3/12/2012 | 7 MINUTE READ

2012 Chevrolet Volt

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It should have been a Cadillac.


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It should have been a Cadillac.

It’s like this: when people think about a car that has a base MSRP of $39,145—and that’s before the $850 destination charge and any goodies that you may be inclined to add (even the Crystal Red Tintcoat adds $495 to the sticker)—odds are good that they don’t think “Chevy.”


Yes, a Corvette costs well in excess of $39,145 and it is a Chevy. But I would argue that the Corvette has established itself in the minds of people as a “Corvette,” not as a “Chevy Corvette.” A Camaro may be a Chevy, and even called a “Chevy Camaro,” but that’s pretty not the way it works for a Corvette.

So back to the Cadillac position: Much of the noise that has been made about the Volt—and there has been static and screeching well in excess of what would be reasonable to expect about a breakthrough product—is that it is too expensive. Which, given the technology and amenities of the car, is absurd. It is not too expensive.

But it may be too expensive as a Chevy. It would be an amazing deal as a Cadillac.

While I don’t know this as a fact, I suspect that one of the reasons why GM decided to make it a Chevy rather than a Cadillac is because Toyota came to market with the Prius as a Toyota, not a Lexus. Therefore, by having the broadest brand was figured to be a good thing. And it would have been, if the price was somewhere south of $30,000. (Interesting thing: Lexus isn’t doing all that well—certainly compared with the Prius—with its hybrid offerings.)

“You can’t put a gun rack on a Volt”

This is one of Newt Gingrich’s recent stump speech lines. The car is become more than a car. It has become a political object. Barrack Obama said that he wants to buy a Volt after he leaves office.


Again: Too much extraneous noise about a car that ought to be hailed by people regardless of their political orientation. Here is a mass-market car that has the sort of technology that only niche builders have brought to a limited number of showrooms. And it is a domestic product.

Additional misperception

“Isn’t that the car that lights on fire?”

That question was asked by one of my high-school-aged nieces when I told her what I was driving. She doesn’t know much about cars. But she thought she knew that.

Despite the fact that NHTSA cleared the car, despite the fact that GM has made engineering modifications to improve the car just in case, and despite the fact that no one was injured in a fire caused by a Volt, because it is more than a car in public discourse, it continues to have this hung around its proverbial neck.

Dismal sales

To be sure, the Volt has had underwhelming sales numbers. And because they’re not making the numbers they’ve anticipated, GM has announced that it will be idling production of the Volt at the Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant from March 19 to April 23.


One of the factors that has undoubtedly contributed to the anemic sales—and something that is being rectified as of February 23—is that the Volt hasn’t qualified for driving in the California carpool lanes (the “High Occupancy Vehicle” lanes). If you talk to anyone who does any sort of commuting in California, you soon hear about how valuable those little stickers are. A whole lot of Prius popularity was undoubtedly predicated on the HOV access.

So now GM is shipping Volts to California with the “Low Emissions Package,” which mean they qualify for the HOV lanes. A Chevy spokesman told me, “Chevrolet engineers modified the engine and exhaust components (specifically the catalytic converter) to meet California's EAT-PZEV vehicle designation.”

Another benefit is that the California drivers of these cleaner Volts may qualify for up to $1,500 in rebates through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project.

Think sales aren’t going to improve in the Golden State?

Change your habit

Chances are—especially if you do a lot of business travel—you are far more aware of publically available electrical outlets now than you were five years ago. You are conscious of the amount of charge that you have in your cell phone. You are now making sure that you give it a charge when you have the opportunity.


The Volt is not a pure electric vehicle. It is a plug-in hybrid. This means that you can plug it in to an outlet and drive for about 35 miles on the energy that is stored in the 16-kWh lithium-ion battery. During this period, it is a pure electric car. After that, the 1.4-liter internal combustion engine kicks in and powers the generator that charges the battery that is then used to make the wheels go round and round. (Obviously, it is far more technical than that.)

The vehicle does feature regenerative braking. Which means that when you apply the brakes (or even coast) some energy is collected that goes back into the battery.

But pretty much, when you have driven your 35-or-so miles on electricity, you are then likely to have no more than brief, slow-speed moments of unambiguous electric propulsion.

All of which is to say that if you want to get the most out of a Volt, it is necessary to plug it in when you, say, get home from work. Because otherwise, you are pretty much driving a regular car. It has an EPA “Gasoline Only” rating of 37 mpg. Which is not all that astonishing for a four-seater. (And as anyone who has driven a car and compared the mileage on the sticker to the amount of fuel that ends up being required knows, 37 mpg is optimal. I averaged about 31 and drove like I had an egg under the gas pedal.)

But if you do avail yourself of the plug, and you have a commute that is <35 miles per day, you won’t be visiting your local gas station all that often (and as it takes premium, you don’t want to).

Which is the point of the Volt.

Cool tech

When you get into the Volt, you are climbing into a car that has a nicely appointed interior. Even before there is a minor animation show on the center gauge (there are two seven-inch displays, with the other in the center stack) you notice that there are things like a top surface on the instrument panel that is distinctive and nice colors trim insets that wrap from the doors around through the IP.


You notice that on the center stack there are lots of things to choose from but very few knobs and buttons. The selections are made via a touch-sensitive surface. You can select a display that show you how you’re doing vis-à-vis your driving behavior (presumably coaching you to drive more economically) or simply opt for the audio display (which is more than certainly enhanced by the $1,995 option that brings in such things as navigation, DVD ROM, and 30-GB audio hard drive storage).

Another option that was comfortable and interesting is the “Premium Trim Package” ($1,395) which not only brings leather to the seats, but heating to the driver and passenger seats. While that’s not surprising in and of itself, what is remarkable is that when I started the car on cold Detroit mornings, the heated seat was activated. Someone might imagine that the Volt would be all about minimizing the use of energy the way that many diet plans are all about minimizing flavor, but that is not the case, or so this would seem to indicate. And, again, it is the sort of thing that one might associate with Cadillac, not Chevy.

Directionally, the Volt is absolutely right. Chances are it—as in that specific model—is not going to sell in the numbers that General Motors had planned (or hoped). But it is certainly going to be the technology that puts GM in a good position moving forward because anyone who doubts that the electrification of the vehicle isn’t going to become the rule, not the exception, hasn’t been paying sufficient attention to the growing world demand for petroleum products. Whether there is a sufficient quantity is not the point. What is the point is that it is going to become a whole lot more expensive as developing countries develop. Having the know-how to design, engineer and deliver Volt-like products is going to essential for OEMs.

Selected Specs

Engine: 1.4-liter, DOHC I4

Materials: Cast iron block and Aluminum head

Horsepower: 84 @ 4,800 rpm

Electric drive:111 kW drive motor; 55 kW generator motor

Power: 111 kW/149 hp

Torque: 368 lb-ft

Transaxle: Voltec electric drive system

Wheelbase: 105.7 in.

Length: 177.1 in.

Width: 70.4 in.

Height: 56.3 in.

Curb weight: 3,781 lb.

Coefficient of drag: 0.28

EPA: 94 mpg-e all electric; 37 mpg gas only; 60 mpg-e combined composite