2011 Chevrolet Volt

Photo Courtesy of Chevrolet
Photo Courtesy of Chevrolet
Warren Brown
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 9:00 AM

I seldom agree with the Car of the Year awards given by magazines or panels of journalists, such as the one issued at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. But I have participated in many of those presentations and probably will do so again.

This year, however, I enthusiastically agree with the car juries (none of which I was on), including the NAIAS panel. The popular choice is the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid hatchback sedan. The Volt changes everything - the car itself, the way we think about and use automobiles, and attitudes about energy conservation and fuel alternatives.

What follows is a diary of my six days in the Volt. It speaks for itself.

Feb. 4: Monica M. Murphy, General Motors manager of advanced-technology demonstration programs, arrives at my Northern Virginia home at 1:30. She is early. I am at a local fish joint sharing a meal with Michelle Dawson, a longtime friend and mover and shaker in the Nation's Capital Jaguar Owners Club. I invite her to take a look at the Volt. She's not interested.

I get home and meet Murphy. She cheerfully reviews the car's design intent and use protocol. At delivery, it has a 24-mile range on its battery monitor, which is confusing. I thought it had a full-charge range of 40 miles. I drive until the display drops to 12.

At 8 p.m., it's time to plug in the Volt to my outside 110-volt outlet. I would have preferred using the outside 220-volt outlet I had installed nearly a decade ago to "quick-charge" the old GM EV-1, equipped with heavy nickel-metal hydride batteries. But this car uses a different quick charger. The Volt comes with a much lighter, more powerful lithium-ion battery pack. But the laws of physics remain the same. You can only put so much into a fixed container in a given amount of time. A quick charge is still about three hours. A slow charge, via traditional house current, takes eight to 10 hours.

I follow plug-in protocol and connect the Volt's charging cable to house current. I then connect the cable to the car's driver-side charging port. It all takes two minutes. A green light indicates charging is in progress and brightens the dashboard. I go inside wondering what would happen if someone mischievously unplugged the charging cable.

Feb. 5: About 10 a.m., my wife, Mary Anne, shocks me. She insists that we leave the Audi A4 at home and take the Volt on our weekend shopping. This is atypical Mary Anne. The woman won't deal with anything that gets in the way of her weekend errands. She was a ball of anxiety when I suggested that we drive the all-electric Nissan Leaf sedan a month ago. What's different today?

"The Volt has a gasoline engine, doesn't it?" Mary Anne says.

Yes, it does - a 1.4-liter gasoline engine supported by a 9.3-gallon tank of required premium fuel. The engine is a generator that comes into play when the Volt's T-shaped under-floor lithium-ion battery pack discharges.

We discover the meaning of algorithm. It is affected by externalities and probabilities. After a full night's charge (10 hours in this case), the Volt's battery monitor shows a 26-mile range. What it shows is not what it means. What it means is that under current weather conditions (32 degrees Fahrenheit) with all energy-consumptive features in use (satellite radio, windshield defroster, cabin heat set at 74 degrees Fahrenheit, headlamps fully on, front-seat heat set at midrange) we theoretically can drive that far, at a speed of 100 mph, before needing that gasoline-fueled assistance.

The reality is something else. We're engaged in stop-and-go traffic from Arlington to Manassas via Route 50 - about 30 miles, according to the odometer. With five miles left on the battery-range monitor, we turn around and drive east toward the Havertys furniture store in Fairfax City. The battery-range monitor displays one mile left at arrival.

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