Chevrolet Volt: First impressions from 6000 miles!

I bought a new car! I wanted something with good fuel economy as I’m driving about 20,000 miles a year and my Tacoma just wasn’t the right vehicle anymore. I landed on a 2018 Chevrolet Volt.  The Volt is a range-extended electric car (not a hybrid).  The first 53 miles are fully electric.  The next 350 miles are powered by the gas engine giving a full total of 420 miles of range.  That’s awesome.  But it became more awesome for reasons I’ll explain later.

Now that it’s been about three months with the Volt I wanted to give some tidbits on how the car is working out for me.  What have I learned?

1. This car is quiet (and I [mostly] love it)

Having driven trucks, ridden motorcycles, and bumped along on public transit just about all of my career, I’ve really come to accept that transit is noisy.  This car is quiet.  The electric motor barely makes a whirring sound making conversations in the car easier to hear. The radio volume is lower.  Calls with the Bluetooth system are clearer.  I’m digging quiet.  I’m really digging quiet.

At first, it was hard to know sometimes if the car was on.  There is no starter motor.  Starting the car is a lot like turning on your computer.  All that happens is the screen flashes.  Once the screen turns on though, you are ready to go.  Sometimes I do like to hit the gas and hear the roar of the motor.  Not in this car.  Also, if you put it in neutral and hit the gas… also quiet.

2. I want to use electricity as the primary fuel.

The car is quietest when running under electric power. I like quiet.  I also like electric for other reasons.

When I had my Tacoma I was driving over 20,000 miles a year.  At 18 mpg – that’s a lot of gas.  It was also a lot of trips to Costco which was not convenient but sometimes $0.70 cheaper a gallon making it worth the drive and line.  I’ve got about 5,000 miles on the car and I’ve been to the gas station 3 times.  Yep, 3. in 5,000 miles.  The Tacoma would have brought me to the gas station about 17 times.  Generally, only road trips force a gas station stop.

3. Charging up is not the same as filling up

When driving a gas car you are trained to go to the gas station to fill up.  You connect the car to the pump and fill the tank to the brim (and then some for you topper offers).  Filling up is an active task.  With the Volt, you just connect into a power source when the car is idle. With an electric car, you just plug in when you are shopping, at work, or the car is sitting in the garage. Charging is a passive activity.  You do something else while the car is charging. As I write this, the car is charging at airport parking to be full when I get back!

I’ve found that I don’t need to fully charge the battery wherever I go.  The extra miles just need to get me to the next charger when I’m parked when I’m on electricity.  WIth the volt though, you never run out of power as you can always use the gas motor.

4. 53 miles gets me a long way

When I was looking for a new car I had it narrowed down to the Volt and the Bolt (fully electric). As a single person, a fully electric car wouldn’t have done well deep in the mountains.  I had to have the gas backup.  However, the 53 miles is enough to handle just about all of my daily driving.  I very rarely use gas when I’m running around town.

I’m totally approximating here, but I’d like to illustrate that 53 miles is a long way.  I’ve centered the circle around Sacramento. Why Sacramento?  It’s flat.  Climbing hills costs more power reducing range.  Sacramento has lots of flat around it.  The green circle is 45 miles and the blue circle is 22 miles.  I reduced it slightly to account for that we don’t drive as the crow flies.

That being said, 53 miles covers most of my daily driving well.

5. I’m glad I got a level 2 charger

The Volt has a 3.3kw charger inside the car. The size of the charger and the physics and chemistry of battery life limit how quickly a battery can recharge.  Here is how quickly the Volt recharges when fully depleted:

  • Level 1, 110v at 8 amps – 16 hours
  • Level 1, 110v at 12 amps – 10 hours (but check your home wiring to see if it supports the extra demand.
  • Level 2, a dedicated circuit at 220V –  4 hours.

The level 2 charger makes a significant difference in how quickly I can charge the car during the day.    If I have a bunch of driving to do in the morning, the level 2 charger will charge the car fully for any evening driving I need to do. I went with a Juicebox 40 to futureproof for a fully electric car down the road.

6. My car gets better gas mileage than my motorcycle

I can’t believe I just said that. My 3700 pound car gets the same or (usually) better gas mileage than my 600 pound motorcycle!  Let’s walk through the screen below to decipher what the numbers mean.

Energy in electricity is usually measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh).  Gasoline is usually tracked by volume (gallons here in the States).  There are equivalent amounts of energy in 33.7 kWh and 1 gallon of gas.

