Living With The Chevrolet Volt HD Video

I became familiar with the Chevrolet Volt at a GM press event in San Francisco early this year.  I talked to engineers, drove it around and came away very impressed.  As a piece of technology it’s a deep product, more than just hype as some have suggested. Here’s a link to my original story that covers a lot of the technical aspects.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

At those events we generally get to spend half a day with the car.  Owning a vehicle is completely different though and I wanted to know what it was like to live with the Volt for an extended period of time.  So I arranged for Chevy to drop one off for a week so I could experience the lifestyle.  Turned out to be a pretty dramatic seven days (though the Volt was flawless).

A Tech Recap

Volt is an electric car that ‘s supposed to travel around 40 miles on a charge (GMs press info now says 35).  After the 16-kWH lithium-ion battery gets low, a gasoline-powered generator automatically kicks in to make more power to run the electric motor.  With battery and gas tank full, Volt’s range is supposed to be 379 miles.

2011 Ecotec 1.4L I-4 VVT (LUU) and 2011 Voltec Drive Unit 4ET50

Coasting and braking recharges the battery.  Dropping the transmission into low puts it into a more aggressive charge mode with the added drag making it possible to drive around without using the brakes much.

My mission is simple- Use as little gasoline as possible without altering my regular lifestyle.  Volt will be my only vehicle for the week, even if I need to carry more than three passengers. I will not drive my weekly 200 to 300 miles like a slug or Speed Racer.  When the car is parked at work I’ll plug it in.  In the end I want to know two things- How far it will go on battery power and what are my energy costs for the week.

Day One

Including delivery mileage from the warehouse, the Volt only gets driven 20 miles on this day so it’s battery power every mile.  One thing is certain, Volt is a rock star.  Co-workers want rides.  People want to know everything about it and I quickly realize I will have to budget extra time on every errand I run.  For the most part, people like the design a lot.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Up till now all Volt interiors I’ve seen have had a white iPod-like material used for the center control panel like the one in the photo here.  They’ve also had mod 70s-like printed door panels.  My test vehicle’s center stack is charcoal with gold door inserts and it’s very tasteful.  The center column is mostly touch sensitive and it takes time getting used to.

There’s no real gauge cluster, two LCD screens can be configured to your liking.  Controls like the transmission selector and keyless ignition are just like a standard car.  Since the gas engine seldom fires up on start up, there are Star Trek-like sound effects.

Day Two

Chevy’s research says most consumers drive 40 miles or less per day.  No problem for me, my commute is eight miles round trip.  As I leave for work my wife looks very tired.  Two hours later she’s back from work and in bed with a 103 temperature.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Life happens.  I am now responsible for the scheduled pickups and drop offs for both kids and all of their friends.  At day’s end I have still not exceeded the battery range.  I consider driving around for a few miles to feel the transition to generator mode but realize I need to get the kids fed.  It’s clear that Volt will easily hit 40 miles using no gas though.

Temperature can effect range.  GM says frigid Michigan winters can drop battery performance down to 25 miles.  Conversely, warm summer days in southern states can boost it to 50 or 60 miles.

Day Three

Mariko is feeling worse if that’s at all possible.  The kids climb into the Volt, school shuttling adds eight miles to my morning commute.  By the end of the day I dip into the generator for just 3 miles. It’s very hard to tell when the generator kicks on, it’s seamless, and often unheard.  The best indication is graphics on the instrument panel.  The best part?  I’m not stranded, though I wouldn’t be in a Nissan Leaf either because of its 100 mile range.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Driving in city with the generator feels similar to a hybrid.  The generator shuts down at stoplights, and restarts after pulling away silently.

Charging is simple, just plug in to the port on the driver’s side.  The connector is tough enough to be driven over (ask me how I know).  There’s an LED flashlight at the end of the charger, great for plugging in at night.  A full charge takes 11 hours with a standard 110 current, 4 hours with 220, the kind your dryer uses.  FYI, Leaf essentially double that time, making 110 charging impractical.

Worried that pranksters will unplug your charging car?  If the doors are locked, the alarm goes off to call attention to the act.  A smartphone app will also alert you so can spring into action. Volt can be programmed to charge during off peak rates.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Day Four

My lovely wife is still bedridden with no sign of feeling better.  Kids are shuttled, medicine is retrieved, and people want to chat about the car wherever I go.  I hold up the prescription and apologize that I must rush off.  It’s a great time saver.  I save the bag to use as excuse for future encounters.

I’m driving much more than normal and I have used only 2/10th of a gallon of gas in four days.  Thankfully Volt is fun to drive.  The battery is mounted low between the seats giving it excellent balance.  Overall, it has a European feel to it, solid and hefty with much better handling dynamics than Prius or Insight, a bit better than Leaf.  The brakes have a fairly linear feel, rare for a regenerative system.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Electric motors have a nice torquey dynamic to them, Volt runs from standstill to 60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, a second or so quicker than Prius and Leaf.   Since it makes very little noise of it’s own, you can hear the suspension pieces working.

