buttons and virtual buttons.  The 30GB hard drive will house enough music for all four people in the car.  If someone wants to add their own songs, it’s simple: plug something into the USB slot or pop in a CD, then hit “REC”—and it’s done.  The disc player will even play DVDs on the center screen.  And every last shred of media sounds fantastic through the Bose speakers.

THE VALUE

Let’s keep it simple—as mentioned, we closed at $43,500 for the car alone.  The tax credit maxes out at $7,500 (we checked and we’re eligible for every last dime of that; every filer’s eligibility varies, of course).  Our GM Card Rebate was pretty easy to get—anyone can sign up for that credit card and the rewards add up fairly quickly.  So $43,500 less $8,500; quick math, and that’s thirty-five grand.  For that, we got leather, nav, Bose, two LCD screens, a 30GB HDD, USB connectivity, backup camera/sensors, and Bluetooth.

The internal-combustion-only competition to the Volt could be any number of things, but the bottom line is that about the least amount of money one could pay for a new, similarly equipped non-sedan vehicle (dog can’t go in a trunk) with leather is about $25k—and there are only a very few vehicles that fit in that category.  The Subaru Impreza 5-door and the VW Jetta Sportwagen are two that I considered.

In the case of the Impreza and the Jetta, though, every time you stop at a stoplight, you’re still burning fuel (non-US Imprezas have auto-stop-start, but US ones do not).  Every time you pull into a drive-through, you’re still burning fuel.  Idling on a hot or cold day to make use of the climate controls?  Still burning fuel.  And even when all three of these cars are leaned out on the highway, burning dino-juice, the Volt is still the best—40 mpg to the 31 or 35 of the competitors.

So even though there’s a ten-grand (at most) difference up front between the Volt and its competition, that number shrinks over time with fuel savings.  And when you realize that the Volt is one car with two powertrains (including a $10k battery) and all of the mechanical whizbangery needed to tie them together in seamless operation, it suddenly seems like a screaming deal—you’re not paying much more than the average new-vehicle price for a vehicle that is certainly far more than average.

THE VERDICT

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m enjoying the Volt, and you are correct.  I think it’s not only good value, but a shining example of American engineering excellence and a showpiece for what GM can do.  Regrets?  Well, I wish I’d gotten a little more for the Murano, but at the same time I realize that I would almost certainly have had trouble selling it myself in this locale.  I’m a little torn about the warranty, but the Volt is so complex and so unlike anything else I have ever owned that I cannot be convinced it was a bad idea.  One part of me wishes I’d jumped on the 36-month lease program that is honestly an even more incredible, screaming deal (the lease winds up essentially being $0/month when you figure the fuel savings)—but putting the boys and the dog in a car that’s subject to a leasing agreement is a risky proposition at best, I think.

Really what I wanted was the rarity, exclusivity, and performance of the Saab 9-3 Turbo X SportCombi; the interior space, interior quality, and fuel efficiency of the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI; and the reliability, simplicity, and all-season usefulness of the Subaru Impreza Sport Limited.  The Volt and its warranty allowed me to get all the best of those things in one vehicle.

Obviously, this isn’t a car for everyone.  If you have three or more kids, or more than one large dog, it won’t work.  If you need to tow things, it won’t work.  If you’ve got a supremely long commute and/or can’t plug in at work, then you might be better off with a diesel of some kind.  But for my two-child, one-dog family, living in a house on-base with no electric bill, I think it’s perfect.

Do one thing—drive this car.  Do so over a period of a few days, if they’ll let you.  Judge it purely on its merits as a means of transportation.  I think you will find it makes a mighty compelling case for itself as a real-life car of the future.

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