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As part of their sponsorship of Maker Faire, Chevy offered to loan us a Volt for a week leading up to the Faire. When I heard about this, I jumped at the opportunity to review it. So, here’s the first MAKE car review.

Hybrid

Chevy doesn’t bill the Volt as a hybrid, but rather, an “extended-range electric vehicle” or E-REV. What this means is that you can plug in the car, and 4–8 hours later, you have around 35 miles of range strictly on battery power. This is great range, as most commutes are typically less then 35 miles. The car will charge on 110 or 220 volts. A lot of homes have 220 in the garage for a dryer, or a fuse box nearby where you could bring a 220-volt line over near your car. If this is the case, the charge time cuts in half, and you can go from a completely empty to a full charge in about 3–4 hours. At work, as an example where you might not have the liberty of running a 220-volt line to your parking space, you can charge over 110 with a normal outlet.

Economy

Since the car can be run entirely on the battery, you can get some pretty amazing gas mileage. I started out my week of test driving with normal trips to work (about 15 miles roundtrip), the store, and around town. The first three days of driving, I only used 0.3 gallons of gas. The onboard computer was telling me that I was averaging over 250+ miles per gallon. After three light days, I stretched out with some longer drives, once to the coast to go rock climbing, once for a camping trip with my son, and then down to the Oakland Airport to pick up my brother.

All in all, with the single tank of gas that Chevy provided for testing, I drove over 450 miles in a week, and only used five gallons of gas. Undeniably, 90 miles per gallon is pretty amazing in real-world driving.

Performance

I had no idea what to expect as far as performance goes, and to say that I was surprised would be an understatement. The car sports aggresive style and it doesn’t let you down when you put the pedal to the floor. One caveat here: I think that the Chevy engineers were thinking that the end user would always be thinking about conserving energy, and there are checks in the car to help reinforce that notion. During normal driving, when you plant the pedal, the car gives a slight bit of hesitation, enough for a gut check, and then takes off. Every time, it made me think about what pushing the pedal down was doing. I had the conscience thought about how I wanted to be driving, and how that would impact energy/fuel consumption. At first, this was frustrating, but I grew to like it. That slight hesitation made me a more, dare I say, eco-conscious driver.

Now, you may not always want to be eco-conscious. Sometimes you want to drive fast. Sometimes you want to lean your neck into the headrest and lay down some rubber on the road. Is the Volt the car for you? Well, perhaps. The Volt offers a sport mode, which removes any hesitation from that powerful electric engine and releases all of the electric power that the car can offer. While maybe not neck-snapping, it’s certainly quick. What surprised me the most while driving was how smooth acceleration was. This could be due to the single planetary gearset that the car has. In no time flat, you can be doing 70, all in the same gear, and just as smooth as can be.

One other quick note regarding performance: to turn the traction control off, you press a button that is on the ceiling. Every time I did, I felt like Han Solo making the jump into hyperdrive.

We’re losing a deflector shield. Go strap yourselves in. I’m going to make the jump to light speed.

Looks

My boy playing with stickers in the back seat of the Chevy Volt.

As for looks, I think this car wins in the hybrid/electric wars. It’s not a Tesla, but not trying to be one either. It looks similar to the Chevrolet Cruze, and for a four-door sedan, sits pretty nicely in any driveway. The loaner that I got was “Silver Ice” and had a great black leather interior. The instrument cluster was all digital, and in addition to speed/distance readings has options to bring in GPS directions, tire pressure readings, and a tutorial for how to use the car. One highlight for me was a gauge that measured acceleration and deceleration. As I mentioned above, everything is built to maximize efficiency, so keeping everything as smooth as possible was important.

The center console has a great, big display that toggles between satellite navigation, music options, efficiency screens, and a little favorite, the current weather. In addition to an AM/FM/CD player, the car has XM radio, an auxiliary port and a USB port where an iPod/iPhone can be plugged in. You can browse your albums, artists, and playlists all from the built-in console. This worked great with both my iPhone and my iPod Nano. If I owned this car long-term, I could see plugging in an old iPod and just leaving it in the center console. The dash can also play DVDs while parked and media from a HD.

The car has seating for four. Rather then having three in the backseat, the batteries are in the place of the middle seat, so sliding across the seat isn’t possible, but there is a nice area with a cupholder and 12-volt hookups. The backseat is actually split, so if you’re loaded up in the trunk, you can spread longer items, like camping chairs, through when more room is needed.

My only complaint is the lack of a wiper on the back window. I know that not all cars have a back wiper, but this car, with the large sloping back window, got really dirty after being rained on in a sandy campground, and was almost impossible to see out of when driving home.

Cost

So, is it worth it? The car retails at $31,645, but that’s after $7500 in tax rebates. A well-specced Impala is $30,300, and about $5000 less for a Camaro, but neither car can go 35 miles without gas, or average over 90 mpg when running around town. If you have the money, and gas mileage is important, then this car could be worth it for you. For some, the cost of gas that is recovered makes all the difference.

For me, this car would be a serious contender in my book of new cars. The combination of smart looks, great economy, and plenty of sport under the hood makes it a standout. At Maker Faire this year, Chevy will be in the south lot doing test rides, and I urge everyone to check it out. It’s a great car, and I recommend it.

Jake Spurlock

Web Developer at MAKE. I’m an Engineer. That means I solve problems.

Also, a geek, designer, HTML/CSS/PHP lover. Taker of photos, and sometimes skiing and biking…


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