Volt is so quiet pedestrians don’t hear it.  More than a couple people have walked right in front of it, startled to see Volt creeping up on them.  I plug Volt in at night using no gas today.  Tomorrow will be different.

Day Five (or Thank Goodness For The Generator)

Marriage is a team activity and with Mariko still on the injured reserve it’s up to me to get the kids and their friends to their destinations.  Note to self, my 17 year old daughter really needs to get her driver’s license.

Volt has three drive modes, regular, sport (sharpens throttle response), and mountain which allows drivers to kick on the generator early to bank electric power for later if extremely hilly conditions are expected later.  For the most part the generator does not charge the battery.  There are also all sorts of graphics to encourage more efficient driving.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

My various errands involve traveling from Seattle to Tacoma (where the generator smoothly kicks in after 41 miles of freeway driving).  From there it’s up to Mountlake Terrace, a trip downtown to buy a new dress shirt, a few skirmishes to the hardware, drug and grocery stores and finally out to North Bend to attend the Emmy Awards.  This ends up being around 200 miles.  I estimate 37 miles per gallon when depending solely on the generator.

Donned in my new shirt, I actually manage to find an outlet at Snoqualmie Casino and plug Volt in.  I am feeling lucky.  Turns out I’m not.  The shirt gets stained, I leave empty handed (though it’s an honor just to be nominated) and the outlet I scored does not have enough amperage to charge the car.  If I had depended on it to get home with a purely electric car I’d be sunk.  As it stands the only commercially available electric car that can cover today’s range is a Tesla Roadster, and two friends came with me to the Emmys.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

Volt’s Achilles heel is the back seat.  The space seems sculpted out to accommodate my average sized 5’9” frame and it only seats two because of the big battery pack that runs down the middle.  On the other hand, the seats are exceptionally comfortable so those who do fit there will be happy.  I’ll also admit that I never needed a fifth seating position and seldom do.

Day Six

Finally, Mariko is feeling better.  Still, there’s shopping to be done.  Volt’s hatch design is useful, the space behind the two rear seats is average sized.  At Costco, Volt scores a five in the TP trunk test, one less than most hatchbacks.  Oddly, they ran out of the Kirkland brand so I have to approximate with smaller “brand X” bundles.  In case you’re wondering I only borrow that stuff, the folks at Warehouse #1 are very generous.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

When driving on the highway using the generator, it’s possible to hear the gas engine when the throttle is pushed hard.  The overall dynamic sounds like driving a hybrid with a very lazy CVT transmission.

No sunroof is available, Chevy says it adds weight and aerodynamic drag.  Speaking of aerodynamics, the flexible chin spoiler seems to always be scraping something.  My wife, who has finally ridden in the car notices that sound and how exceptionally quiet Volt is.  I drain the battery at 43 miles today and hit the generator up for a dozen more.  I find myself using the on-screen graphics to improve my battery range because it’s fun tooling around using only battery power.  Maybe that’s because in the Pacific Northwest we depend on hydroelectric power, which is pretty darn clean compaired to coal plants.

Day Seven

Chevy wants their car back.  A few more observations- For some reason I almost always forget to close the charge port door.  File this under operator error.  Visibility is average because like many modern cars the greenhouse is on the narrow side.  The backup camera helps.  Volt’s navigation system is easy to use and the lightweight Bose system with hard drive storage for tunes sounds quite good.  While I don’t need the climate control much, it blows a huge volume of air with immediate cooling and heating (no engine block to warm up).  The very comfortable supportive leather seats have an auto heat setting.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

It’s important to understand that I had no problem driving right up to the very limits (and past) the battery range.  Unlike purely electric cars, the generator offers compete confidence.  Volt can be a person’s only car.  It also adds complexity and weight.  Some folks will be perfectly fine with the 100 mile range of Nissan’s Leaf, you just have to know your needs.

Drum Roll Please…

I head off to Gus Cooper’s Shell to gas up.  There I field the usual questions from curious folks who wonder why I’m there filling up an electric car.  Volt has been driven a total of 497 miles. I top off the tank (yes, I you’re not supposed to) for a total of five gallons.  Almost all of it is due to my marathon Saturday excursion.

Remember to add electricity costs.  As close as I can estimate, a full battery charge is about $1.30 in Seattle.  Total energy bill?  About 30 bucks for nearly 500 miles of driving.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

The cost of saving money on your fuel bill for a 2011 Volt starts at 41 grand before generous tax credits (up to $7,500).  2012 models will begin at 40K with more paint choices and option packages.  This all assumes you can find a Chevy dealer to sell one at MSRP.

