Taking the Chevy Volt for a (speedy) drive

(Photo taken in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park.)

I normally write about digital gadgets, like smart phones and tablet computers. But the electric car may very well be the ultimate digital gadget – one that melds transportation, communication, navigation, entertainment and energy efficiency in a four-wheel package.


I glimpsed a bit of that future recently with the new Chevy Volt -- a plug-in electric car with a backup gasoline engine that is so networked, you can use a smart phone app to lock and unlock its doors and check on its charge level. [I write a story for this weekend about the future -- and history -- of electric cars. Did you know Baltimore had electric cars 100 years ago?]

To turn on the car, you push a little blue rectangle button to the right of the steering wheel. You just need to have the car's key fob with you. It's an electric-car cliche, I know, but the car was eerily quiet when started. Barely even a detectible shudder in the car's frame. Then the car's electronic dashboard and LCD touch screen came to life. At first, it was disorienting. There is a lot going on with these displays. But Monica Murphy, a GM new technology guru, patiently walked me through the various indicators.

The battery life indicator is on the dashboard's left. There's another indicator with a little green ball that helps you gauge the energy efficiency of your driving – the goal is to keep the ball hovering in the middle of the vertical gauge. The LCD touch screen is the core interface for interacting with the car, including the GPS function.

As someone who drives a decidedly analog 2002 Subaru, I was initially overwhelmed by the digital dashboard and electronic console of the Volt. But I quickly grew accustomed to the main indicators I needed to watch.

After I left the parking lot at The Baltimore Sun, I entered the Jones Falls Expressway at Monument Street and started to accelerate. I had it up to 55 mph within seconds. Then Monica encouraged me to switch the mode from "normal" to "sport" driving. That draws more juice from the battery and cuts into the car's range, but it also makes the car twice as fun to drive. I won't say how fast I got it going – I plead the Fifth – before I spied a police officer and slowed down.

Monica and I drove up to Timonium on I-83, circled back and shot over to Druid Hill Park. At this point, the battery had gone from about an 80 percent charge to almost zero, and as we headed back to the Sun building, the gasoline engine kicked in. We probably drove a total of around 25 miles roundtrip, with many of those highway miles at, um, high speed and on the "sport" setting.

For the driver obsessive about tracking a car's fuel economy, the Volt is a dream come true. The dashboard and LCD touch screen display almost exactly how much energy is flowing into the car's propulsion system, with second-by-second calculations on how much battery life is left. For details on the car's slightly complicated electric/gas mileage, check out this official GM site. A key metric to consider is that the Volt's total range is 379 miles when it's fully charged and gassed up: 344 of gas range plus 35 miles electric range. (The gas motor doesn't technically propel the car; instead, it provides energy for the electric motor.)

So can the Volt satisfy every car buyer? Not quite.

First, the car's price ranges from $40,000 to $44,000, pushing it into luxury car territory, though you can get a $7,500 federal tax credit on the purchase. And Marylanders can realize another $2,000 electric vehicle tax credit. (The all-electric Nissan Leaf is selling for around $32,000 before the tax credits, and promises a 100-mile-range on an electric charge.)

Second, for city slickers the Volt – and other similar plug-in cars – may still be a challenge to keep charged. In many neighborhoods in Baltimore, street parking is the only parking available. Where would people plug in their cars? The electric charging infrastructure hasn't been built out yet – and probably won't be for a few more years. (The Volt can be fully charged for around $1.50 a day, or less if you have access to more favorable off-peak electricity rates late at night.)

Of course, the Volt is not the only option out there for electric-curious drivers. The Nissan Leaf and coming Ford Focus Electric join hybrids like the Toyota Prius that have been on the road for years. Comparisons of different specs are endless and sure to make the car-buying experience even more complicated. Websites such as cars.com and edmunds.com have side-by-side comparisons that might help.

Take a poll -- Which type of vehicle would you prefer?

And, here's a video of the Nissan Leaf: