NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The two most frequent questions asked by Chevrolet Volt owners are 1) How far does it go on a charge?; and 2) How much does it cost to charge it? After spending extensive time with the Volt, I can answer these questions in some detail.What's the electric range of the Volt, made by General Motors ( GM)? I have averaged 45 miles per charge. That doesn't mean I actually drove 45 miles before I re-charged. What it means is that I may have driven, say, 43 miles and the Volt's computer said I had 2 miles left until it would start the gasoline-fed on-board generator. And then I plugged it in. The worst so far was 38 miles and the best 49 miles. The EPA's "normalized" estimate is 37 miles, so clearly I did almost 25% better than the EPA. What is the explanation for this? First, the climate has been neither too hot, too cold nor too humid. Second, at least when driving short distances in non-freeway traffic, I drive carefully with the goal of maximizing efficiency. This means driving while pretending that you have no brakes other than regenerative braking. It basically becomes a sport to see how you can maximize the energy efficiency of the car, trying to break new records. To illustrate how driving style impacts electric car range, I had my friend take it for a spin with me in the passenger seat. My friend drives as if he were a terrorist in a 1970s pursuit by "Dirty Harry" Callahan with his .45 Magnum pointing out the window. At the conclusion of this test drive, the computer projected a maximum 30 mile range, or a third lower than mine. This doesn't create range anxiety in the Volt, because of the 9 gallon on-board generator, but in, say, the Nissan Leaf, that would mean getting 60 miles instead of 90 miles. That 30 mile difference could mean the difference between sorrow and happiness. How much does it cost to charge the Volt? So far, I have paid exactly zero. Not one penny. Nothing. How is this possible? The answer is that, surprisingly to most people including me, many public charging stations are free!
Most people correctly expect to charge their electric cars at home. That works very well if you have, well, a home. If you control your home's property, you can install a 240 volt charger for $2,200 including labor, and it will even be paid for by your neighbor's tax money! But for people who live in apartment buildings? If your landlord has not yet figured out that it might be a good idea to offer this service, you have to rely on charging stations located elsewhere. These electric car charging stations are often located where you work, where you go to the gym, where you shop at the mall, where you play soccer, or some such place. What I have learned so far is that many of them are free! Three questions arise immediately: 1. Who really pays for the electricity at these charging stations? 2. Why are they allowing me to charge my car for free? 3. How long will this last? Honestly, I don't have a clue about the answers to any of these three questions. It's, like, some questions where you don't want to know the answer. If your bank account suddenly shows an $8,000 increase for no apparent reason, do you go to the bank and ask them to explain? No, you shut up and hope this lasts for as long as possible. At this rate, I will continue to charge for free seemingly forever, or at least so I hope. That said, the Volt wants to start the gasoline-fed generator for about 15 minutes every 45 days even if it doesn't need it to charge the battery. It does it to simply not rust together. The pipes have to be oiled. If you have an antique car that's not driven very much, you know the drill. So that's eight times per year, 15 minutes each, or two hours per year. If you're driving 40 mph and you're doing 40 mpg, that would mean 2 gallons per year. If you have more than 2 gallons in your tank, by the end of the year it would burn off everything so as to make sure that the gasoline doesn't go old.
So what this mean in terms of your gasoline cost? It means that in an extreme scenario the Volt can do with 2 gallons worth of premium per year, or $10. Then add zero cost for the electricity, as I described above. I think you get the point: You pretty much drive for free, if you minimize the use of the gasoline generator. In contrast, driving 10,000 miles in a Toyota ( TM) Prius at 50 mpg will consume 200 gallon per year, or $800. So seriously, folks, we are not talking about a lot of money here, in the big scheme of things for most Americans. For most people, the Volt will be cross-shopped against the Nissan ( NSANY) Leaf and the Toyota Prius. The Leaf is all-electric, whereas the Prius costs you $0.08 per mile, all in regular gasoline. In other words, at least with a Prius, driving was already so cheap that a plug-in car such as the Volt does not warrant a price premium much beyond $5,000-$7,000 or so, on strict economic grounds. The Chevrolet Volt starts at $41,000 but is $43,000 with the equipment you really want -- but none of the stuff you don't want. If you qualify, you can get up to a $7,500 tax credit on your income tax return, and there may also be some state incentives. Compare this to a loaded Toyota Prius at approximately $30,000 and a loaded Nissan Leaf at approximately $35,000, and you can legitimately argue that the Chevrolet Volt is only modestly over-priced depending on your perspective. Using very round numbers, I can say that compared to a Toyota Prius, the Volt will cost you in the ballpark of $10,000 more to buy, but will save you perhaps $1,000 per year. Not a great deal, but not a totally terrible one either. The Volt's body is that of a small 4-door hatchback. The car is low because the battery sits mostly between the seats, right down the middle of the car, almost 6 feet long, and then goes under the rear seats. This means the front seats can sit low, where the Nissan Leaf in comparison has batteries under the front seats and even bigger batteries below the rear seats. It is not a spacious car, except for the fact that the front seats are very comfortable for people well above 6 feet tall. The rear seats are also very comfortable, but only if you are below 6 feet tall. If you are 6 or above, forget it. Either way, it's very tight to get in and out in the back. The feeling is not too far from some two-door cars such as the Mini Cooper or the Volvo C30.
The trunk space is shaped similarly to the Toyota Prius, but it's a little bit smaller. The "in-step" in the back is also higher, which is good for the body's rigidity and safety, but bad for the comfort level in terms of lifting things high into the trunk. Once you get over the fact that you sit so low in the car, sort of like just on the floor, which takes some gymnastics in term of actually getting down into the seat, all the day down there, the Volt is a delight to drive. Let's start with the interior from the driver's perspective. The seats and the seating position are both outstanding. Two big people can take a very, very long trip in this car -- think road trip across the whole country -- and your back and neck will be as good as it will be in any car. The leather is not class-leading, but still very good. Other interior materials are average for $30,000 car competitors. I really like the two 7-inch or so tablet screens giving you the information about the car. Clearly the result is much better than in the Prius, whose information is shown in a very ugly way. The car comes with five years of GM's OnStar service and three months of Sirius XM radio. The sound controls are as good as I have seen on any car. Given the basic physical constraints, the only thing I would have changed in the interior is the shifter. In order to maximize the efficiency of the Volt, you have to put it into the "heavy engine-braking" mode as soon as you want to slow down the car more than normal, such as when a red light appears suddenly. In a Prius, this maneuver happens extremely smoothly, whereas in the Volt it's a relatively coarse thing. Just copy the Prius shifter, please. That said, the heavy engine-braking mode is heavier than in the Prius, and that's a good thing to have that option. I just wish that this was some sort of infinite continuum that would be regulated by the accelerator (pressure or lack thereof), instead of having to move a shifter with your hand. Someone must invent a better approach here, so as to cause more people to maximize efficiency.
The other dubious design choice is the rubber spoiler up front. It is so low, optimized for freeway speeds, that it will touch something with the slightest bump in the road. At least it's made in flexible soft heavy-duty rubber. We will see how much abuse it can take over time, as it's impossible to prevent such abuse. The gasoline generator is very interesting, in that in the rare event you can hear it, you will feel that it's totally disconnected at most times from your use of the accelerator. You will go faster or slower, and the generator will either be on or off independent of whatever you do with the accelerator. It's a very strange feeling -- but it warms an an engineer's heart when you realize how much more efficient this arrangement is. What's the bottom line on the Chevrolet Volt? First, you have to decide if a very low four-seat car with a small back seat and a small trunk space is for you. If it is, and you disregard the price for a moment, I give the Chevrolet Volt essentially a 10 out of 10. That said, $43,000 is a lot of money compared to the otherwise easy choice: Toyota Prius. It's hard to justify the price premium on pure economic grounds, unless you believe gasoline will go significantly above $5 per gallon while electricity prices won't increase as much. But the Volt feels like so much of a richer car than the Prius, and it drives much better (faster, quieter, more comfortable, etc.). Overall, $43,000 for the Volt is not totally unfair, but does reduce the overall grade to something below 10. Perhaps an 8. More importantly, perhaps: Like so many other people, I think the minivan is the ideal body form factor. That may mean a "regular" size minivan such as the Toyota Sienna, or a smaller version such as the Mazda 5. One of these years, the Volt's electric-but-range-extender architecture will make it into one of these minivan form factors. Ford's C-Max may be the first one. At the time of publication, Wahlman had no positions in the companies mentioned.