Chevy’s extended range electric car will be available in all 50 states by the end of 2011.  You can head down to the local dealer and order yours now.  It was great fun to tool around in the Volt for a week, it even got the attention of my wife (notoriously uninterested in cars) for the one day she rode in it.  She likes the idea of minimal gas use.  I’m just glad she’s feeling better.



  1. ljgrant800 says:

    How long does the battery last until it needs replacing?

  2. luvincarsindaburgh says:

    I have watched this segment a few times. I just love the Volt in red. Besides the price-being a bit too high for my income, I would I am curious to hear from any Volt owners that have truely legit gripe or complaint. (not political, tree hugger or otherwise) But a real complaint- ie, not enough cup holders, range, handling, etc.

    • TV says:

      I was reading an article the other day where an auto writer was pointing out that as technical as this car is, there hasn’t been a single recall. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty impressive. I found plenty of cup holders, handling is quite good. Range? Well, depending on how you look at it it’s either bad compared to Leaf ( 35 vs. 90 or so on battery) or really great (generator means you’re never stranded). I really enjoyed my time with the car.

  3. crash says:

    I absolutely adore this car…it can’t come to Canada fast enough!! I’m a heavy commuter – so I don’t know if this one would make sense for me – however it is absolutely perfect for my wife….she does 30km’s per day to work and back.

    I’m so freaking sick and tired of being the random whipping boy for oil companies….

  4. Toaster says:

    Great piece Tom! I love this “real world” stuff. Volt is too expensive for me right now, so it won’t be on my shopping list any time soon but this does appear to be the car of the future. Much more economical than a hybrid, and doesn’t have the range anxiety of a pure electric vehicle.

    I’d love a follow up to see how it does in the winter. Up here in Canada, that’s a big concern to folks looking at EVs.

    One question regarding that, I don’t know if you’ll know or not, but does a cold winter (like that you’d experience here in Manitoba or in say, northern Minnesota) take a toll on the life expectancy of the batteries in hybrids and EVs? I know it impacts range and performance, but would an owner be looking at replacing the battery packs any sooner? That’s a big deal because I’ve read that the Volt’s battery pack costs about $14,000 USD. That’s a big hunk of change to have to fork over to “repair” a car after a few years!

    Also on that note, with battery packs being expensive to replace what does that do to resale value on these vehicles? I can’t see that it would be very good. I mean, if I’m shelling out $40k for a new car and the battery pack has a lifetime expectancy of 8 years and I’m selling it after say 5 years how much is the next owner going to be willing to pay for a car that’s going to require a 14k “repair” bill in 3-4 years max?

    As to the car itself, I think it’s a winner. It looks great, a lot sportier than a Prius or Leaf. I agree with you on the dash colouring, the darker tones look better than the “early iPod” inspired white version. Too bad you can’t fit a 5th person in the rear seat. With 3 kids, this 2+2 configuration just won’t work for me as an only vehicle. Would be a great commuter car though.

    • TV says:

      Not sure about durability in the cold, only that temps like yours decrease the range to around 25 miles on a full charge.

      Hard to know about the battery pack or resale. In the short term, seems like resale would be good considering the short supply and high demand.

      GM has a significant warrantee, 8 years, 100,000 miles on the pack. I would also hope that battery tech is better and cheaper in 8-10 years. In fact, one argument against Volt is that tech is advancing so fast, a significantly improved one will be available in a few years (or from a competitor).

      As for a 5th seat, in my week with it that was never an issue. Frankly, I seldom have more than two people in a car now that my kids are teens. I can’t remember the last time I needed to take more than 3 passengers. Obviously it’s an issue with you, I don’t see this as an ideal family car for Americans unless kids are small. Space is a little dear for what we expect in a vehicle. Canadians tend to buy smaller vehicles though.

  5. jyu524 says:

    Nice review and very clever production. The Volt looks great! I love the sleek, yet fun, styling. I definitely could see myself bopping around in a vehicle like this. Thanks!

  6. GusGT says:

    Great review Tom! I watched your video, went to the Chevrolet website, and then watch your review again. What a car! It’s out of my budget but the concept and functionality are truly amazing.

    TV, do you think a 220v outlet in the garage may become a standard someday as the popularity of electric vehicles evolves? Where do you think vehicle efficiency is heading?

    Here’s a question for the Driven readers that own a Volt. How do your charge your vehicle when you are away from home? At work? On a vacation away from home? I’m especially interested in the “away from the convenience of the garage for extended periods of time” type situations.

    • TV says:

      Hmmm, If it’s cheap enough to install it would be a great marketing tool for selling new homes, especially higher end models. Anybody an electrician out there? How much would it cost to have a big enough breaker box installed then run 220 out to the the garage as well as the dryer? Can’t imagine it would be much if the house in under construction. The question is, will or how quickly will electric vehicles take off?

      I plugged Volt into the outlet at work once just to top it off for a few hours, so if your employer is OK with that, the range can be extended. The nice thing is, people can get by with 110 in this car. Harder to do in a Leaf.

      • tailfin61 says:

        I’m very lucky that my employer, The Hartford Insurance, installed charging stations last year. I was the first to start using them back in March. There are now two other Volts at work as well. Folks do a double take when all three are there charging, still not a common site. The charging in free. I also found a 110 outlet in the parking garage and was tole that I could plug in, no problem.

        I did install a Voltec 220 charger at home, so now I carry the 110 charger with me instead of leaving it at home. ( the Voltec is $490 plus installation which varies based on your situation at home). I’ve plugged in when I’ve been visiting friends, most are excited and willing to have me do so. In July, we will be traveling from CT to the outer banks of NC, we will bringing the portable charger. I curious too if we’ll be able to plug in. That’s the beauty of the Volt though, don’t really need to plug in at all.

  7. Bobolink says:

    Thanks for the review! I’ve had my Volt for about a month and REALLY like it. My wife does too and we have had to work out a time-share agreement!

    We have become spoiled by this car. Neither of us wants to drive our other car. My wife came in the other day from work and suggested we replace the other car with another Volt, haha.

    This car is a fun drive. My neighbor told me after a test drive that he liked it more than his baby, a Mercedes! I think people have no idea what to expect with the Volt, but everyone we have given test drives have come away totally impressed.

    We like that the Volt can be our primary car (it can drive anywhere, long trips included). Our commute is about 52 miles, so we do end up using a little gas every day, but it is miniscule.

  8. tailfin61 says:

    Hey Tom,
    Really enjoy your site and reviews. I’ve had my Volt since March 10th and have driven 2500 miles using 4 gallons of gas. My electric fill-up charge here in CT is 90 cents. Since the warm weather has arrived, I’ve seen a high of 51.7 miles in EV mode. I drive in SPORT/Low exclusively and love it.

    Thanks for the Volt update and keep up the good work.

    • TV says:

      Thanks for the info tailfin,

      So I’m curious, if you’re getting 51 on a charge are you driving lightly? I drove in a fairly normal manner (even “drag raced” a Prius at a stoplight).

      Also, if you wouldn’t mind checking in on this thread occasionally in case someone has a burning question, I’d appreciate it.

      My wife (the personification of a non-car person) is interested in getting this car, It’s the only vehicle I’ve had in months that she likes. Who knew? Actually saw one on a Chevy lot today here in Seattle, even though they aren’t supposed to arrive here until August.

      • tailfin61 says:

        That particular day, where we achieved 51.7 miles was a Saturday running errands. We just so happened to stay off the highway. It was early May, so no A/C either. Running on the back roads is the best way to extend the miles, lots of breaking, coasting, plus I now drive in LOW exclusively.

        During my Monday – Friday commute, even though I’m on the highway, traffic usually backs up at a certain point every day, so in my 9 mile commute in, I usually use just 3 -4 miles of charge. That LOW gear really helps.

  9. FinalBlue says:

    This is a weird thing to pick up on, but I really liked the background music in this video.

    As for the Volt, it’s an impressive piece of technology, and I think it looks very handsome, but I’m not sure the tron-like taillights really sync up with the rest of the otherwise conservative exterior.

    Also, to be fair, the Leaf has been shown to go further than 100 miles on a single charge.

    • FinalBlue says:

      *100 miles on a single charge under certain conditions (similar to how the Volt can travel more than 40 miles on electricity under certain conditions, as mentioned in the video).

    • TV says:

      Leaf has gone further than 100? Curious where have you’ve seen that. InsideLine got it to go 130 or something but that was on a hot day going 30 some miles an hour with all climate control off. Not exactly real world…

      I drove Volt like I would any car, I was not especially gentle with it. I’m guessing I could have easily hit 45 miles on the pack but that’s not what I was after. In those conditions, I estimate I would have gone 80 miles with Leaf.

      • FinalBlue says:

        Ah, thanks for reminding me which site that test was from, Tom (I couldn’t remember whether it was Autoblog or InsideLine that did it). Yes, that’s what I was referring to (for anyone interested, link is

        Hahaha, yeah, IL’s test wasn’t exactly under real world conditions, but one of the lines from the video said the Leaf’s range “is capped at 100 miles”, and I just wanted to point out that it is in fact capable (albeit under VERY specific conditions) of going past 100.

        • TV says:

          Yes, it’s not truly physically capped, I hope everyone understands what I meant though. There are times when conversational English will not pass an inspection by a lawyer…