Driver’s journal: 2012 Chevrolet Volt

Chevrolet’s Volt had a bit more zap than People’s Test Driver Chris Daniher anticipated.

“I was expecting something underpowered, something stark and economical,” Daniher says. “I wasn’t expecting a great deal of power, nor a luxury interior with leather seats.”

But that’s what he got with General Motors’ 2012 model year plug-in electric hybrid vehicle – bristling with GM’s latest Voltec driveline technology

The car is powered by a 16-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which powers a 111-kW (149-horsepower) electric motor to drive the front wheels. Battery power is replenished largely by plugging the car into either a 120-volt household outlet or a 240-volt dedicated charging station. The Volt has a range of 40 to 80 kilometres – depending on driving conditions and driver behaviour.

Before the battery charge completely fades, a small four-cylinder gasoline engine fires up and powers an on-board generator to recharge the battery on the fly.

That 1.4-litre gas-powered engine can also transfer power through a clutch to give the car a little more oomph. Most times, Volt operates purely as an electric vehicle.

Very well equipped, Volt wouldn’t look out of place beside other mid-size sport/luxury sedans, Daniher noted.

“I really, really liked the look of it. The Volt had nice sharp lines, and unique styling that helps it stand out amongst all of the other cars on the roads.

“The nose is low to the ground, giving the Volt an aggressive, sporty look. Even though it is a hatchback, that car could easily pass as a sedan.”

Daniher learned to drive in Kamloops, B.C. His first vehicle was a 1983 Pontiac Firebird with a five-speed manual transmission. Daniher drove the Firebird for five years, giving it back to his dad when he and his wife, Shawn, moved to China for two years.

Upon their return to Canada, the family, which now included son Ty, settled in Calgary, where they bought a 1996 Ford Escort wagon. Then came a 2004 Saturn Ion, which they traded on a 2009 Saturn Astra for Shawn. Daniher just bought a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and it’s his commuter and family vacation hauler.

Daniher’s Volt was finished in Cyber Grey Metallic paint and featured 17″ five-spoke forged and polished aluminum wheels, a $695 option. The car also came with the $1,695 premium trim package, $795 rear camera and park assist package and the $105 Chevrolet MyLink option, with Bluetooth connectivity. As driven, the Volt cost $46,385.

Key in hand, Daniher was on his own to figure out how the vehicle actually worked.

“There’s no key insert, (but with the fob in my pocket), I depressed the brake pedal and a blue button glowed on the dash,” he says. “I pushed that button and stuff started to come to life – there’s a visual display in two screens, one in the console and the other in the dash.

“After that, I put it in D for drive, took my foot off the brake, and off we went in absolute silence. When I put my foot on the accelerator, we accelerated, and quickly.”

Daniher describes the inside of the Volt as futuristic, citing its black leather interior and smooth centre column and dash. His son, Ty, 9, became co-pilot.

“Ty called the car ‘his spaceship’, and he was in charge of pressing all of the touch commands on the screen – he figured everything out far before I did.”

Daniher drove the Volt to and from his job as a science instructor at St. Albert the Great School in McKenzie Towne, and for daily errands. At every opportunity, he’d plug the car in to top off the battery, so the Volt was always in electric mode in the city.

His one question about the technology was, if one always drove in electric mode and never used the range-extending gasoline engine, wouldn’t the gas eventually go stale?

Well, Volt monitors all of that, and it will first alert you to drive beyond its range to encourage the engine to start. If you ignore the prompt, the car will start of its own accord.

Daniher says the Volt felt surefooted at all times, brakes performed flawlessly and he gave the ride “two thumbs up.” At the end of his week, he and son Ty drove over the Highwood Pass.

“The battery ran out at 54 kilometres,” Daniher says. “Nothing audible happened, but the display went from showing green bars to blue-green bars with a different range shown on top.

At cruising speed, it’s just the sound of tires but accelerating, “you could hear a sewing machine engine noise. Coming down the other side, I was on the brakes more than gas, and we regenerated enough power to go 26 kilometres on electric only.”

