June 16, 2011, 9:38 AM —
I like paying $4 a gallon for gas as much as the next person. Which is to say, not one damned bit. So when the kind folks at GM called and offered to loan me a 2011 Chevy Volt -- Detroit's plugged-in answer to the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf hybrid cars -- I leapt at the chance.
I find the idea of abandoning fossil fuels, even for just a week, intoxicating. If I could go totally green without turning my family into crazy hippie/Ted Kaczynski types, I'd do it in a heartbeat.
It turns out my experience with what passes for Green Tech in Detroit wasn't what I expected -- in ways both good and bad (but mostly good).
Day one: The delivery
The Chevy Volt arrives. Oooh, shiny. It is red, sleek, and comes with a 19-foot extension cord. The delivery guys, who have driven 7 hours from Atlanta to get this car to us and now must drive 7 hours back, apologize profusely for a small defect: An error message on the dashboard LCD says the charging door (where the extension cord plugs in) is open, when in fact it is not. They beseech us to please, please not give the hybrid car a bad review because of this defect. I get the impression the freedom of their families depends on the outcome of my review. I tell them not to sweat it. They are intensely grateful.
Still: Our car has a software bug. That's a first.
I slip into the driver's seat. The Chevy Volt immediately wakes up: The dashboard and center console LCDs come on, the air flows, the radio plays. It's a little unnerving -- kind of like KITT in "Knight Rider." (The 1982 original, not the 2008 reboot.) I keep waiting for it to speak to me in the voice of actor William Daniels. For a few milliseconds I feel like David Hasselhoff.
Then I realize it's just reacting to the RFID chip in the key fob, which is in my pocket. Duh.
Day two: Power struggles
I am dying to drive this baby. And I certainly could. But because the battery has been drained by the long drive from Atlanta, I'd have to use the gas backup, and that just doesn't feel right.
The Chevy Volt goes 35 to 40 miles on a charge, then switches over to gas for longer trips. With gas the car can go 350 to 400 miles. I find this bit of information disappointing. I wanted to drive an electric car, not a 10 percent electric car.
Then again, the vast majority of our trips are less than 5 miles round trip. My wife works at home. I ride my bike two miles to an office each day. When we drive it's mostly to school, the supermarket, and the burrito joint down the road from the supermarket. Odds are good we will never need the gas option if we keep the car plugged in when it's parked.
And that raises another issue, which until this point I had not considered: Where do we plug this sucker in?
If we had a 240-volt socket, it would recharge in just four hours. At 120 volts, it takes 10 to 12 hours. (Though when you plug it in, it auto detects the voltage and tells you what time the car will be fully charged. Why don't laptops do this?)
We don't have a garage or one of those groovy GE electric charging stations that look like old-timey gas pumps. We must park the Chevy Volt directly outside our back door, leave it ajar, and snake the bright orange cord into the nearest AC outlet in our mudroom. The dogs like it, because now we can't stop them from running in and out whenever they please. It's not very good for our air conditioning bill, though. I'm not feeling very Green at the moment.