Chevy recently offered me two days usage of a Volt at no charge. I guess it's because they think I'm a wonderful person or something, and they thought their car might possibly live up to my standards. More likely it was because I chatter enough on social media to have a moderately high Klout score. Let's go with that last theory because it happens to be true. In any case, Chevy gave me an excuse to spew my opinions on the internet, and so I shall.
The car was dropped off at my office on Tuesday afternoon. The person who brought it by spent about ten minutes showing me the features of the car, and explaining how it works. I thought this was overkill until I got a good look at the dashboard and control panels, and then I understood the necessity. It's a complex bit of machinery, and some of the controls could use some design assistance, but more on that later.
It's really not a bad looking car, as sedans go. From the front it looks like it's smirking at you, or like it has a secret. The tail light styling on the rear is aggressive and stylish. In between the two there's a fairly generic mid-sized sedan, albeit with flowing lines. It's no Ferrari, but I wasn't expecting one. B-
The interior feels luxurious. Mine was equipped with black leather heated seats, which I found quite comfortable to sit in. The back seat is roomy, and could easily fit two adults even if they didn't particularly like each other. The only thing that I found unappealing was that the dashboard had weird layers on it-- I can't quite find words to explain them, but they looked goofy. I'm sure they have some purpose, but I couldn't figure out what it might be. Oh, look. I stole a photo from Chevy's website, so you can see for yourself. I give it a B+
I was really looking forward to driving this car. I've driven a Prius several times, and I'm really not a fan-- it's optimized for gas mileage, which means that the tires are skinny and the car doesn't handle very well. I only drove it on dry pavement, but the Volt felt very solid and planted to me. I pushed it a little bit on a couple of on ramps, and the car felt rock solid the whole time. I had no sense that it was ever going to get away from me.
My overall sense of the car was that it glides. It's quite quiet in the city, even when the gas motor is running. At freeway speeds it sounds pretty much like any other car, with wind and road noise overshadowing its urban sense of quiet. The ride is smooth, but not mushy. The biggest disappointment is that it's really not the least bit peppy. When you step on the accelerator the car seems to take your request under serious advisement, and then allocates you about a third of the get-up-and-go that you asked for. I don't expect to see it starring in any police chases. Overall rating: B
So how 'bout that electric thing? The Volt gives 35-40 miles on a single charge, after which it cuts over to the gasoline engine to provide juice. There's a charging port located just in front of the driver's door, and a full charge takes about four hours at a 220V station, or about ten hours on 110V. The day that I got the car, I drove it down to San Mateo with a friend. We pulled into a Walgreens parking lot, plugged the car into the Chargepoint station there, then left it charging while we had dinner. The battery was literally on its last mile when we arrived, and I had about 18 miles of juice when we were done. I got to watch it cut over from battery to gas as I was driving home. Other than an animated display on the dashboard in which the battery gauge went away and the gas gauge took its place, I really wouldn't have noticed the change.
I wasn't able to charge the battery at home since I don't have electricity near my parking space. There are a few Chargepoint stations near my office, though, including two not-yet-active ones in the garage where I park every day. If I'd had the car a few weeks later, charging would have been a breeze. I did get all the way home from work and back to the office on a single charge, which is well in line with Chevy's assertion that many people commute less than 35 miles round trip.
If I owned a Volt I would spend the time to work out a regular charging routine, and I'm sure it would all be relatively painless. Since I didn't have that, I had to work out charging on an ad hoc basis. I can see the whole thing being quite workable, though, and the charging network is getting better all the time. Overall A-.
The dashboard and controls on this thing are something else. The dashboard is a display panel with a boatload of information on it. The predominant features are a battery or gas gauge, a digital speedometer, and a sort of bubble level thing for telling you whether you're in the optimal efficiency range. If you're accelerating hard the bubble goes up, and if you're braking it drops below center. There are also separate readouts for pressure in each of the tires, and some random alerts. I left the charging door open once, and the car yelled at me about it until I pulled over and closed it. I'm pretty sure there's an odometer on there somewhere, but I never figured out where it was.
In the center of the car there's another screen, and this one has multiple duties. It serves as an energy flow meter to tell you whether the power is coming from the battery or the gas tank. When you brake, regenerative braking kicks in, and the animation reverses. In this sense, it's a lot like a Prius.
This screen also handles various configuration options, displays entertainment system information, and serves as the nav system display. I never did quite work out the magic incantations for getting exactly what I wanted on the screen at any given time, but I suspect this would come with practice.
Just beneath that screen is the most hideous set of controls that I have ever found on an automobile-- it's nothing but a ginormous mass of buttons with no rhyme or reason to the layout. Check this out:
Yeah, quick, switch from satellite radio to FM, I dare you. What's worse is that these are all one touch-sensitive panel rather than typical buttons. About half the time that I tried to do something with the panel I accidentally bumped some other button, and suddenly found myself with the air conditioning going full blast or somesuch nonsense.
Let's look at those buttons again, but this time I've color-coded them:
The green ones at the top are climate control. The blue ones on the outside edge just below that are seat heaters. The red ones are all for the entertainment system, I think-- some of them were just puzzling. The orange ones just to the right of the top dial are for setup. The pink one in the middle-right does something with the phone. The cyan ones on the right are door locks, and below them is the parking brake. (Yeah, really!) The three yellowish ones on the left are to get the power display on the screen, the drive mode, and the power button. The purple ones on the bottom left are for the nav system.
It gets worse, since lots of those buttons bring up other touch-sensitive buttons and menus on the screen, usually with far too many options to be sensible. I haven't even mentioned the big block of controls that's on the ceiling above this panel-- they control the phone, OnStar, and the missile systems.
There's a mess of buttons on the steering wheel too. Maybe they're for VTOL and ET to phone home? I dunno.
And finally, there's one more set of controls to the left of the steering wheel-- if you look at the first picture I posted, you can just see one of the buttons peeking out from behind teh steering wheel. It's used for setting up the dashboard, so that you can choose which idiot lights are displayed in the bottom center. Yeah, no shit. This thing seriously needs a UI designer.
Because I'm feeling generous, I give the controls a very solid D-.
Overall I liked the car a lot more than I expected to. With the exception of the lunacy that they call a control panel it's a pretty nice car. It's not zippy, but it's comfortable to drive and it feels good on the road. It's not bad looking, even if it's not exactly my style.
So, would I buy one? No, probably not. The $40K price tag is just too high. Even with subsidies, it's still north of thirty grand. If I were in the market for a semi-luxury sedan that got really great gas mileage I would certainly consider it. I might even overlook the bizarro-land control panel.
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