Testing Chevy Volt's Endurance

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It's being called "the world's best car" by many people who drive it -- including me -- but can it handle a 1,100 mile high-speed dash through the deserts and mountains of the American West? I'm writing about the Chevrolet Volt, the electric car with a gasoline engine as range-extender.

I'm one of the still relatively few people who have put thousands of miles in the all-new Chevrolet Volt, and people often ask me: Can it handle going at a steady 73 miles per hour for over one thousand miles, up and down the hills? So I set out to prove it.

The Volt is driven primarily by a combination of two electric motors, but when the battery charge has come down to 25% and you're driving fairly fast and at a steady speed, the 1.4 liter four-cylinder gasoline engine can also help provide some power, apart from its function to charge the battery. The question is whether this arrangement is enough to drive the Volt comfortably at high speeds for long periods of time, sometimes heading up mountains.
Chevy Volt
Chevrolet Volt

I had the Volt's tires inflated to the factory-prescribed 35 psi, charged the battery to full, filled up the gas tank, and headed out to tackle the long stretches of deserts, farm lands and mountains of the American West. I had taken the exact same route at least three times before in a 2008 Toyota Prius Touring, so I had a good object of comparison.

To further clarify the driving conditions, there was only one person in the car, two small suitcases, and the air conditioning was running at a medium level. The speed was kept by the excellent cruise control to 73 and 68 MPH most of the time, but a few slower passages took the average down to 65 MPH. In addition, I stopped for a break on average every two hours, causing the 1,100 mile test to take 19 hours in total.

With those parameters in mind, the Volt consumed 29 gallons of premium gasoline over the 1,100 miles. That would imply 37.9 MPG, but considering that the first 35 miles were driven on electricity obtained from a free public charging station, the "real" MPG for the 1,065 remaining miles was 36.7.

I found that the same 1,100 miles driven in a 2004-09 Toyota Prius would yield 42 MPG and the 2010-11 Toyota Prius 47 MPG. In other words, the Volt is about 10 MPG less efficient than the current Toyota Prius, for this kind of trip. But is this comparison fair?

On the one hand, the Prius is a slightly larger car, in that it can transport five people instead of four. On the other hand, the four people in the Volt will be more comfortable, except for the leg room in the back seats. Luggage space is similar, or perhaps marginally smaller in the Volt.

On the other hand, the Volt is a much "better" car in that it is more powerful under most conditions, more comfortable and has better features and better handling. For example, when there are strong side winds, you can feel that the Prius becomes less stable, whereas the Volt hugs the road like a much bigger, heavier car such as the BMW 750 or Mercedes S550.

High-Performance Car

This leads us to one issue with the marketing of the Chevrolet Volt. It's being pitched as some form of eco-box, competing with the Toyota Prius. This is a mistake. The Volt is a high-performing car with the luxury feel of a big BMW or Mercedes.

Let me illustrate with the following example: The Toyota Corolla and the BMW 328 are both modestly sized sedans that superficially could compete with each other. But they don't! The BMW may be twice the price of the Corolla. Everyone knows the reason for this -- the BMW 328 is a premium car when compared to a Corolla, even though their bodies look superficially similar on paper.

Likewise, the Chevrolet Volt shouldn't be compared as much with the Prius, as with much heavier and more powerful premium cars. When you drive both of them to a significant extent, you will understand why.

There is one more important thing about driving the Volt fast over long distances, and that is the extreme condition of long uphill stretches -- sometimes tens of miles. The Volt can handle these if you engage the so-called "Mountain Mode" a few minutes before you start going uphill. When you do this, the Volt will build up the battery reserve from 25% to 45%, which will help power it at the highest speeds going uphill.

But what happens when you do NOT engage "Mountain Mode" in the Volt at all -- not even when you start the long climbs uphill? This was perhaps the most important thing I sought to measure. Here is the answer:

Power Clipping

I had the cruise on 73 for many tens of miles already, when I encountered what looked like an unusually long uphill stretch. It may have been 15 to 20 miles long, perhaps more. A few miles up the hill, a warning message appeared on the seven-inch tablet that serves as the instrumentation display, reading "Your power has been reduced."

Nothing happened right away, though. I moved from the left lane to the right, and about 30 seconds later, the car started to slowly take me down from 73 MPH to 65 MPH, over the course of the next minute or two. It stayed at 65 MPH until I hit the top of the mountain, after which it built itself back to 73 MPH in the couple of minutes that followed.

I was very pleasantly surprised how undramatic this forced reduction in speed was. If I hadn't seen the warning, heard the beep, or watched the speedometer, I may not have noticed anything. Well, the gasoline engine generator revving up from 4,200 RPM to 4,800 did make a noticeable difference in the sound level, though.

This "power-clipping" happened twice on the 1,100 mile journey. Many factors go into how far down on the MPH scale the Volt will reduce the speed in an extended uphill drive -- weight of what's in the car and the slope of the incline being the major ones.

Strictly speaking, for those who will be driving across the country like a professional trucker, the Toyota Prius -- and for that matter several other cars with great highway mileage such as the Volkswagen four-cylinder diesels in the Golf and Jetta -- may be better choices. However, when you mix in the fact that for shorter trips (25-50 miles or less) you can charge the Chevrolet Volt with free electricity from public chargers, you will come out far ahead with the Chevrolet. You can sometimes go up to six weeks without consuming a drop of gasoline in the Volt.

So there you have it: There are many reasons why we call the Chevrolet Volt the best car in the world, but the fact that it can handle 1,100 miles driven at or near 73 MPH in flawless comfort and yielding close to 37 MPG, is one of them. The marketing folks at Chevrolet need to stop comparing the Volt to only the Prius, and focus just as much comparing it against other types of premium cars such as the Volvo C30, Audi A4, Mercedes C-class and BMW 3-series -- but with the fuel economy for long trips only 10 MPG behind the Prius, instead of 20 MPG for the others.

Bottom Line

The 2012 Chevrolet Volt starts at $40,000 but will be closer to $45,000 nicely equipped, plus sales tax. There is a Federal $7,500 tax credit available if you qualify, and some states offer additional tax incentives.

The Chevrolet Volt has been a sales success of sorts. The Volt itself sold only approximately 3,200 units by the middle of 2011, but most people who visited the Chevrolet dealer interested in a Volt ended up buying a Cruze instead, and this sent sales figures of the Cruze up to make it one of the best-selling cars in the U.S. by mid-2011. As a result, the Volt made itself into a major GM ( GM) money-maker, albeit indirectly. At this point in September, Chevrolet is making close to 1,000 Volts per week in Michigan, and it looks to sell 45,000 of them in the U.S. alone in 2012. Another few thousand will be exported to Europe and Asia.

Additional body styles and GM brands such as Cadillac will most likely increase these sales numbers starting no later than 2013.

What is the bottom-line verdict of this review? If you are okay with a modestly sized four-seat car with modest cargo space, the Volt is the market's best premium car today. With tax incentives, the car may cost you close to $40,000, which compares reasonably with other performance/luxury sedans in its class.

I give it a perfect 10 out of 10 -- a verdict I have never given to any other car, ever. It's all about superior, and in this case unique, technology.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.