MPGe Is the new metric that uses the equivalence between energy and gasoline to determine the efficiency of the car. My lifetime MPGe on the car is 61.9, almost twice the efficiency of the motorcycle and blows the old truck out of the park.

With the Volt, we need to consider the efficiency of the electric (green) components as well as the gasoline (blue) components. In this example, I’ve used 28.7 kWh to travel 109.2 miles. That equates to 3.8 miles per kilowatt hour of electricity. I’m happy if I get 3 miles per kilowatt hour.

The gasoline side is similar to a traditional car. Given that, 37.6 miles per gallon is doing really well!

7. I’m very aware how I use energy in this car

Gas cars generally convert about 16-20% of the energy in gasoline to energy that the car can use.  They aren’t efficient. Electric cars are highly efficient. The car subtly hints on how it’s using energy in the climate screen. How do you get the most range out of the car?

  • Drive the speed limit.  As you go faster, the car has to work significantly harder for each mph faster it goes. Aim for 3 miles per kilowatt-hour.
  • Drive in warm weather.  Batteries don’t like to be cold.  The gas engine will fill the gap when it gets cold though.
  • Use the heated steering wheel and heated seats vs the cabin heater.  They are WAY more efficient.
  • Keep your tires pressured up.  Underinflated tires create unneeded drag.

The biggest thing though with this car is that I’m just content driving the speed limit.  With adaptive cruise control the car just does it’s thing on the freeway and maximizes energy use and minimizes stress on me.  The car slows and speeds up as traffic wants it to.  That’s super cool.  Adaptive Cruise Control is a must-have on any Volt.

8. Focus on continuous improvement

Driving electric car efficiently requires a little bit of technique and a whole lot of practice. Fortunately, the Volt has a good feedback mechanism for helping the driver learn to get the most out of the battery. The Volt gives feedback on four areas:

  • Technique:
    • How quickly does the driver accelerate? Harder acceleration requires more energy per mile.
    • How fast does the driver drive? Higher speed requires more energy per mile.
    • How hard does the driver brake? Quicker stops generate more electricity. The battery can only absorb so much energy from regenerative braking per second.
    • Is the car being used in town, with traffic, or on a wide-open freeway? Unlike a gas car stop and go traffic is more efficient for the electric vehicle due to the energy recapture from regenerative braking.
  • Terrain –  Going up and down hills uses more energy than being on a flat surface.
  • Climate –  Heating or cooling the cabin takes energy that could be used for driving.
  • Outside temperature – Batteries are like humans – They like to be at room temperature. Cold temperatures will sap the battery’s capacity.

9. I love the carpool lane in California!

The Volt can be driven solo in the carpool lane.  That saves me 45 minutes a day in my commute as well as most of the tolls required.

As of this writing, each crossing of a California state bridge is $2.50 cheaper. Express lane tolls which run anywhere from $.50 to $10 are complementary. With regular commuting, that turns into real money.

10. Regenerative braking rocks!

In a standard car, when the driver presses the brake, the brake pads squeeze the rotor slowing the car and generating a lot of heat.  In an electric car, there is a “regenerative brake” that gets used first.  When pressing the brake pedal the electric motor spins backward slowing the car.  When the car spins the motor, that generates electricity.  That electricity then charges the car.  If the car needs to stop suddenly, the friction brakes will assist as in a standard car.

The regenerative braking makes the brake pads last longer.  Running on electricity reduces the demand for not only gas but also oil changes as well.  In other words, the total cost of maintenance is less.

11. The gas engine is not always in sync

In a gas car, the sound of the engine is always in sync with the driver’s action. Pressing the accelerator adds fuel to the motor with a commensurate bump in power and sound. Since the Volt can run both on electricity and gas, the gasoline engine may turn on to add power to the system without direct acceleration. It’s something I noticed at first, but now don’t pay much attention to it.

12. I’m happy – for the most part 🙂

This car amazes me. The amount of technology packed into it is incredible. It’s quiet. It’s fuel-efficient. It’s got great acceleration. Driving in the twisties is super fun. At some level, I feel like I bought my first proverbial minivan. I’m used to driving trucks and a small part of me misses that type of car.I love the styling of the backside of the car but the front feels a little too much old-school Chevrolet sedan. I wished it had a sportier look.

Would I buy it again? Absolutely. Especially the 2019 model which has significantly faster charging. Had I only waited a year!

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