What It’s Like to Drive a Chevy Volt Hybrid-Electric Car

Reader Contribution by David Borden
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In this guest series, former hot-rodder and mechanical engineer David Borden offers advice for first-time electric-vehicle drivers by reviewing the 2017 Chevy Volt Premier. Read David’s additional notes here, including advice to first-time EV drivers, keeping Volt batteries charged, and range issues.

Driving the Chevy Volt car is a pleasant experience and can be best summed up with the two “Qs”: Quick and Quiet.

Most of my driving has been done using the electric motor, and it is a very satisfactory performer. The motor generates max torque at stall speeds, and it is very easy to break traction when first starting (c.f. “laying a patch”). Mildly embarrassing for a responsible senior citizen, but pleasantly erotic for a recovering hot-rodder!

It is responsive and entirely satisfactory in the urban, suburban, and interstate traffic I normally encounter. Merging into expressway traffic and keeping up with traffic on the Interstates was never a problem.

Again, throttle response was immediate and it is very quick, encouraging dicing in and out of traffic. Tire noise from the low-rolling resistance, low-profile Michelins is excessive and intrudes into the cabin — or is it that the cabin is so well insulated and sealed that the only sounds you hear are tire noise? Probably that.

The tires are not that much different from any to be found on a modern car, but the drive train is nearly silent and wind noise wafting around the aerodynamic body is very low, putting normal tire sounds into prominence. Conversations at normal levels can be enjoyed while driving at speed, and the radio is again enjoyable (I have the “Bose stereo in my car and I recommend it highly.)

Notes on Chevy Volt Interior Features

The car seats four in heated leather comfort, and one “frienemy” on the central hump in the rear. The two front seats are manually adjustable for height via a ratcheting lever (anybody else remember “Bumper Jacks”?). Tilt — and fore and aft adjustments on the steering wheel — meant that it was easy to find a personal “fit”. Headrests (safety restraint devices?) are easily adjustable to prevent whiplash, in the event.

The heated seats and heated steering wheel make much sense, in that it is easier and more economical to directly heat the occupants rather than the entire cabin enclosure. Probably safer, too, in that cooler air temps discourage nodding off while behind the wheel.

And there are four cup holders and many cubbies to cache your gear. A nice touch is the sun-glass holder recessed in the central tunnel next to the shift lever, making access convenient and immediate.

Volt Automation and Sensor Technology

The car comes with traction control, automatic headlights ON and DIM, an automatic rear-view mirror DIM, and the most interesting feature, a forward crash avoidance system. As I understand it, the car has a TV Camera near the rear-view mirror, which senses a car in front of you. A little icon on your dash illuminates to inform you of that fact and that your own personal Big Brother is watching them also.

If that lead car starts to slow down precipitously — putting you in danger — there are flashing lights and blaring horns alerting you to the hazard, and I am told that the system will start braking for you. I haven’t had to try the auto-braking feature out (I don’t think), but the warnings have saved me twice in the accordion that is Southeast Distressway Traffic.

That ability to sense and monitor the traffic ahead of you leads naturally to another unique and great feature: cruise control, which holds a constant following distance. In addition to the now-normal speed control, you can set a following distance and the car’s computer will maintain that distance, adjusting power and braking as required. Perfect Interstate tool — if you drive long distances, this avoids the usual cycling of ON-OFF-SET-ON as you encounter traffic.

The technical wizardry doesn’t stop there. The car “looks” for cross traffic and sounds warnings. It will auto parallel park with a minimum of human input. It offers: Navigation, “On-Star”, Traction Control, Compass, OAT, WiFi, USB Ports, 5-day weather forecasts, traffic accident warnings, hands-free cell phone coupling, plus you have the ability to access the car’s computer and program in unique features, attuned to your sensitivities.

One I particularly enjoy is to use the fob (there is no conventional key) to remotely lower all the car windows on a hot day. (Still trying to figure out why you can’t remotely close all of them during a sudden shower!)

Again, earlier automotive process control computers were aimed at improving engine efficiency. This latest iteration works to integrate the car with the driver, and they with their environment, moving you through distance safely, economically and in great comfort. I like the car and find it to be very “user friendly”. It is a driver’s car.

Ground Clearance and Handling

One complaint — and which for someone who lives in the snow-belt or does a lot of urban parking or transiting over potholes, is a major issue — is the low ground clearance. This is not improved with the addition of passengers and payload, but could be solved by adding air ride.

This is not an implausible suggestion. Chevrolet has had air suspension offered on their cars as far back as 1958, and Tesla offers such as a modestly priced option. Ride adjustable as to height and perhaps even automatic with body position normally set “high” and lowered with speed for aero efficiency would benefit the car greatly.

Air ride would also help with the bump harshness — in combination with the high-pressure, low-profile tires, the suspension telegraphs every pothole, drain connection, and surface seam into the structure. In such an otherwise fine car, it is objectionable. Also (discounting any income realized from snow plowing driveways), there is the potential heavy cost for replacing damaged bumper covers to be considered.

I enclosed a photo in my previous post to illustrate the parking lot problem where the car is close to a standard parking lot berm. (They used to be known as wheel chocks, which is no longer appropriate, since getting into a position where the wheels were against this berm would do several thousand dollar’s worth of damage to this car.)

Again, I like the car well enough to have bought one, and I have recommended it to several friends, but there are limitations to be considered if you are “going Green” with a Volt. I hope you’ve gained a better understanding of the vehicle through sharing my impressions.

There are many State and Federal incentives available which appealed to this frugal Yankee, and which can be found with an Internet search. (In Massachusetts the best new car prices are quoted and rebates listed under “Drive Green” programs.) Many are also expiring, so time truly may have a cost if you delay.

I enjoy my “starter vehicle”, and I hope you find my experience helpful in making your choice of a next car.

Read David’s additional review notes here.

Dave Borden is a reformed hot-rodder with an abiding interest in things mechanical and “Green”. He has been a “Mother’s Lifer” for 40 years. He was trained as a mechanical engineer, but never let that restrict his curiosity, enjoying careers in turboshaft engine design and development, before acquiring his MBA and working in small business consulting and mortgage banking.  His hobby has been construction for many years, and he lives on Boston’s North Shore with his wife of 50 years and a dedicated Dachshund in a south-facing house he built with the help of many excellent friends.

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