As for utility, Daniher says there was plenty of room for cargo. A six-footer, he was comfortable in the driver’s seat. In the rear, he found plenty of room, even with the driver’s seat pushed back.

As for the car’s environmental stance, the science teacher replied: “It’s appealing because you’re not burning much fuel in the here-and-now, but I have to wonder what the car’s overall carbon footprint really is.”

When Daniher sums up his experience, he says, “I wouldn’t rush out and buy one, but I’d encourage everyone just to go for a test drive – whether you buy one ultimately depends on your lifestyle and your bank account.

“But, I had a very positive time (pun intended) in the Volt, and every day I drove it, it continued to amaze me. The acceleration was just incredible.”

Driver’s Journal

Day 1: Impressed by the Volt’s sleek, yet sharp, lines. Inside, comfortable black leather seats and a futuristic “control panel” greeted us. I was shocked when I pressed the gas pedal and the acceleration was met with absolute silence. It was a very bizarre feeling to coast along with only the muted sound of the tires on the road. I was shocked by how instantaneous and sharp acceleration was.

Day 2: I should have taken the time to identify and adjust the climate controls before I left my garage. A very warm morning and the centre touch screen is telling me that the thermostat is set at 30 C. The centre column is a vast array of very tiny white words, each one a touch sensitive button. I’m looking everywhere trying to find a dial that looks familiar. Nothing! Finally my son, (9), sees a tiny red and blue triangle high up on the centre column. Once I reset the temperature, the A/C was quick to end our discomfort. Tonight I read the owner’s manual.

Day 3: It felt very satisfying this morning to start the Volt and see that a night of being plugged into my garage’s 110V outlet had provided me with a “full battery” range of 60 km with a full tank of gas to extend that range to 549 km. At work, I was able to simply plug into the provided 110V block heater outlets. By the end of my workday, the battery had recovered at least 40 km of range.

Day 4: I am still struggling with the lack of engine noise. It is a very bizarre sensation to travel at speed in almost absolute silence.

With ZERO noise when accelerating, combined with the impressive rate of acceleration, I have to closely monitor the speedometer.

Now officially in love with the vehicle, my son has figured out all the buttons and can successfully navigate all of the features and modes on the touch screen and centre control panel.

Day 5: Drove the Volt in fairly heavy morning traffic. The battery has shown that it is greatly affected by driving style. As well, by selecting “Sport Mode,” the already impressive responsiveness becomes even sharper, but battery life depletes quickly. A 60 km range can drop to 25k m thanks to a slightly heavier foot on the accelerator. So far I have driven approximately 200 km and I have not used a drop of gas.

Day 6: Today we drove west toward Kananaskis on the Trans Canada Highway. At Hwy. 40, we turned south to go over Highwood Pass, one of the highest paved roads in Canada. Our trip totalled approximately 350 km.

Under strain of accelerating up a steep road, the gas-powered generator became more audible and a very small vibration was felt in the steering wheel. But the Volt was just as responsive and there was ample power to accelerate up any hill. By the end of the trip, we were down to zero km battery range and 249 km gas range.

Day 7: I have grown accustomed to some of Volt’s nicer features: great acceleration, comfortable ride, next to zero fuel consumption, responsive steering and braking, and futuristic design. However, I happily say goodbye to some of its less desirable features, such as the confusing centre column buttons and touch screen menu options. The absolute silence of the vehicle will most definitely NOT be missed. The hassle of untangling the extension cord and then having to unplug and wrap it back up also became slightly irritating. But after driving just under 600 km, topping up the tank rang in at 18.4 L, just under $22 at gas prices for that time. Not bad.

Engine: Voltec electric drive unit (two motors, one drive, one generator) w/1.4-L range extender
Horsepower: 149
Torque: 273 lb-ft.
Wheelbase: 2,685 mm
Overall length: 4,498 mm
Fuel economy ratings: 0 L/100 km 40-80 km, 5 L/100km when the range extender kicks in
Price as tested (before taxes): $46,385.00

Chris Daniher with a 2012 Chevrolet Volt.
Photograph by: Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald