Chevy Volt Apparently Not Quite As Advertised

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GM apparently has some ‘splainin to do – and not just to Lucy, but also to the American taxpayers who have bankrolled its operations since that terrible I’ve Fallen – And I Can’t Get Up moment back in late ’08.


That new Volt all-electric car you’ve been hearing so much about – and which GM has been touting as an example of its resurgent We Get It attitude – is apparently a con.

Or at least, a semi-fraud.

GM had claimed the Volt would be what amounts to a completely electric car, driven entirely by its electric motor and battery pack. The Volt’s small on-board gasoline engine would only operate as a kind of take-it-with-you recharging unit, power alternators (like a home generator) but not the car’s drive wheels.

The concept was innovative. Other electric cars have been tied down to a fairly small radius that extends only as far as they can travel before having to turn back in time to make it to a recharging station for a top-off. So far, this has meant a real-world operating range of about 75 miles or so under ideal conditions – sunny, warm weather and don’t use the accessories (AC, power stuff) too much.

Under less than ideal conditions – cold weather especially – and if the car has to deal with hills or you use the power accessories – your actual mileage will vary.

This has been a major limiting factor in the commercial viability of electric vehicles since the 1970s and all the way through the ’90s, when GM gave it an earlier go with its EV-1 electric car.

As cool – from a technological perspective – as these things are, a 50-70 mile range is cutting it too close for most people. Toss in a $40k price (for the Volt) and recharge times measured in hours rather than the minutes it takes to gas up a standard car – and it’s no tough nut to see why electric cars have been little more than costly curiosities up to now.

The Volt was supposed to change all that by effectively eliminating the range problem. By carrying its power source (for electricity) with it rather than being tied to a fixed charging station somewhere, the Volt promised the same convenience and ease-of-use as a standard car.

Now comes the catch.

Turns out the Volt’s gas engine does more than provide juice to refresh the batteries. It also drives the wheels – though GM never mentioned this during the year-long build-up to the car’s launch and, indeed, touted precisely the opposite – claiming the Volt’s gas engine did not directly power the car at all. It just charged up the batteries.

Well, not quite.

At high speeds (highway speeds) the Volt’s gas engine does provide direct supplemental boost . Which means the Volt’s more dependent on gasoline – that elixir of all that is evil – than GM was claiming.

It’s not a grotesque lie – but it is a significant fib that GM’s been caught peddling.

Perhaps worse, the Volt’s real-world gas mileage (as is being reported by respected outlets such as Popular Mechanics) is reportedly averaging between 32 and 36 MPGs. Motor Trend says “high 30s to low 40s.”

That’s ok, right?

Well, not so much – given you can buy a new Ford Focus (built with private funding, mind you) that gets 41 MPGs on the highway, without either the Volt’s complex What’s-itz under the hood – or its Lexus-esque $40k price tag.

Hell, a new Hyundai Sonata sedan manages 35 MPG – and it does it for about $19k, sticker.

So, history appears to be repeating itself. The Volt is looking to be a technically interesting but economically crippled-up money pit not likely to sell even with more than $7,000 in government (read: you and me paying for it) subsidies to buyers.

If it were 100 years ago, I’d say “get a horse!”

Maybe we should anyway.


  1. Yes, in a complete electric auto age brown outs or grid failure would create the situation where people could NOT get places, at all. The effect that would have on the economy would be horrific not to mention the problems for people that have to travel for health reasons (out patient services) and the health care professionals that serve people.

    In the whole of the gasoline age there has never been any time where gas shortage was that critical. Even in the gas shortage days of the 1970’s you could still get gas, you just had to wait. Except for wartime rationing of gas-which is a government created shortage, there has always been a pump open for a person to fill up and go. Electric cars will make everyone captive to the power industry and their poor history of providing power in poor weather and under stress.

    Remember the last time your neighborhood lost power? You could always drive to a motel if it was too hot or too cold, or heck sleep with the car running if necessary. When all you have is an electic car, when the power goes out, you go nowhere. Remember to stock up on firewood, MRE’s and canned goods if you decide to go with an electric car exclusively.

  2. Not only that, the “carbon footprint” is transferred from the oil well to the coal mine, at REDUCED efficiency because electricity has to be transmitted across wires which causes loss. So it’s a lose-lose proposition.

    At 40 miles one way, less in cold weather, the car is unusable for nearly everybody. Thanks, Government Motors!

    • Amen!

      Many people who think the Volt (and hybrids/electric cars, generally) is a great idea forget that most of the electricity produced in this country is produced via “dirty” coal and oil-fired utility plants. And even leaving aside the “carbon footprint” issue, the fact is our grid is already strained. It is operating at peak or near peak capacity. If there was a major uptick in demand caused by millions of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, brownouts would likely become a problem and there’s no question the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity would rise as a result.

      Like you said: Thanks, Government Motors.

  3. You aren’t elling the whole story.90% plus people drive less then 40 miles a day. Therefore you could drive all year long on electric alone. But the gas engine is there in case you need it. So the 36 mpg you report only counts if the battery is low. Which for most people most of the time will rarely happen.

    • Well, yes and no.

      Bear in mind that while most people do drive (one way) less than 40 miles, the trip is often an hour-plus of stop-and-go driving, which is less efficient than steady-state cruise. Even when not moving, the vehicle will draw power. And of course, in winter (cold weather reduces battery efficiency) the car’s range will be much less than in optimal (warm weather) conditions. Etc.

      But the larger defect is the insane price. $40k for a car that gets high 30s-low 40s miles-per-gallon? I could buy a diesel BMW 330d and beat that – and have a much more enjoyable, much quicker, far longer-lived car. And a luxury-brand car, too.

      Or, for about $15k, I coud buy a new Ford Fiesta and get 41 MPG. That’s less than half the price of the Volt – and the Ford still gets better mileage.

      This is a debacle.

      • You completely miss the whole point. Even if the Volts gas mileage was 10 mpg (in gas mode) it would still be cheaper to drive than a 40 mpg car. I have 15000 miles on my Volt, I drive 36 miles or more every day all on electric, 2 pennies/mile. my simulated MPG is 312 MPG average over the entire 15000 miles. Presently I haven’t bought gas in 2 months. I find it a bonus that the Volt also gets very respectable gas only MPG, I’m getting low 40’s when I burn gas. My commute is 36 miles, I rarely use gas and am on schedule for two years between oil changes according to the Volt computer. I visit the gas station every 2-3 months instead of 2-3 times a month. Not to mention the $50-$60 I don’t have to pay every week. My electric bill has went up by only $17/mo. I really don’t get what point your trying to make and why?

        • Hi Jon,

          How is it cheaper to buy (and drive) a $69k car – base price of the Tesla S – than it is to buy a 40 MPG-capable economy car like the Nissan Versa I recently reviewed that costs about $17k nicely equipped?

          Sure, you don’t have to pay $40-$50 every week to fill-up. But you paid $40,000 more to buy the Tesla.

          How much gas would that buy?

          Let’s assume $3,000 a year for gas – which is about what a Versa would consume. You’ll have to drive your Volt for at least 13 years before you reached break even relative to the Versa.

          Again, how are you saving money?

          There is also the fact that I and other taxpayers are subsidizing your car – a luxury car. This is obnoxious to me and many other people, who object to being forced to pay for other people’s things in principle, but who get really ticked when we’re being held up to “help” very affluent people drive around in $70k-plus exotics.

        • Hi Jon,

          Just realized – after my first cup of coffee for the day – that you were defending the Volt, not the Tesla.

          So, addendum:

          The Volt stickers for about $34k. No matter how much you save on gas, the fact is you have to pony up what amounts to entry-luxury car money to do so. Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that GM is giving these things away, practically (lease deals designed to get people into Volts, even if it means negative cashflow for GM). To finance a $34k vehicle at zero percent interest over five years would entail a monthly payment of about $560 a month. A $17k (optioned out; the base car is just under $14k) Nissan Versa Note (or equivalent) would cost $283/month (or less) over the same period.

          The difference is $277/month.

          This sum will buy – at current prices ($3.20 per gallon) appx. 86 gallons of fuel. This would be enough to fill up the Versa’s tank (appx. 11 gallons) roughly eight times.

          The Versa’s range on a full tank in city driving is about 300 miles. 86 gallons would be sufficient to drive the car about 2,400 miles in a month.

          This is 28,880 miles annually – significantly more miles than most people put on their vehicle in a single year.

          The fact is the Versa would be less expensive to drive – even if it does use more fuel – because it costs less overall.

          Now, it’s true the Volt is more luxurious, sporty – and so on. But these are not the criteria at issue. If the criteria is – does this car save me money to own and drive relative to a conventional economy car? – the answer is, no.


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